The Short Story Opening Paragraph

The Short Story Opening Paragraph

The paragraph is one of the most important primary building blocks, next to the word and a sentence, in written language that is used to provide unity and form a distinct section in a written work beginning on a new line and containing a single topic, theme, or idea. In its simplest form it can be composed of a single word or sentence, or it can contain multiple lines, often with a topic, supporting sentences, and a conclusion, as seen in most academic writing.

As rhetorical devices, there are four basic paragraphs to choose from: narrative, descriptive, expository, and persuasive. A narrative paragraph tells a story and has a beginning, middle, and end. A descriptive paragraph describes a person, place, or thing and usually alludes to the five senses of touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound. An expository paragraph provides information and defines or explains an idea or process in detail. A persuasive paragraph is used to convince the reader to agree with a particular point of view.

The adage for writers is to show and not tell. In order to achieve a “showing” approach in a paragraph, it is common to use numerous verbs to display action, precise nouns to show objects, vivid and relevant modifiers, and specific language. In descriptive paragraphs, for instance, there are allusions to the five senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. The literary elements of action, conflict, character, pace, setting, and tone must also be incorporated purposefully in the opening paragraph. A writer must also utilize literary devices (e.g. metaphor, simile, idioms, alliteration, hyperbole, personification, onomatopoeia, and dozens of other devices to choose from) to make the paragraph come to life. Having a functional knowledge and command of literary elements, and literary devices, is imperative to allow a writer to create opening scenes with precision.

In narrative prose, specifically creative fiction and short stories, the paragraph is not as rigid or formal as in an academic essay, although it is still as important and has the same function and can use the same rhetorical devices. Mastering a well written paragraph is essential for any writer, and for the writer of short stories the most important paragraph to master is the introductory, or opening paragraph. Additionally, the most important element of the opening paragraph is the opening sentence which necessitates a narrative hook—a literary technique used to catch the reader’s attention and pull them into the story. The story should always start in medias res—in the middle of things—and the reader’s curiosity must be piqued, and they should be struck with an overwhelming desire to find out what happens next.

There are six basic opening paragraph types used at the beginning of short stories: narrative, descriptive, expository, persuasive, dialog (quote), and single-sentence. Any point of view can be used with any of these sentences. Each of these openings can be used to achieve a desired effect to establish a beginning scene with a setting and characters in conflict; some are stronger and more effective than others, but they all serve the purpose of introducing the reader to the beginning of the narrative.

Introductory paragraphs should be mastered by any writer attempting to write short stories, and once mastered adeptly applied to serve the sole purpose of enticing the reader into a story. The beginning paragraph makes an implicit promise to deliver emotional and intellectual stimulation through entertainment and the rest of the story should provide them with a rewarding reading experience and deliver on this promise, keeping the reader enthralled and absorbed until the final sentence. It should show the protagonist in a specific place and space in time as something crucial is happening.

Opening paragraphs almost always contain a narrative hook to draw the reader in and make them want to read more, and usually start in medias res—in the middle of things. These opening paragraphs can contain a mystery (puzzle or riddle) element. They can also be presented in a single-sentence, like a punchline that leaves the reader stunned and wondering what is going on? Conflict, in the form of protagonist versus an opposing force (human, nature, self, society, fate, machine, supernatural) is crucial to any story, and should be present in the opening paragraph, although it can be developed in the following paragraphs. Ultimately, an opening paragraph should introduce or allude to the essential fictional elements of character, setting, plot, theme, and mood, as much as possible, no matter which form or style is chosen.

Many writers rework the sentences in the introductory paragraph numerous times during the drafting process, realizing the importance of how it impacts the reader and the story overall. Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King (who is known—but not the only one—to rework his first lines over and over obsessively), Dean Koontz, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and H. P. Lovecraft and too many other authors to list all meticulously revised their beginnings, revising, editing, polishing and perfecting the first lines of the story. This is what makes or breaks a story, and the reader must be presented with an interesting paragraph right off the starting line to pull them in and keep them reading.

As an aside, stylistic techniques can be used to break all the rules, and hybrid combination of all of these paragraphs can be constructed, mashed together, twisted and recombined (ala William Faulkner), completely disregarding the expected and established rules of rhetoric, however, the writer must know the rules in order to break them effectively and make it happen in a well-orchestrated manner. It is wise to avoid clichés and tropes whenever possible and try something unique and fresh when constructing opening paragraphs. There should be a certain poetical resonance and novel construction that expresses the author’s style and avoids being pretentious and trite.

