Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/21/2022

Episode 7: Short Story Introductions

From The Editor, July, 1918

By R. C. Woodbury

We are led to believe that stories told orally were the progenitors of written ones, and accordingly the writer does not conflict with the laws of heredity, but pursues a perfectly logical and natural course, when he tells in the opening sentences of a story some qualities of the chief character, or explains the circumstances under which the main incident occurred, or proceeds directly to the incident itself.

Each of these methods has advantages; as the three are closely associated they are often found combined. A fine example of a story in which the character and his environment, or in other words character delineation and setting, come early, and in which the first step in incident is also found in the first seventy-five words is Balzac’s “The Hidden Masterpiece.” Such is an introduction par excellence.

“On a cold morning in December, towards the close of the year 1612, a young man, whose clothing betrayed his poverty, was standing before the door of a house in the Rue des Grands-Augustins, in Paris. After walking to and fro some time with the hesitation of a lover who fears to approach his mistress, however complying she may be, he ended by crossing the threshold and asking if Monsieur Portubus were within.”

In the following introduction from De Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” (which is so well known that it is almost unnecessary to quote from it) we have a typical example of the character opening.

“She was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes, as if by a mistake of destiny, born in a family of clerks. She had no dowry, no expectations, no means of being known, under stood, loved, wedded, by any rich and distinguished man; and she let herself be married to a little clerk at the Ministry of Public Instruction.”

Even more popular with writers and editors than the character opening is that of setting, which includes the environment or circumstances, material and otherwise under which the characters are depicted in the story. A good illustration of this kind of opening is found in “The Shot” by Alexander Poushkin. Here it is :

“We were stationed in the little town of N….. The life of an officer in the army is well known. In the morning, drill and riding-school; dinner with the Colonel or at a Jewish restaurant; in the evening, punch and cards. In N… there was not one open house, not a single marriageable girl. We used to meet in each other’s rooms, where, except our uniforms, we never saw anything.”

But the opening which requires no preliminary flourishes, which is typical short story form, and for that reason toward which usage is strongly tending, is that of incident. It is the most rapid form of introduction, and causes the editor to rejoice when he reads it, but the beginner finds this form of opening difficult, be cause character delineation and setting must be skilfully interwoven as the story moves rapidly towards its climax. Kipling and Daudet are masters of this and of all other sorts of introductions. The following is from the latter’s “Siege of Berlin.”

“We were going up the Champs Elysees with Doctor W. …, gathering from the walls pierced by shell, the pavement ploughed by grape-shot, the history of the besieged Paris, when just before reaching the Place de l’Etoile, the doctor stopped and pointed out to me one of those large corner houses, so pompously grouped around the Arc de Triomphe.”

Then follows atmosphere and incident blended in just the correct proportions.

In the neighborhood of seventy per cent of all short stories begin with setting, character portrayal, incident, or, all three combined, so it, is axiomatic that these methods deserve a proportionate amount of attention and careful consideration. It is quite apparent to even a novice that the reader naturally desires to know early in the story where and under what circumstances the events or incidents to be exploited occurred, to whom they occurred, and what occurred. Of course the story cannot all be told in the first para graph, but Only as much as possible, or in other words if the introduction is a good one, the story is half told and is likely to possess the necessary qualities of unity and compression.

Then there is the old-fashioned method of opening the story by giving introductory facts which lead up to the story. This method generally proves a shibboleth to the beginner, and for that reason might well be avoided. Here is as good a sample of the sort as I have been able to find. It is from “The Sorrow Of An Old Convict,” by Pierre Loti.

“This is a little story which was told me by Yves. It happened one evening when he had gone into the Roads to carry in his gunboat a cargo of convicts to the transport vessel which was to take them to New Caledonia.”

The tone of this introduction is as natural as is to be found in Stevenson, the universally acknowledged master of style. It contains no complex.facts, events, or motives, but is simple, natural, and interests the reader from the start. One might search through scores of the cur rent magazines and not find a solitary example of this sort of opening. Evidently it is taboo with editors.

