When writing short stories, do you ever find yourself struggling to fit the entire plot into your designated word count? This is a really common mistake and one that most writers make initially. Many publications and competitions place restrictions on the total word count, so if you are going to be successful, you need to make sure that you start your story in the right place by creating an effective and gripping opening paragraph.
Think back, when you started writing your story, did it seem as if you had masses of words to play with and yet suddenly, the word count was blown apart and you were still only halfway through the story? If this sounds familiar, you might find that you are starting to write without a clear direction of the plot.
Think about it. A short story has to be written so tightly that it carries the reader along at a great pace. Every word should be relevant and not there to simply pad the story out. If you have descriptive passages, they really need to paint a strong visual picture or create a vivid atmosphere. If you have dialogue, is it meaningless conversation or will the reader be informed as to something crucial to the unfolding story?
A short story does not need a sub-plot. If you only have a few thousand words to complete your story, then there is no time for a sub-plot anyway. You should start at a gripping point and provide a climatic ending that keeps the reader thinking about the outcome for the protagonist. Great fiction is about providing conflict and how the characters can resolve the situation. The reader doesn’t need to watch the characters going from A to C via B. They just need to know that the characters do.
There is no need to start your story at a point where the character is simply getting up in the morning unless it is vital to the storyline.
Here’s an example of two opening paragraphs and you can choose the one that is the most gripping:
Melissa opened her eyes slowly. Warm sunlight bathed her room in a yellow glow. It was time to get up. The alarm had not sounded yet but she knew if she turned her head to the side that it would in just a matter of minutes. Yawning, she swung her legs out of bed, feeling a little dizzy as she sat on the edge of her firm mattress. Today was going to be important. There was something she had to do although she couldn’t remember what. She walked slowly across the room and opened the curtains wide. The neighbours were in the garden watering their precious prize winning plants. She didn’t like them, or their roses. Horrible things completely covered in bugs. Plus roses signified love and she no longer had a place for that in her life.
The dead body slumped in the corner of her bedroom seemed to gaze accusingly right at her when she swung her legs out of bed. The memory of her actions the night before came flooding back and she felt a twinge of remorse followed by angst. Now what the hell could she do with his body? If her nosy neighbour hadn’t of caught her spraying weed killer on his precious prize winning roses late last night, she would have never had to kill him. His mistake had been to threaten to call the police and she was here to rebuild her life and not to get into more trouble. Melissa had been surprised by the ease at which she knocked him to the floor, winding him. The weed killer sprayed easily into the back of his throat and although he had gagged, she had kept his mouth firmly closed until the liquid ran down his throat. It had taken him quite a long time to die; he had lain on her path convulsing as she had watched. Finally, she had dragged his puny body into her house whilst the poison did its thing and he had twitched and pulsed begging for help as the poison ravaged his insides.
If you can get your starting point right, you will find that it makes it much easier to complete your story in any designated word count. In addition, if you start your story on a dramatic high note, you will hook the reader much more readily. The first paragraph eases into the story very slowly. By the time the reader gets to know about the murder, the word count would be exhausted. The second story plunges right in and although it starts at the same point in time, it reveals a whole lot more than the first paragraph.
The next time you write your short story, play about with several openings and see which one would lead the reader much more quickly into the storyline. Keep the momentum going throughout and use the extra word count for creating a highly visual and entertaining story that is not rushed, but is just effective.
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