On Writing: Potpourri — First Lines, Short Fiction, Dialogue


I’ve been staring at my computer screen for close to an hour, trying to figure out what to write for this week’s post.  Every idea I come up with seems to be something that one of my MW colleagues or I have written about recently.  This is one of the problems with writing a weekly post for a focused blog site like MW.  With my personal blogs, if I’m bored with writing about writing, I can write about baseball or my kids or politics.  I can’t really do that here.  So what to do.

Well, my solution for this week is to write about ALL the ideas I came up with as I tried to find a topic.  Instead of writing 800 to 1,000 words on one subject, I’m going to write a couple of hundred on several.  You’re free to respond to any or all of them.

1.  First Lines — Yeah, we talk about first lines A LOT on MW.  Don’t believe me?  Use the site search engine and you’ll see a huge number of first line posts.  But I’m thinking about first lines in a short story context, because I’ve been writing a lot of short stories recently.  And because the short form differs from novel form, the first lines of each kind of fiction need to accomplish somewhat different things, even as they both do the most important thing:  Hook the reader.  A novel’s first line can introduce character, narrative, or setting.  The key is to begin easing your reader into your story, immersing him/her in what is going to be a lengthy reading experience.  A short story opening has to have more punch, and it has to give the reader an immediate and clear sense of where the narrative is headed.  Here’s the opening for the Thieftaker universe short story I just completed :

Ethan Kaille first heard people speak of the Dedham witch early in the spring of 1764. By then, of course, it was too late for him to save her life.

Direct, to the point.  It even telegraphs the ending of the story in a way.  It doesn’t matter (though I think it really would matter if it was a novel opening).  The point is, my reader knows exactly what the story is going to be about, because after two sentences we’re pretty much immersed in the story already.  So, anyone out there have a short story opening (keep it to 50 words or so) to share?  I will be happy to offer a flash critique.

2.  Short Fiction — Like I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about short fiction in recent weeks, and having a great deal of fun writing Thieftaker stories (five to date with another underway — three have been or will soon be published).  And I find myself revisiting past discussions we’ve had on this site about the differences between short fiction writing and novel writing.  Looking again at the story I’ve just finished (titled “The Witch of Dedham”), I do something with the story that I would almost never do with a novel.  There is a crucial event in the story of the witch referenced in the title of the piece, but in this short piece we only experience this event through the witch’s retelling of what happened.  With a novel, I would find a way to show the event, even if doing so meant establishing a new point of view character.  In this case, though, while the events described are central to the tale, they are not what the story is about.  The story is about Ethan’s interaction with the woman, about how her experiences and their discussion of them impact his emotions, his thoughts about his own life. 

We often hear that a story or book is “character driven,” and I’ve always thought that phrase a little odd since, in my opinion, all good fiction is character driven.  But in this case the term fits.  This short story is entirely about the characters; the events may be incredibly important and dramatic, but they are secondary to their aftermath, to the way in which they ramify through the lives effected.  Again, this is not at all an approach I would take with a novel, but with a short story of about 6,000 words, it works perfectly.  In fact, if I were to try to work a description of the actual events into the piece, I would wind up with a story of ten to twelve thousand words, which would make it a novella.

Last year I was on a panel at Dragon*Con that dealt with the differences between writing novels and writing short stories.  My friend Mary Robinette Kowal, an award-winning short story writer whose novels are now garnering critical acclaim, said that she felt the two endeavors demanded entirely different skill sets.  I disagreed.  I am now rethinking my position.  There are similarities, of course, but the more short pieces I write, the more I feel that I am engaged in a creative enterprise that is entirely different from novel writing.  What do you think?  How different do you find the two processes?

3.  Dialogue — Okay, first of all, do you spell the word as I just did, or do you spell it “dialog”?  According to my dictionary (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate, 11th edition), “dialogue” is the preferred form.  But in our digital age of “dialog boxes” and such, the latter is gaining acceptance. 

But more to the point . . .  I’ve said before, at conventions and here on MW, that when you listen closely to the manner in which people speak, you quickly realize that we are remarkably inarticulate creatures.  We fill in our speaking with “uhs” and “ers” and “likes” and “you knows,” we take forever to make a point, we wander from topic to topic.  As writers, we want to make our characters’ conversations sound realistic and authentic, but that does not mean that we want our characters to sound the way real people sound.  Rather, we want them to sound the way we wish real people sounded.  We want dialogue to sound natural, but we don’t want it to have all the mannerisms and meanderings of the real thing,  because that would be really annoying to read.