Practice makes perfect, as they say, and every introductory paragraph should be reworked tirelessly until it rolls off the tongue in a pleasing audible tone and style that begs to be read and enjoyed. Hook the reader, never let go, and live up to the promise presented in the introductory paragraph. Experiment and be different when you construct your opening paragraphs, and avoid doing what has been done to death, at all costs, and never mind what any critique says, just be true to yourself. It is your artwork after all, not theirs, so take it with a grain of salt . . . and write your stories as you see fit, but by all means make your opening paragraph come alive.

  • Exposition: Provides information and defines or explains an idea or process in detail and is most commonly used to establish setting, characters, and mood. This can contain elements of description to serve the explanation process overall. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a perfect example of exposition, because it describes the process of the lottery, while presenting the literary elements, too.
  • Descriptive: Describes details about person, place, or thing, usually involving the five senses of touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound. Be aware that this one can become an info-dump and be overworked, resulting in boredom for the reader. Mostly this one is used to describe a setting or character in depth, and the literary elements are usually presented in the following paragraphs, since description mostly concerns details and concrete imagery. Ernest Hemingway is a genius when it comes to descriptive passages, and in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” the opening paragraph is so vivid and tangible that it comes to life in the most pleasing way possible.
  • Narrative: Often contains a flashback or background information or a series of events leading up to the main conflict, often with a beginning, middle, and end, and is presented in a narrative voice that sets a tone and mood. This can be the beginning of a diatribe or monologue from the narrator and can be told in any preferred point of view. Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is a textbook example of a narrative beginning paragraph (note: if you’ve ever seen the movie version of this story and heard Morgan Freeman do the voice over then you get the idea . . . it’s perfect).
  • Persuasive: This is used to attempt to persuade or convince the reader about a subject, topic, idea, philosophy, or belief. The unreliable narrator is a good example of an effective use of a persuasive paragraph. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is an example of the unreliable narrator trying to persuade the reader that he is of sound mind to tell the story, and not mad, however he is effectively showing that he is truly mad, and cannot be trusted, and is indeed unreliable. This paragraph comes in handy any time a character or narrator tries to convince or persuade the reader of some point.
  • Dialog (quote): This could be a famous quote or passage from a larger work, but often it is a character speaking during the first sentence, in the introductory paragraph. If it is interesting enough, the reader will be intrigued and continue reading to see who is talking or what the quoted references is about. Dialog paragraphs can also be single-sentence constructions, or entire paragraphs combining any of the other forms of paragraphs. Bentley Little likes to use this opening, and he is not alone, as most authors will use it from time to time and it works well, if executed properly.
  • Single-Sentence: A single-sentence can serve as a stylistic effect or punchline and make a bold statement that provides a hook and draws the reader in. This is like a quick jab that promises to deliver a knockout punch, a grand finale, and should deliver on said promise. It can be a single word, a phrase, or complete sentence, of any length, but often is short and precise and well-planned. It can be in any of the four types of sentences available: declarative, imperative, exclamatory, or interrogative. It can be dialog or a quotation. It is up to the writer to decide the desired effect and outcome of a single-sentence introductory paragraph, but whatever the reason it should be used resolutely and with purpose.

Examples:

Here are some examples of beginning paragraphs culled from stories written by famous authors who have used at least one of the paragraphs mentioned above to great effect and mastery. Look and see how it is done to perfection. There are so many fine examples by multitudes of writers across the ranges of genres and throughout history that an entire book could be compose with nothing but samples of beginning paragraphs. The only criteria for the following examples were that they had to be from a short story (or novella), and they had to exemplify the type of paragraph being examined, and they had to be written by authors of literary, suspense, or speculative fiction—also, they had to be authors who are world famous and known for their style and mastery of the written word and short story craft.

