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introduction to the fine art of fiction

This is a beginning story course. In it, we’ll show you elements of story such as character, setting, plot, dialogue and conflict. We’ll learn about beginnings and endings, the difference between showing and telling, and story climaxes. We’ll discuss whether or not you should outline or write free-form.

There’s a lot more to the fine art of fiction than this, of course. You’ve probably read stories more complex, daring, and experimental than the ones we’ll be writing. You’d probably like to write those kinds of stories. We would like you to be able to write those kinds of stories, too. Patience. You will — later. Once you learn how to use your tools you can do anything. For now, we’re going to keep it simple.

You will learn how to write a satisfying, well-crafted short story. Just because you’ve eaten apple spice cake doesn’t mean you can make one. Just because you’ve listened to U2 or Coldplay doesn’t mean you know how to play their music. And if you want to sound like the Edge or John Mayer, the first thing you need to learn is, “this is a C chord. Put this finger here, put that finger there…”

There’s a reason a carpenter has to be able to build a box before anyone with any sense will let him frame a house. But the carpenter does not spend his career building boxes.

Build the box. Finger the chords. Learn how to follow a recipe. Then go out and build your dream house, play your concerto, and whip up your culinary marvel. Writing is a craft like carpentry, music, or cooking. Master the craft, learn how to use the tools, and then you’ll be free to write anything you like. 

This is not an advanced writing seminar experimenting with postmodernist metafiction (No, you’re not supposed to know what that is); it’s not a milk and brownies Reader’s Club where we all smile and agree how wonderful everyone’s story is; it’s a class on how to write a good story, how to drive a nail without banging your thumb, how to strum a G chord and how to not burn the muffins.

What we’re saying is – learn the rules first, then go out and break every one of them if you want to — great writers do it all the time. But they learned the rules of writing short stories first. They didn’t build simple boxes, finger simple chords or bake simple cakes, they wrote simple stories. We’ll teach you to do that. After that, it’s all up to you.Then you can go wild.

Story Questions: Why Should I Read This?

Think of a story you really liked.  When did you start liking it?  Probably at the beginning, right? A general rule is: Stories should hook readers from the first sentence

Which of the following opening lines says, “Hey, spend twenty minutes with me?”

  • On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.[1]

  • The boy sitting opposite him was his enemy.[2]

I’d give the first one the boot and give the second one a try. How about:

  • Mick saw Chelsea in the shop wearing a red blouse.

  • “This was her last chance,” Mick muttered as he spotted Chelsea in the book shop, wearing that red blouse he hated.

Think of ten things you could do with twenty free minutes. Did you include, read a boring story I don’t care about? Of course not. In opening line C, a guy sees a girl in a shop. She’s wearing a red blouse. So what? Who cares? But in sentence — uh-oh, Mick’s mad. “Last chance” doesn’t sound so good. Is he going to cause a scene in the shop? What’s the big deal about the red blouse? Why does it irritate Mick so much?

These questions are story questions. Good opening sentences raise a whole bunch of them. Story questions cause readers to care about the story, to want to know what happens, to have the questions answered. A writer is part salesman. You have to sell the reader on your story, convince him it’s worth his time.

See, the writer might know how interesting the story gets later on, but the reader doesn’t. The reader simply knows that stories that start out dull generally stay dull, and stories that start out interesting are more likely to stay interesting. If the opening tastes like dishwater she won’t assume the end will sparkle like Champagne. 

Tip:  You don’t need to start writing with a zingy first line. Sometimes it’s the hardest part to get right. It’s okay to use a workmanlike first line to get the story going:

That morning, Billy woke up early to go fishing with Emma June.

But come right back and punch it up:

That was the last day Billy ever saw his boat, Emma June, — or Emma June herself.

Want examples? Here are three great opening lines:

  • The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.[3] What kind of insult? Must be pretty bad. What kind of revenge? Must be worse. Should be interesting.

  • It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you.[4] Everyone likes reading about how somebody else was fooled, how does it happen to this guy?

  • Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unsettling dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.[5]Huh? What’s going on?

 And three not-so-great opening lines:

  • Fifth Avenue was shining in the sun when they left the Brevoort and started walking toward Washington Square.[6]Whatever. Wake me when it’s over.

  • Over the great door of an old, old church which stood in a quiet town of a faraway land there was carved in stone the figure of a large griffin.[7] Do tell (yawn).

  • Down below there was only a vast white undulating sea of cloud.[8] Raises no story questions; there’s little to keep me interested.

Now here’s the kicker: All three of those boring openings lead off good stories by good writers. Roald Dahl, who wrote the last one above, normally writes openers with the best of them. (When your name sells stories like Roald Dahl’s does, you can slack off on opening lines too.) 

Don’t write “This morning I got up and had breakfast, and petted my kitty, and was excited because I was going to go to Disneyland and ride all the cool rides,” and expect me to read the next sentence. (Let me tell you about my day and see how interesting you think it is.) If you’re going to tell me about your day, you better make sure it starts out with something like, “As walked into class, I suddenly wondered if Cecilia had told Tony “Chainsaw Killer” D’Amato I was the guy who filled his locker with shaving cream.”

I think the point is clear. The first sentence matters. Hook your reader by giving him questions. Make him curious and keep him reading.


[1] “Here Is New York,” E.B. White

[2] “The Last Spin,” Evan Hunter

[3] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado”

[4] O. Henry, “The Ransom of Red Chief”

[5] Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis

[6] Irwin Shaw, “The Girls In their Summer Dresses”

[7] Frank Stockton, “The Griffin and the Minor Canon”

[8] Roald Dahl, “Beware of the Dog”