I still believe this is true.  But (and you just knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) in recent weeks, and in particular with this story I’ve been talking about, I have tried something a little different.  The dialogue in this story came out a bit more “realistic” that usual in that I allowed my characters to change directions in their conversations a bit more than usual.  The dialogue is less linear, less precise, more authentic to my ear.  I did it this way as an experiment, and really it’s a difference of degree, rather than type.  It’s fairly subtle.  Still, I don’t know if others will like it.  I’m not sure that I care.  I wrote this story as a possible freebie for the D.B. Jackson website, and so it may be that I’ll never actually try to sell it to anyone.  And it may be that within another couple of weeks, you’ll be able to download it for free from the site and judge for yourself how you feel about this approach.

How about you?  Are you experimenting with your current work in any particular way?  Care to tell us about it?

David B. Coe

54 comments to On Writing: Potpourri — First Lines, Short Fiction, Dialogue

  • sagablessed

    “Highschool jocks can be such pricks at times. Add I look like my father, who is one of the Fair Folk, and I have a huge bullseye on my back. Which explains the egg Trevor just tossed at my head. Oh, I’m Seth, by the way.”

    To be honest I have not really written any short stories. So this is new for me.

    Hmm, I use two styles in writing. Very ‘by-the-book’ when it is prose, yet when someone is speaking, I try to keep the dialogue as close to ‘street-speech’ as possible without all the “um” and so on, though I do through in a “like, so….” every now and then. I think it lends credence to the characters.

  • I have to agree that writing short fiction and writing novels require different skill sets, because I just don’t seem to be able to do short stories. I’ve tried, but I can’t pull them off. I don’t really know why, though I also don’t read that much short fiction, so that might be a factor. I can’t get the plot mix right: they come out either without enough ‘story’ or they feel like screen plays–the barebones of something that wants to be a novel. Guess I’ll stick to novels.

  • “The fan roared like an airplane. I opened my eyes as the ceiling cracked, and rolled to the floor seconds before the fan and a huge chunk of cheap plaster landed on the bed. Damn. They’d found me already.”

    Years ago I wrote short stories. Of course, I was young and knew very little about what I was doing, so most of them ended up sounding like a random chapter from an unfinished novel. Lately I’ve been thinking about giving short stories another try–the lines above are from an old story I’m revising.

    Your point about dialogue (I learned to spell it pre-digital age)not really matching the way people actually speak just gave me an idea for a lesson for the oral presentation skills I’ll be teaching next fall, so thanks for that!

  • One thing I will say is that I believe writing short stories, even if you never try to sell them, is practice in concision. The shorter the work, the more you begin to find the words you don’t need even in longer works. Recently, I’ve been writing some 350 word flash fiction (and one of them’s being published, yay!) and it’s tough trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end in 350 words or less, but as I was writing and trying to chop 500 words down to 350, I began to see which words were extraneous. And, when I went back to my current WIP, I began seeing those words as I dropped them into the work and was able to edit some of them out as I went, giving it a cleaner feel. One of my mantras when doing revisions is “excision for concision” and it does help with the pacing and make for a cleaner piece, and I feel that’s something that is especially important for a shorter work where you don’t have as much space to get your point across.

    Right now, I’m trying to throw together some short screenplays for a friend to get him some cred with shooting films so he has things to show investors, so I’ve been going between writing my current WIP, a noir-like urban fantasy, sort of pulp, and short screenplays. I’m all over the map at the moment.

    And I spell it, dialogue. 😉 I love writing dialogue. People say I do it well. I’m a wallflower at social gatherings. I watch and listen. When I write dialogue, I try to make it as natural as I can while still getting to the point, making it sound as I read it aloud how I would imagine those characters to speak if I were standing around listening to their conversation.

  • Donald, I like that opening — nice voice, good way to open the story. I do like the “I’m Seth, by the way” line, and yet I wonder if that pause in the action/opening comes too early. Maybe draw us into the story with another line or two before the pause. Just a suggestion. As I say, I like it. And I also like the idea behind what you’re doing with the dialogue in your book.

    A.J., I have to tell you that I think you should MAKE yourself write short fiction. First off, given your talent, your facility with the written word, I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t be great at it. And second, while I am starting to see it as a separate skill set, I have no doubt that my short story writing is making me a more efficient, more effective novelist. Seriously, think about it.

    SiSi, I like the opening. Two points, and both are minor. One is you use “the fan” in consecutive sentences right off the bat, and you might want to avoid that. And second “seconds before” is actually, in action terms, a lot of time. “An instant before” “A heartbeat before” — make the time seem tighter for greater effect. Otherwise, very well done. Glad you’re getting back to short fiction, and glad to hear that my dialogue comments were helpful to you.