A slightly larger number begin with general truths illustrated in the story. This is a pleasing form of opening and examples of it may be occasionally found in the best magazines. Kipling uses the method in beginning his “Phantom ‘Rickshaw”; so does Jack London in “The Terrible Solomons.” The latter reads as follows:

“There is no gainsaying that the Solomons are a hard-bitten bunch of islands. On the other hand, there are worse places in the world. But to the new chum who has no constiutional understanding of men and life in the rough, the Solomons may indeed, prove terrible.”

A few stories commence with expressions, the chief design of which is to at tract attention. Unless one can sign his name “O. Henry” he had better beware of this form of opening. Jack London uses it in his “The Inevitable White Man”; Kipling in his “False Dawn.” The latter reads this way:

“No man will ever know the exact truth of this story; though women may some times whisper it to one another after a dance, when they are putting up their hair for the night and comparing lists of victims.”

No doubt it is very ingenious and pleasing but a trial will convince the beginner that it is not easy, but requires long practice.

In addition to the foregoing methods of introduction, there are a few stories which begin with statements about the character who afterward tells the story in the first person. An opening of this kind requires exceptional ability, or a first-class story, or both in order to pass the manuscript reader. The beginner had better leave it alone entirely. Kipling, Rider Haggard, and Daudet sometimes employ this method. Poe did so in his “Thousand-And-Second Tale of Scheherazade.” This is how it begins:

“Having had occasion, lately, in the course of some Oriental investigations, to consult the “Tellmenow Isitsoornot,” a work which (like the ‘Zohar’ of Simeon Jochaides) is scarcely known at all, even in Europe; and which has never been quoted, to my knowledge, by any American…” and so on for about a thousand words. It is extremely doubtful if any editor now alive would pass such an introduction.

There are still other methods of opening stories, which do not come under any of the fore-mentioned types, but they are few and far between, and therefore of comparatively little interest or importance. They may take the form of long prefaces or prologues or other nondescript methods. About the only way to get a modern editor to accept stories of this kind is to be the editor yourself.

It must be noted that the story may be opened with dialogue to give the setting, to delineate character, to lead up to the real story with fact or explanation, or to gain attention. The last two of these had better be avoided by the beginner, because they are antiquated, and the modern short story must begin at the beginning. Dialogue openings are difficult to do well, and easy to do badly. They are often found in “light” fiction. Here is a sample from “The Man’s Wife” by Ivy Kellerman Reed, which appeared in a recent issue of “Snappy Stories.”

“ ‘For Heaven’s sake, Thelma dear, don’t cry in this office! Someone might come in any minute!’

" "‘But you have disappointed me!’ Thelma Bronson sobbed reproachfully to the agitated principal. “I thought our friendship was to be just— just intellectual companionship ! Not any thing else—now!’ ”

Mr. Leslie W. Quirk says: “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.” He also says: “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 labelling your characters, in imitation of a theater programme. You can not do it by presenting familiar and worn out situations.” He advises to plunge the reader into the action of the story with the first sentence; to leave descriptions until you have interested him, and to sift them in adroitly so that there will be no lagging of movement.

Different stories require different methods of treatment, and we must seek for the method which will best convey the impression we desire to make, but unity of impression cannot be obtained unless we have a suitable introduction.

To sum up in conclusion. Openings of setting, character delineation, and incident are the most common and the most important. The chief advantages of the first two methods are to place before the reader immediately the person to be exploited and the environment of that person. The reader will then be able to read all the details between the lines. The chief advantages of the opening of incident are that it launches the reader into the story without any preliminary flourishes. As in the Chinook vocabulary every word must tell, and no time be lost, so that in these three and all other methods of opening, the story may be a short story—exploit a single chief character, a predominating incident, and be compressed in space as small as possible.