Exposition:

“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.” —Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery,” The New Yorker

“Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnum villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly. Father and son were at chess; the former, who possessed ideas about the game involving radical chances, putting his king into such sharp and unnecessary perils that it even provoked comment from the white-haired old lady knitting placidly by the fire.” —W. W. Jacobs, “The Monkey’s Paw,” The Lady of the Barge

 “The car coughed, and choked, and died. Davidson was suddenly aware of the wind on the desert road, as it keened at the windows of his Mustang. He tried to revive the engine, but it refused life. Exasperated, Davidson let his sweating hands drop off the wheel and surveyed the territory. In every direction, hot air, hot rock, hot sand. This was Arizona.” —Clive Barker, “The Skins of the Fathers,” The Books of Blood

“The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.” —Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death,” Graham’s Magazine

“When Wesley Smith’s colleagues asked him—some with an eyebrow hoicked satirically—what he was doing with that gadget (they all called it a gadget), he told them he was experimenting with new technology. That was not true. He bought the Kindle purely out of spite.” —Stephen King, “Ur,” The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

“Colin had been making the little clay figures for a long time before he noticed that they moved. He had been making them for years there in his room, using hundreds of pounds of clay, a little at a time” —Robert Bloch, “Mannikins of Horror,” Weird Tales

“The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.” —Ernest Hemingway, “The Killers,” Scribner’s Magazine

“The package was lying by the front door—a cube-shaped carton sealed with tape, their name and address printed by hand: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Lewis, 217 E. Thirty-seventh Street, New York, New York 10016.’ Norma picked it up, unlocked the door, and went into the apartment. It was just getting dark.” —Richard Matheson, “Button, Button,” Playboy

Narrative:

“The rain stopped as Nick turned into the road that went up through the orchard. The fruit had been picked and the fall wind blew through the bare trees. Nick stopped and picked up a Wagner apple from beside the road, shiny in the brown grass from the rain. He put the apple in the pocket of his Mackinaw coat.” —Ernest Hemingway, “The Three-Day Blow,” In Our Time

“There’s a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess—I’m the guy who can get it for you. Tailor-made cigarettes, a bag of reefer if you’re partial to that, a bottle of brandy to celebrate you son or daughter’s high school graduation, or almost anything else . . . within reason, that is. It wasn’t always that way.” —Stephen King, “ Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” Different Seasons

“When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.” —William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily,” The Forum

“I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care, yet have never again found the Rue d’Auseil. These maps have not been modern maps alone, for I know that names change. I have, on the contrary, delved deeply into all the antiquities of the place; and have personally explored every region, of whatever name, which could possibly answer to the street I knew as the Rue d’Auseil. But despite all I have done it remains an humiliating fact that I cannot find the house, the street, or even the locality, where, during the last months of my impoverished life as a student of metaphysics at the university, I heard the music of Erich Zann.” —H. P. Lovecraft, “The Music of Eric Zann,” National Amateur

“For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream. But tomorrow I die, and today I would unburthen my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences these events have terrified—have tortured—have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me they presented little but horror—to many they will seem less terrible than baroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace—some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.” —Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat,” The Saturday Evening Post

“This is what happened. On the night that the worst heat wave in northern New England history finally broke—the night of July 19—the entire western Main region was lashed with the most vicious thunderstorms I have ever seen.” —Stephen King, “The Mist,” Skeleton Crew

“On the night that it happened, a blizzard swept the entire Northeast. Creatures that preferred to venture out only after sunset were, therefore, doubly cloaked by darkness and the storm.” —Dean Koontz, “Trapped,” Strange Highways

“There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room. Their room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also faced the public garden and the war monument. There were big palms and green benches in the public garden. In the good weather there was always an artist with his easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea. Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the cafe a waiter stood looking out of the empty square.” —Ernest Hemingway, “Cat in the Rain,” In Our Time

Descriptive:

“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees—willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spreadpads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.” —John Steinbeck, “Of Mice and Men”

“Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the skyline and dip immediately from view.” —Jack London, “To Build a Fire,” The Youth’s Companion

“You could smell the kids before you could see them, their young sweat turned stale in corridors with barred windows, their bolted breath sour, their heads musty. Then their voices, subdued by the rules of confinement. Don’t run. Don’t shout. Don’t whistle. Don’t fight.” —Clive Barker, “Pig Blood Blues,” The Books of Blood

“It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.” —Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Scribner’s Magazine