    Daniel, “excision for concision” is a great mantra, and one that we would all do well to follow. Best of luck with the screenplay work. And yeah, I like listening to conversations, too, and I think it’s one of the reasons my dialogue work is pretty good.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    “hushsh.” A thin breeze rattles through the canes and leaves surrounding her as she kneels within a tangle of roses. “hush.” It tugs gently at her hair, tickles her face. Glancing down, she catches sight of her fingertip, bright with a welling drop of blood.

    I have been having a hard time with this short-story opening, so your post-let is very timely. The main thing I’ve been working on with it has been to make the present-tense voice *not* sound really awkward and confusing right when you pick it up. I think that present tense is right for this story, but getting it to not sound weird at the beginning is difficult. Your short-story opening is awesome, and I might ponder it some more while I think on a different short story I’ve been meaning to write.

    And, apparently, my dialogue is so uneven because I’m usually too embarrassed to eavesdrop much. 😀

  • As to short-story writing versus novel-writing (I’ve tried my hand at novels a couple-few times, now, and short stories some dozen-or-two times but I am expert at neither form), I think they are not wholly different: which is to say that they are different in some ways and similar in others. I find that my prep-work for short stories is similar (ideation, creating characters and background, plotting, etc.) but less intense and in-depth for a short story than for a novel. But structurally, obviously, there are big differences, as you allude to in this post. First, short stories require short-story-sized ideas. Secondly, the action in shorts has to be faster and there’s more leeway to “tell” rather than show and so on.

    On “dialogue”… thanks to the internet I’ve become more flexible in how I spell it.

    On first lines:

    “Cadoc had died too many times before; he didn’t want to do it again. He braced himself. This is going to hurt.”

    In retrospect… the tense shift in the third sentence really stands out. I didn’t notice that at the time I wrote it because it was supposed to be reflective of Cadoc’s immediate thoughts, but even so I shouldn’t’ve shifted tenses like that.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I’d just like to add a comment following up on Stephen’s short-story-sized ideas comment: I feel that with the best short stories, there *is* enough there fundamentally to write at least a noevella, as you, David, pointed out about your own example, but that the author has instead opted to take a narrower focus, thus producing a short story. I’m not saying that the author has to have *developed* the idea that far, but that there is enough richness that it is possible, sort of like developing very rich world-building, but then only including/pursuing the details relevant to the story.

  • Gypsyharper

    I find most of the things I start as short stories end up feeling like they should be longer works. However, I would really like to try it again. I think I have an idea that may work which came out of a writing prompt. That can be my project starting next week. 🙂 I like the idea of using short story work as practice in concision. After all, longer works should be longer because they have more story, not because they have more words, right?

    I’ve been working quite a bit with dialogue (it looks chopped off without the “ue” to me) lately as my current work in progress is a one act musical. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly good at writing dialogue, so it’s been quite the challenge. Like Hepseba, I’m always a little embarrassed about eavesdropping – I’m kind of afraid I’ll get caught and have to explain myself. 🙂 I think there may be a little more leeway in works written for the stage for some of those mannerisms, since the audience will be watching rather than reading. But there still needs to be a lot less meandering than actual conversation, since you’re still telling a story and have to make a point.

  • @Hepseba: To follow on my own comment and your reply, I think you’re right that good short stories are based on ideas that can be extrapolated into longer works… but with a caveat. Writing a short story requires focus, and that means focusing on a very narrow set of ideas, a small pool of characters, and a small slice of plot. Any of those things can be extrapolated further, but that extrapolation usually, I think, involves agglomeration: not just bigger ideas, but more ideas… likewise more characters and longer sections of plot.

    I was able to take one piece of roughly flash-length fiction (just over 1,000 words) and extrapolate it out into a 12,000-word novelette (to which my quoted first line above belongs) by adding another idea to the original inspiration, adding one more character, and fleshing out the remaining characters besides the protagonist so they became more than just props. Theoretically, I could take the same idea and lengthen it again into a novela or novel – but I have no desire to; I feel that it’s at it’s right and natural length. That would likely only change if I came up with some other ideas and characters that felt like natural extensions of the ideas and characters and plot of that story.

  • Just have to say, MRK is pretty awesome. 🙂 She was at SIWC this past October, and I had her for my Blue Pencil session (15 minutes of feedback on the first 3 pages). She gave me great feedback, and we had a chance to talk about the plot of the urban fantasy I’ve been working on. Have you considered inviting her here?

