How to Write a Short Story/Chapter 3

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A story well begun is half told. Unless you can interest an editor in your first two or three paragraphs, your story may be submitted to every periodical in the country without the slightest chance of acceptance.

So much depends on the introductory sentences, from the viewpoint of the editor, that fully three-fourths of the stories submitted are never read beyond the first page. If they are lacking in interest here, the editor realizes that the writer knows nothing about the fundamental principles of story-writing, and that what follows is practically certain to violate all its rules. Unless the beginning interests him, therefore, he rejects the manuscript promptly without further reading.

An editor's method of determining the value of a manuscript is very simple. He scans the introductory paragraph, and if he finds that the writer plunges into his story at the very outset he is interested enough to skim over the entire first page. If nothing is found that condemns the story, the editor now turns to the last page and studies the conclusion. If he finds this weak, the story is returned without further reading; but if it ends with a quick, sharp turn, or in a manner that suggests rapid dramatic action somewhere earlier in the story, he dips into the middle and glances over the other pages; not systematically, but in a hop-skip-and-jump manner. Then, if the first promise is fulfilled, he leans back and reads the story clear through. If he does this, the chances are all in favor of an acceptance, though some detail may still warrant a rejection; or, possibly, the tenor of the story may not be in line with his publication.

From the foregoing it will be seen that if you expect even a careful examination of your story, you must interest the editor at once. You cannot do this with a long description. You cannot do it by labeling your characters, in imitation of a theater programme. You cannot do it by presenting familiar and worn-out situations.

Ninety per cent of the “unavailable” stories have one of these faults in their introduction. A good majority of those that are accepted begin with conversation that arouses interest, or striking sentences that make the reader anxious enough for an explanation to read further.

Your first sentence should plunge your reader into the action of your story. Leave your descriptions until you have interested him; then what would have bored him at first will prove only a pleasing explanation of the situation. In the ideal short story, the descriptions are sifted in so adroitly that there is no lagging of movement.

Don't begin your story by having a beautiful maiden wondering if her lover is true. Don't begin by saying that the heroine, dressed in well-fitting clothes, makes a handsome picture. Don't begin by presenting a girl who is reviewing her past life. All these have been done time and time again. Strive for originality if you would write acceptable stories.

Why not have the girl watching her faithless lover, ten miles away, through a telescope? Why not have the heroine dressed in brightest crimson and living in a convent? Why not have the girl wondering if the man she just pushed in the cistern is dead? All these are far-fetched and extravagant, I admit, but they illustrate the point I would make: that you must begin your story in a manner novel and original.

A goodly number of the light little love stories of to-day need no setting beyond that suggested by the conversation. It is pure idiocy to dilate upon the beauty of the scene, or the charm of the weather, or the innermost feelings of the characters. If you must get these points into your story, do it by suggestion. Make the man and woman so thoroughly in love with each other, that neither you nor a master-hand can keep your reader from knowing that the scenery is magnificent, nor that the sun is shining its brightest, nor that every sentence your lovers utter is bubbling with sentiment. If you can't get this happiness into your love story, you have failed. Tear it up and write it all over.

Did you ever study Hope's “Dolly Dialogues”? If so, you have found that, although there is no direct information given or scenes described, you are in full possession of all the necessary facts, gleaned through the words and actions of the characters. Yet the stories start abruptly and go forward in a natural sequence of events.

It is the best practice in the world to write a story without the use of any method of presenting ideas except direct discourse.

There are times, of course, when a description of the setting of your story is absolutely necessary. Suppose you wished to say that a man who had been away for years from a girl he loved was approaching her house, a great stone structure high on a hill. You might follow the beginner's example, thus: “The house of Dorothy Owens was a magnificent stone mansion, beautiful inside and out. It stood on a high hill. But, in spite of its beauty, Dorothy was not happy. Years before she had had a lover, who, could she but have known it, was even now approaching the house, mounted on a mettlesome steed.”

Your ear tells you that this is trite and dull. There is no reason to go on reading; no promise of anything better. Would it not be more interesting if begun a little differently? For instance :

“The horse stopped suddenly, and the man lifted his head with a jerk. For the last mile he had been sitting in the saddle, not caring whom he met, not seeing. Now he looked ahead at the road that led straight up the hill to a house that stood on the summit. For a moment he stared at it, debating with himself. Then he smiled and dug his spurs into the horse.”

The one objection to this latter method is the necessity of saying, more or less bluntly: “But I must now explain that years before this man and woman had been lovers.” Now, above all else, a short story should possess unity. With this quality of paramount importance, any retrospection is apt to mar the artistic handling. But even this objection may be overcome by the use of suggestive conversation that gives the reader enough of a clue to enable him to understand the situation.

Remember, then, that readers are a busy people, who would have their stories served in condensed pellets if they could, and that to win their approbation you must begin well along in your tale, where enough complications are to be found to catch the interest. In writing, as nowhere else, can be seen the truth of the trite old proverb, “Well begun is half done.”