by Laura Thomas, Lead Judge, Junior Authors Short Story Contest
When I sit down to judge, my mind is wide open. I want to sink into the words. I want to fall under the spell of a story and feel like I must keep reading. As you can see from the small number of short stories that are making it to the second round of judging this year, writing a story that hooks a reader right from the beginning is not as easy as it sounds. Short stories are a particular genre of literature that require attention to detail, creativity, and near perfect execution.
In our short story contest, you only have 1,000 words to play with. Every word matters. Every word needs to work alongside the others to create a single impression. It only takes one cliché, one grammatical mistake, one awkward phrase, one overly general statement to lose a reader. This is especially important at the beginning of a story.
Ways to Hook a Reader Into Your Short Story
Take me right into a thickly described scene at a specific moment that matters to your character and plot.
Write interesting, specific description.
Use fresh imagery or a creative turn of phrase.
Write dialogue that I can easily understand and specific descriptions that I can see clearly in my imagination.
Make an interesting statement that makes me want to know what happens next.
Show me a character or situation I can easily identify with and care about.
Hold me by the hand and ease me into the story.
Use proper paragraph formatting.
Keep the tense the same and the scene going.
Gets to the story problem quickly and clearly.
Ways to Lose a Reader at the Beginning of Your Story
Change tenses or throw me into a flashback in the second paragraph.
Have lots of spelling and grammatical errors in every sentence.
Make overly general statements or write vague, generic descriptions.
Explain what your story is going to be about.
Tell me your main character’s hair and eye colour or name.
Have your character describe himself.
Expect me to care about a character who is in crisis, immediately, without hooking me first.
Give me backstory or a prologue.
Write your entire story in one paragraph.
Write in chapters.
Provide description that seems random and is not tied to character or action.
Use a huge font and centre your story on the page.
Use personal pronouns (he/she) to name characters when I have no idea who these people are.
Use distracting names for your characters.
Confuse me or talk down to me.
Drop me into action without help.
Tell me you are going to tell me a story.
Ask me a question.
Have your character wake up dazed and confused.
Try to be philosophical.
Write in the style of a personal essay.
Open with any of these cliché lines:
“Hi my name is…”
“She is x years old…”
“It all started…”
“This story begins…”
“It happened last week…”
“It was a day like any other day…
“I still remember that day…”
“It was the day that everything changed…”
“Once upon a time…”
“I opened my eyes…”
General Rule with Beginnings in Short Stories
The first beginning you write when you first start working on your story is probably not your best beginning. It is your starting place. It is where you start throwing down your ideas and getting to know your protagonist and story problem. It’s not ready for submission, not even close. So when and how do you fix your beginning?
It is impossible to know whether or not your beginning works until you have completely finished your first draft and have written your final scene. Once you have completed that first draft, that’s when you want to go back and reread your story to revise your plot, characters and settings. Once you are happy with those, go back and spend some time perfecting your introduction.
If you struggle with the short story genre, or do not know what mistakes to look for when revising and proofreading, I suggest downloading a copy of Polly Wants to Be a Writer Workbook #1: Write a Short Story. It will help you go from idea to submission and figure out your strengths and weakness in your short story writing skills.