    I haven’t been writing short stories much lately, but I’d like to get back into them. My problem is that I can’t turn off the brainstorming, and any short story seems to blossom into a much bigger story. But I have been participating in flash-fiction writing competitions. Given a short limit (Between 200 to 350 words so far), I do find a way to tell the story in the space I have available. But since it’s just a snapshot, my first sentences have been about getting straight to the story, not introducing it. Most recently:

    “He slipped a rufie in my drink. Idiot me, I was already tipsy—it was New Years, and the club was packed. Going out alone like that? Yeah, not my best idea.”

    I guess I could apply those tricks to a longer short story. With the very short limit, I can figure out which details matter. I can let go. You’re right, it’s very different.

    And I totally use “dialogue”. But I also use words like “catalogue”, too. I just thought it was a Canadian/British English vs. U.S. English thing.

  • Hep, I love that opening. I think the present tense works fine, and in fact I hadn’t noticed it until you mentioned it in your comment. The one concern I have about the opening is the “sound effects” — the “Hush”es. To that end, two comments. First is mechanical, purely. By putting the “hush” in quotes, you make it seem like dialogue rather than sound, so that threw me. Italics would probably be the better choice. But second, perhaps describing the sound ever so briefly the first time instead of making the “hush” sound. “A thin breeze rattles through the canes and leaves surrounding her as she kneels within a tangle of roses, sibilant, like a warning to be silent…” Then the “hush” (the second one) makes more sense, AND it ups the tension. Just an idea. As to your point about length, I agree, with some caveats. I used to say a lot that authors all have a comfort length — a work level to which they naturally write. I’m not so sure about that anymore, but I definitely think that IDEAS have a natural length that exists in a range. Some ideas lend themselves to more story than others, and for each idea the decisions you’re talking about — detail, character work plotting — can make all the difference between 4000 word story and a 10,000 word novella, or a 30,000 word novelette and a 70,000 word book. But I’m not sure that ALL ideas could be 4,000 words or 70,000, if that makes sense. Great comments. Thanks, Hep.

    Stephen, thanks for your comments on story length as well — I would refer you to my comments immediately above. On your short stoyr opening, I agree about the tense shift, but it’s a very easy fix. Make is “This was going to hurt.” and I think you have a very cool story opening.

    GH wrote “After all, longer works should be longer because they have more story, not because they have more words, right?” This should be a t-shirt, a logo on a coffee mug, a Facebook status, and the title of a book on short fiction writing. Fabulous. Yes, absolutely right. I should probably add that I don’t necessarily eavesdrop on people per se. But being a writer, I always have one part of my brain detached from the rest observing, listening, storing stuff away for my next book. And I pay A LOT of attention to conversations, even those in which I’m taking part.

    Laura, yes Mary is wonderful. I have talked to her about guesting here, and I believe that she will eventually, but she is like the James Brown of our genre “The hardest working woman in the writing business.” She has very little spare time. I like your opening lines. With the limitations of your story can you a) make that first like a separate paragraph, and b) make it “He had slipped a rufie into my drink.” ?

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the post, David. I’m busy trying to write a short story but for someone whose YA novel ends up 160 000 words long, this was a challenge. I finally managed to get hold of a short-story sized idea; all my other short stories were trying to grow up to be novels, but this one ended up just over 2000 words, so I’m happy with the length. It’s not really a full-blown fantasy, but the connection between the MC and the racehorses could be magical (this is the first draft, so I haven’t explored it yet).
    I also experimented with it a little. I find you can play with voice and format more in short stories than in novels because the reader has less time to get irritated, so here I tried for a slightly dreamy, poetic sort of voice. It was a bit of a shot in the dark and I really don’t know how it turned out, I’m worried that it sounds detached and lacks some punch, but here are the first 54 words (sorry, I know that’s a bit long).

    The racetrack looked bigger from bay colt’s saddle; bigger and hungrier, and very empty. The colt danced beneath his rider, hooves speaking softly against the dark earth, the whites of his eyes flashing in the moonlight as he stared at the beckoning expanse that lay open like the maw of a hungry beast, waiting.

    Thanks for offering the flash critiques – this story really needs it!

  • David, I totally agree that all writers should make themselves write short fiction. That said, I couldn’t write short fiction until recently. I couldn’t find that switch in my brain. Once I did, I discovered I really like short stuff!

    I am trying to become more flexible on grammer, language, spelling. When I was in school, teachers used rulers to slap that stuff into us. It made lasting impressions. In today’s looser language world, it is hard to let all that go.

    And when you get that DH line on a mug, I want one!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you very much for your critique. I’ll play around with those ideas and see how they turn out. The story has several anthropomorphic (?) lines, and it might be that italics is just what is needed to tie them together properly, since quotes really *don’t* work in the scenes with actual characters speaking.

