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How to start a short story: Write your own story

I often get asked, “How do I start writing?” Like many endeavours, starting is the hardest thing to do. And whether you have done this before or not, the beginning is just as important as the end. The beginning determines the end. 

How do you start a short story? How do you write your own story? How do you know you’re ready to begin writing? How do you know that you will even tell a good story? The answer to these questions is that you often don’t know. You don’t know until you start.  

Now, starting does not have to be like skipping up a hill. With the right amount of help and sheer determination, you can be on your way to telling your own compelling story and learning things you never thought you could. Ready? Let’s begin.

Where do stories come from? 

A story begins with an idea. An idea that sneaks up on you in your car, while walking the dog, in the bathroom, or even in the doctor’s office. Yes, ideas are disrespectful imps whispering things in your ear, forcing you to reconsider the world you know and urging you to tell a story only you can.

This is often how you know that you must start writing your own short story: the idea tugs at you until you’re restless. 

The best thing to do about an idea is to consider it. Consideration is letting it into your mind and evaluating its potential. It’s questioning it – interviewing it – to discover its merit. Why should you pursue this idea? What about it is unusual? Or perhaps, how can you pursue it in an unusual way. We all know a story about a rich man’s daughter who falls in love with the son of a pauper, so how will this idea be different? You must strip it bare, examine all its angles and see if there’s anything worthy to be found. Do the children fall in love only to discover they are siblings, or does the mother of the rich man orchestrate the whole thing because she’s hiding a terrible, old secret? 

Is this idea better suited to a longer form or can it be told within the confines of the short story? You must consider the idea. And don’t be afraid to toss it out if it proves unworthy. 

The story has passed the ideation test, now what do you do with it? 

You keep thinking about it to determine your entry point. Who is the main character in this story? Should they be the narrator, or should they be observed by an omniscient eye? Whose voice is the loudest in your ear? That’s who should be narrating the story. The voice will be authentic, carrying the power it should. Consider this excerpt from my short story, “The Burden of Beauty”:

Flashing images of my encounter with him replayed in my mind as I lifted the scissors to my head. To my mind, my hair shone even brighter, and I was momentarily caught in the light-brown tint surrounding my head. I lowered my hand, wondering what my mother would say and fearing what she could do to me. And then I remembered Wonu’s mother, she wouldn’t kill her child so she could be beautiful. No burden can be placed on a head if it doesn’t stoop to receive it. 

Stories are about making readers feel something, whether that’s joy, love, hate, or anger. 

Now that you know the voice, how’s the plot going to go? 

This next part is all about what works for you. Some people outline their story before they commence writing; others do not. Some people research the story first; others do not. I’ll say that the most important thing to consider is the theme and pace of the story. Are you going to start writing this story from the end or the beginning? From the middle or from somewhere after the end? Sometimes the voice of the story determines the pace of the story. In my story, “Off and On Carter Adebowale Street,” the voice/narrator tells the story from the beginning and intertwines a major theme with the first paragraph. Consider the beginning: 

It started in the middle of the day, when the heat arises like an apparition, descends on mankind, and sheds itself through sweaty armpits and down sinewy backs and hard faces. The community of Olanbe was quiet, animals settled themselves under wide, old trees and the children lay on thin mats, exhausted by heat and hunger.   

Here’s a litmus test for the efficacy of your voice and plot: does it keep the reader engaged? If readers aren’t curious or otherwise invested in the story, you might want to review the narrative voice and pace of the story. 

You know the plot and pace; now, how do you actually write this short story? 

Be honest. Even if you have an agenda with this short story, set the stage but let it take on a life of its own. Let the characters speak and react honestly. Don’t try to pretty them up; they’re not your brand ambassadors! Be open-minded enough to accept the trajectory of the story. 

The key to telling an honest story is truly understanding your characters and observing the world. How well do you know your characters and understand real life and people? If you feel stuck in your storytelling, take some time to observe the people and things around you. Read the news and sift it for material, talk to strangers, talk to friends, talk to the elderly. A good writer is intimate with the pulse of reality. 

Get into the mind of your characters. Let them ask questions, let them wonder about other characters, let them conclude on things, let these conclusions drive their actions. It’s almost mathematical—show your work. 

Discard the flowery stuff—if it gets in the way of the storytelling. 

Now that your short story is complete what do you do with it? 

Let it rest. Revise it.   

Please revise your short story. You always miss something in the early drafts. Don’t be in a hurry to publish. This is something I constantly tell clients. I understand the eagerness to share the story with the world, but you must let your short story rest. Now I’ll be honest and tell you that I haven’t always done this. Here are a few consequences I’ve experienced because I hurriedly published my work:  

  • Loopholes in the story—primarily because of a faulty premise 
  • A less effective narrative voice 
  • Grammatical errors 
  • Structural errors and underdeveloped characters. 
  • Rejection by magazines and publishers. 

It was embarrassing to discover these things after I’d already sent them out for publication, and I ultimately understood why when they got rejected or criticized. Please don’t be like me. Let your work rest. You’ve birthed the story. Clean it up before you show it to the world.  

Don’t get too fussy! Let it out. 

This is the truth: you’ll always find something to adjust in your short story. So, if you’re waiting for it to be perfect, you’ll be waiting for a long time. After you’ve done all you can and had the story edited, you should send it out for publication (or keep it in a folder if that’s what you prefer). Don’t be afraid of rejection; some will appreciate your short story, and others won’t. What matters most is that you’ve finally told this story. 

Living the rest of your days as a short story writer 

Don’t stop writing, even when life pauses your writing. Pick yourself back up when you fall off the wagon. Developing your short-storytelling skill is like building a muscle; the more you exercise it, the firmer it gets. Give yourself time to grow and watch yourself become the writer of your dreams

Keep elevating the quality of your stories. Be an eternal observer of life and people. Contemplate your observations, meditate on strange phenomena, ask questions.  

Happy writing!

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Lola Opatayo is a creative writer, communications professional, and editor. Her work has been endowed with awards from the Iceland Writers Retreat and MacDowell. She is a recipient of the inaugural Equity Fellowship from Editors Canada and the 2020 Gerald Freund Fellowship. Lola is the founder of WordCaps, where she empowers small businesses and writers with writing strategies and resources.

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