“Amelia arrived at her apartment at six-fourteen. Hanging her coat in the hall closet, she carried the small package into the living room and sat on the sofa. She nudged off her shoes while she unwrapped the package on her lap. The wooden box resembled a casket. Amelia raised its lid and smiled. It was the ugliest doll she’d ever seen. Seven inches long and carved from wood, it had a skeletal body and an oversized head. Its expression was maniacally fierce, its pointed teeth completely bared, its glaring eyes protuberant. It clutched an eight-inch spear in its right hand. A length of fine, gold chain was wrapped around its body from the shoulders to the knees. A tiny scroll was wedged between the doll and the inside wall of its box. Amelia picked it up and unrolled it. There was handwriting on it. This is He Who Kills, it began. He is a deadly hunter. Amelia smiled as she read the rest of the words. Arthur would be pleased.” —Richard Matheson, “Prey”

Persuasion:

“TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” —Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” The Pioneer

“They’ve been married for ten years and for a long time everything was okay—swell—but now they argue. Now they argue quite a lot. It’s really all the same argument. It has circularity. It is, Ray sometimes thinks, like a dog track. When they argue they’re like greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit. You go past the same scenery time after time, but you don’t see the landscape. You see the rabbit.” —Stephen King, “Premium Harmony,” The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

“You needn’t think I’m crazy, Eliot—plenty of others have queerer prejudices than this. Why don’t you laugh at Oliver’s grandfather, who won’t ride in a motor? If I don’t like that damned subway, it’s my own business; and we got here more quickly anyhow in the taxi. We’d have had to walk up the hill from Park Street if we’d taken the car.” —H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model,” Weird Tales

Dialog:

“‘What do you want?’ whispered Professor Blasserman.” —Robert Bloch, “Almost Human,” Fantastic Adventures

“‘That janitor gives me the creeps,’ Ruth said when she came in that afternoon.” —Richard Matheson, “Shipshape Home,” Galaxy Science Fiction

“The scales aren’t here any more. Look, Buster, I don’t want any trouble. I run a nice quiet little place here, no rough stuff. I’m telling you—the scales aren’t here. You must be the twentieth guy this week who come in looking for those scales. But they’re gone. Damned good thing, too, if you ask me.” —Robert Bloch, “Tell Your Fortune,” Final Reckonings

“‘The Reach was wider in those days,’ Stella Flanders told her great-grandchildren in the last summer of her life, the summer before she began to see ghosts. The children looked at her with wide, silent eyes, and her son, Alden, turned from his seat on the porch where he was whittling. It was Sunday, and Alden wouldn’t take his boat out on Sundays no matter how high the price of lobster was.” —Stephen King, “The Reach,” Skeleton Crew

“‘I’m so glad we found you at home!” —Bentley Little, “Bob,” The Collection

“‘Babies need their sleep,’ Cindy said. ‘Whoever heard of letting an infant stay up as late as her parents?” But that meant she was awake and crying only two hours after they’d gone to bed themselves, Marc argued. That meant they had to get up and feed her and comfort her and then try to fall back asleep before getting up again for her early morning feeding. ‘Why don’t we put her to bed the same time we go to bed ourselves?’ he asked. ‘That way she wouldn’t wake up until four or five in the morning. It’s a hell of a lot easier to get up at five than one.’” —Bentley Little, “Lethe Dreams,” The Collection

“‘Hey hon, what’s this?’” —Bentley Little, “The Pond,” The Collection

I should have charged Ira a cleaning deposit, Ray thought.” —Bentley Little, “Roommates,” The Collection

“‘I really think,’ said the Doctor, ‘that, at any rate, one of us should go and try whether or not the thing is an imposture.’” —Bram Stoker, “The Gipsy Prophesy,” Weird Tales

“Don’t tell me what I’m doing; I don’t want to know!” —Ray Bradbury, “Green Town, Somewhere on Mars; Mars, Somewhere in Egypt,” The Martian Chronicles

Single-Sentence:

“Mason saw it first.” —Richard Matheson, “Death Ship,” The Time Traveller’s Almanac

“The dead have highways.” —Clive Barker, “The Book of Blood,” Books of Blood

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” —Ernest Hemingway, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Cosmopolitan

“The woman stepped to the kitchen window and looked out.” —Ray Bradbury, “Heavy-Set,” Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales

“Whoever was knocking at the door didn’t want to stop.” —Ray Bradbury, “The Earth Men,” The Martian Chronicles

“William Blakely?” —Stephen King, “Blockade Billy,” The Bazaar of Bad Dreams


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