  • Like many othershave written, most of my efforts at “short stories” for workshop classes ended up as either a mostly-telling outline or just a few developed scenes for a larger work.

    Of course, one thing I’ve come to consider is the “conditioning” that’s gone into preparing stories (ie – reading)… I’ve read many, mnay, MANY more novels that have stuck with me than short stories, so I find myself thinking in long, novel terms… I’ve stepped up the reading/studying of shorts to get a better feel for building them (or narrowing focus for one)

    I think the chief difference between the two is focus – shorts hit a particular moment/event while a novel goes into everything around the event… think Ender’s Game (diferences between short vs novel)… Fight Club – started IIRC as a short story (chapter 6 in the book, I think… the “I want you to hit me as hard as you can” exchange in the movie)… both lent themselves to something bigger but MRK’s own First Flight or (Hugo winning) For Want of a Nail were both concentrated & self-contained events that would be hard pressed to build them into anything much bigger than they already are

  • Unicorn, one of the reasons I love to write short stories is that I can experiment all I like. At worst I wind up wasting 6,000 words. But I rarely find those experiments a waste. I like the first two thirds of your opening very, very much. Lovely evocative writing. I think it breaks down a bit after “flashing in the moonlight.” I would stop the sentence there for two reasons. One, the rest of the line creates POV problems. It’s not entirely clear whether it’s the colt staring at the beckoning expanse or the rider. And second, I think that the last little bit is just a tad over-written. You’ve already got the hunger in the first sentence; the repetition weakens that first reference and is really not necessary, in my opinion. Play with it some more, but that would be my suggestion. As I say, though, the rest is lovely.

    Faith, you and I both. For a long time, I struggled mightily with short fiction. I too have come to love it, in part because I tend to be looser, more willing to try weird stuff.

    Hep, I definitely think the italics will help. Reading my suggested change again, I see that I put the “sibilant” phrase way too late in the sentence. It should describe the sound, not her kneeling. But I think you get where I was going with it. Thanks again for the comments.

  • Speaking of first lines, btw… and since we’ve mentioned Mary Robinette Kowal- might I suggest poking over to her blog and reading about the “Adventure of the Missing First Line” that happened with the first print run of her latest novel (and how she has handled it)… as well as echo her plug for the First Line Literary Journal (I hadn’t heard of it before she mentioned it, but all of the stories in an issue start with the same first line, where they go from there though…)

  • Jeff, my apologies for missing your comment before. We must have posted around the same time. I think you do raise an interesting point. I read a lot of short fiction when I was younger and wrote short fiction for teachers in high school and college. That probably helped me, even though it took me a while to get my first short published (I think I had four novels out when the first story finally sold). I also think you’re on to something with the focus issue. Thanks for the comment.

  • Okay, we have to stop doing this…. Yes, Mary handled the issue with her first line brilliantly, turning what had been a potential disaster into a PR boon. The First Line Literary Journal sounds brilliant. I’ll definitely check that out.

  • A. R. Gideon

    I’ve recently been working on a short story about a Wendigo, a creature that hunts humans, stalking a group of backpackers up on the Appalachian Trail. What’s been making the story hard for me is that I’ve been writing it as a series of journal entries of one of the backpackers. The major thing that’s been making it hard is that I can’t describe things in the traditional way. A description like “the beast was tall and gaunt to the point of emaciation” would sound really weird in a normal person’s journal. I’ve found that writing it this way has made the story more emotion driven than anything else, and it lends itself well to getting the right amount of tension in the story.

  • A.R., I can see where that would be a challenge, but it sounds incredibly cool. And I think you need to keep in mind that you can get away with a certain amount of artistic license on something like this. That description might not really appear in a personal journal, but in a story “journal” I really don’t think it would be that out of place. DRACULA was written entirely as journal entries and personal letters, and the descriptions in that are haunting, even if they’re not perfectly “normal.” Know what I mean? Best of luck with it. As I say, it sounds very cool.

  • 1. First lines are tough. I’m currently working on a short story with an opening line I am ambivalent about. It sets up the story well, but the voice of the piece doesn’t come out until the second or third paragraph. Here goes:

    “I always said Hiroki Satou figured out whatever he laid his hands on, whether that was stringed instruments, the electronic locks on our high school’s AV Room, or exorcism manuals; the day Aaron Nguyen appeared on the soccer field with his head smashed in, he figured out all three.”

    2. Different skillset altogether. I’m still struggling with the revision of the short story I wrote for Cat Rambo’s short fiction class–short story exposition boggles me.

    3. I prefer “dialogue”, but my word processor won’t accept anything but “dialog”. :/

    Personally, I like speech effects such as “er” and “um” and “you know” when they add voice and character to dialog. I use those, along with “like” and other speech effects to set apart the modern college-student characters in HELLHOUND from the more articulate, more old-fashioned sorcerers.

  • LJ_From_SA

    Hi David. I’ve been lurking around the site for quite a while. Your post today presented me with the opportunity to crawl out of the woodwork. 🙂

    About a week ago you posted about how writing short stories allow you to get to know who your character’s are. I tried it out and it really works! I also found that my short stories have a problem with staying short. The opening lines for the story I’m currently working on are:

    “Return the Whispers, Kareem! They are not meant for you!” Those were the last words I heard. The tension in my chest released. The words that followed struck like thunder. The Whispers awoke within me, no longer content to be silent. Their voice was heard by all. It spoke Death, and Death answered.

    It is very dependent on backstory, which is probably why I can’t keep it short. Writing short fiction is an entirely different beast than its big brother.

  • @A.R. That DOES sound cool! Could you perhaps get around the “normal” aspect of it by giving the character a profession or hobby like journalism, blogging, or writing?

  • I’ve got a couple short stories I’m futzing with. This one is about a woman who is dealing with a man who wants to buy the last grave on Earth, which she owns. She doesn’t want to sell. The premise is that humans have gone into space, but everyone still considers themselves “an earthling.” And so Earth is one big monument, and there is one grave left.

    Viola whipped her cane up and stabbed at the elevator call button, smacking three, four, five times after it lit up, just because. Damn that man for all his security, all the calling up to see if he was “available.” Of course he was available for her. She shoved a strand of iron-grey hair back behind her ear. She’s have tapped her foot, too, if the arthritis in her knee wasn’t acting up, but naturally, it had to rain today.

    In terms of my writing, my short stories are always short. I mean less than 5000 words, and often around 2500. I love flash pieces–which are also different than short stories. Flash pieces may tell a whole story, but what they really capture, most of the time, is a defining moment. A person, place, and action–and usually an action that changes everything–and makes enough clear that what’s left to the reader’s imagination is a vivid as what’s actually said.

  • ajp88

    “The wooden trap door creaked beneath the weight of the chains as they bound her. Metal grated together, rust flaked from the massive links as they wrapped them around her body.”

    I’m trying to make every chapter have a short story feel to it, if that makes sense. I want each POV to take a significant step forward in their progression with each chapter while teasing out what comes next. Tricky to hold up the strand up the overall arc while presenting an episodic goal to tackle within each chapter but when it works it really sucks the beta readers in for that juicy “just one more chapter,” moment.

  • First lines of my current novel WIP:

    Ereshaal rode homeward along the Great Western Road, cataloguing her sins. This was not as unpleasant for her as it perhaps should have been.

    Opening of a short story I’m working:
    Damn it all to hell. I slapped my hand over the flickering light switch, holding it still. I moved to this house to get away from ghosts, and now I had a literal one to deal with.

  • From a short story of mine called The Cold Chamber:

    “His cargo, like every other time he has done this, was death. Well, dead bodies to be precise. Life on a spacestation is great, but death is another matter.”

  • Scribe, I love the idea of that opening, but would suggest a slightly different approach that might give it more punch. I think that the opening phrase — “I always said that” — makes it just a little clunky, even as it establishes the 1st person POV, which is important. That said, you do that as well with “our high school’s…” So I would start with “Hiroki Satou always could figure out whatever he laid his hands on, whether it was stringed instruments, the electronic locks on our high school’s AV Room, or exorcism manuals. The day Aaron Nguyen appeared on our soccer field with his head smashed in, he figured out all three.” As for the skillset, yeah, I’m struggling with a new short right now — they just take me longer than novels (on a per word basis). And I like your suggestion to A.R.

    LJ, thanks for de-lurking. Great to see you here. Glad to hear that the short story idea from last week proved helpful. Your opening lines are striking and effective. I like starting a story with dialogue as you have here. Some folks frown on it, but I think it can work quite well, especially in the short form. Well done!

    Pea, I LOVE the premise, and I like the emotion: the resentment and impatience — with herself and the guy — you pack into those opening lines. Very nicely done. (When you submit it, though, make sure you catch the typos, okay?) I’ve never tried flash fiction, but I would like to. My short stories tend to be on the long side. 5,000 words is practically a minimum.

    AJP, I like that idea — the chapter-as-short-story thing. Very cool. Different. I’ll be intrigued to see how it comes out. The opening lines work nicely, though I might try to tighten up the very first sentence. It’s 15 words, and three of them are “the,” which tells me that it could be rephrased a bit for brevity and punch. Something to think about, maybe.

    Sarah, I LOVE the WIP opening. Wow. Very strong. The short story opening is very good, too. Nice idea. But the distinction between “get away from ghosts” and dealing with “a literal one” is not quite clear enough yet. I had to read it twice to get the meaning. Might there be a way to clarify?

  • Aaack! Mark, sorry. You must have posted at the same time I did. Love the premise of the opening. I would edit the first line for clarity and immediacy: “His cargo was death, as it was every other time he had done this.” Or something like. Also, it seems like you have a switch from past tense to present tense. Intentional?

  • Missed that tense. Thanks David! Yeah, I need to tweak it a bit. 🙂

  • Thank you, David! You’re quite right about the short story opening – I’ll keep working on it.

  • rebnatan

    Osnat was a fast runner, maybe even faster than the dog. She had stamina, but there was no doubt the animal had more of that. Osnat was panting, her head was aching, and the big, silver husky was closing on her, its almond eyes vivid with excitement. They both knew it would catch her; certainly before she reached the park.

  • Razziecat

    I love writing short stories. There’s something intoxicating about having to make every word count. It’s as if there’s a shape that I’m trying to fill in, and I have to be careful to color inside the lines 🙂 And I do enjoy writing dialogue, too. I’ve had entire conversations between characters flash through my head, and it’s a race to get the words down before I forget them. I still revise them, but the core is there and just needs tweaking.

    This is the beginning of what was intended as a prologue to my novel; I’m trying to develop it into a short story instead, and I think I need to smooth out the third sentence:

    The Ruhkari raiding party paused at the foot of a hill. The boy Val, running in his accustomed place at the rear, stopped, too, his breath coming white and harsh in the frigid air. He bent double, hands on knees, stretching legs and back to ward off cramps and the whipping he would earn if he fell behind when they moved on.

  • I’m the odd gal out in that I find short stories much easier to write than novels. But then, I started with poetry and grew from them into short stories. Now I’m trying to grow up to novel length. 😉

    The biggest difference between the two forms, for me, is that novels require planning. Plotting. Story arc. All that stuff we talk about here. On the other hand, I can take a short story from idea to finished in a day. I can hold all I need to make it work in my head, without needing to know everything about the world in which I’m writing.

    “Sweet dreams,” the man said as I swallowed a sip of golden wine.
    I swallowed a second time, although I hadn’t taken another drink. The sharp, sweet flavor of the wine slid off my tongue like a cloak off my shoulders, revealing the tanic bite of the drug. A chill finger traced the ridges of my spine and made the hairs raise on the back of my neck.
    The man nodded, then reached for me as the world tilted sharply and dumped me off.

  • Just a bit, Mark. It’s good.

    Sarah, my pleasure.

    Rebnatan, lots of excitement and tension in your opening. Nicely done. I think you can tighten it just a little to make it flow better and have more impact. “Osnat was a fast runner, maybe even faster than the dog. She had stamina, but the animal had more. Her head was aching, her breath came in gasps. And the big, silver husky was closing on her, its almond eyes vivid. They both knew it would catch her before she reached the park.” Action scenes should be a bit more sparse. Cut down the wording and you up the tension. Just a suggestion of course; you need to edit to your own liking. But I do think some editing would help it. Overall, though, very good.

    Razz, that’s a neat way of thinking about it — the coloring metaphor. I’ve had the same experience with conversations between my characters; I’m just hoping they’ll pause long enough for me to write it all. I like your opening, and I think the third sentence works nicely. I know it’s just a few lines, but it definitely still has a book opening feel. That’s not a bad thing. You hint at lots of narrative in those three sentences. I like it.

    Lyn, I tend to plot less with short fiction, but I have also found that the more I do plan things out, the better the short story flows when I write it. All by way of saying that planning can work in both forms. I think your opening does a nice job of setting up your story and grabbing your readers’ interest. I would suggest possibly cutting the second paragraph a bit. I’m not sure the second swallow adds much. You could begin that graph with “The sharp, sweet flavor…” and really not lose a whole lot. My opinion, of course. Your mileage may vary…. Otherwise, I think it’s quite strong. Good job.

  • Razziecat

    David, thank you. You just made my day! 🙂 🙂

  • ajp88

    Thanks for the help, David. I think you’re right, it could use a bit more flair and less articles.

  • LJ_From_SA

    Thanks for the feedback, David! 🙂

    Just one point on dialogue (dialog just looks wrong). I think mannerisms like “uhm” or “like” are too subjective to include in writing. We usually mix those sounds or words into a verbal conversation when our minds are grasping for a certain word or concept. While reading we have all the words or concepts provided on the page. Including our thinking sounds may break the pace and make the conversations very clumsy.

  • Thanks, David. Normally I’m a fan of the single-sentence-paragraph start, but in this case, it didn’t fit with the rest of the story.

    That’s cool to know that you’ve asked! I’m sure it’ll happen one day. 🙂

  • My pleasure, Razz!

    AJP, just a bit of tightening will help. It’s already very good. Best of luck with it.

    LJ, glad to help. I agree to a point with what you’re saying about those sorts of speech mannerisms. I think that they can be used with one or two characters in a book to set them apart, make them sound more authentic. We don’t want all our characters to sound the same, and those mannerisms can be a good tool. But as Ed Schubert likes to say, mannerisms are like Cumin. A little goes a long way….

    Laura, I totally understand. The story is everything, and you as writer know best what it needs. I’ll keep working on getting Mary here.

  • Megan B.

    I was writing short stories before I ever tried my hand at novels, so shorts come easily to me. In fact, my novels tend to be low in word-count, a problem which has been driving me crazy for years. I should probably try writing for children, since the lower word count is expected.

    I do think there are differences in writing shorts versus novels, but there are many similarities too. I think the differences are at the plotting and storytelling level, and the similarities are at the level of the writing. It’s interesting to think about, as evidenced by the 40+ comments to this post.

    Here is the first line of a fairy tale I’m working on: “When they grew old, and he could no longer rise from his bed, she asked him, ‘What can I get for you?'”

  • Unicorn

    Thank you for the critique, David. I cut the last part of the sentence and it definitely works a lot better, especially in context with the rest of the paragraph.

  • Megan, it may be that middle-grade, YA, and kid’s lit will be the perfect length for you. When I write a book I tend to write long…. Love the start to your fairy tale. Seriously, I love it. Lovely, simple, heartwarming. Nicely done.

    Unicorn, glad to help!

  • Megan B.

    Thanks, David! When my current WIP is finished I might tackle a middle-grade fantasy idea I’ve been mulling over.

  • rebnatan

    Thanks for the edit, David. You tightened the opening, without touching the rhythm. I will definitely keep your advice in mind, to keep action scenes more sparse.

  • David – thanks! I agree. Removing that 2nd sentence doesn’t change the flavor of the wine… er, story. Now, if work will just give me time to think, perhaps the rest of the story will find it’s way onto the page!

  • Megan, Reb, Lyn – Very glad to help. The openings I’ve read in the past couple of days have been terrific. The fixes have been matters of tweaking already strong material. And that’s something all of us do everyday in this profession.

  • Biv

    I’m just finding this site and loving it so far. Time to let someone else read something, I guess.
    Murray was pulled from sleep slowly, not immediately aware what woke him as he wiped the sleep from his eyes. But then he heard the noise.
    “Whoomp, Whoomp, Whoomp”

  • Biv, welcome to the site. Thanks for joining the discussion. Your opening is intriguing, and certainly makes me want to read more. I would suggest that you modify it slightly to avoid having two adverbs in quick succession. Perhaps: “Murray was pulled from sleep slowly, uncertain as he wiped the sleep from his eyes of what had awakened him. Then he heard the noise.” Just a suggestion, of course; you might want to approach it differently, but I do suggest some revision in that first sentence. I would also say that you should put the noise itself in italics rather than quotes, so that it reads as sound rather than dialogue.

    Best of luck with the piece!

  • Biv

    Thanks for the thoughts. I always thought there was something clunky there, I’ll try a couple re-writes.

    You did lead me to a second question about the sound and italics. The main character is a caretaker of a ship in the middle of space and he’s all alone on the ship. I don’t intend to have any dialog (The “ue” just looks unnatural) but likely at least a few of his thoughts, which would be in italics. Any thoughts on differentiating the thoughts from the sounds in the mind of the reader?

  • My pleasure, Biv. As to the sound v. thoughts italics conundrum. Hmmmm…. I suppose in a way, you could do what I just told you not to, which is to make the ship’s sounds read as dialogue. If that’s the only conversation he has, that could be kind of a cool effect — it could get to the point that he can read the ship’s mood and condition through its sounds. That would make for a really intriguing interaction.

    If you don’t want to do that, you could make the sounds all caps AND italicized, or your could make the character’s thoughts regular type, as part of just an ongoing internal monologue. I don’t know really. Interesting issue, and one that could have a creative and really fun solution.