In This Moment

One of the best criticisms I’ve ever received in a rejection letter was that my story began in the wrong place. Short stories do not have the luxury of easing into a story the way novels do. I remember once reading some writing advice in which the advisor was being an asshole and he said “how to begin a story? Start at the beginning and continue on till the end.” I’m sure he thought he was being very clever.

Cleverness has a place, and stupid people put it everywhere.

Anyway, the problem with many improperly timed short stories (including my own) is that the action has already happened. Even years ago, and the story is telling it from far in the future. This can work, but it always begs the question at the outside of the story “why is it being told now?” I’m not talking about the tenses. Tenses are more… decorative. They frame the story, make you feel certain ways. They are mood lighting. The closeness of the action to the date of your story determines how important that action is. Time heals, and it blurs. If you begin your story with the actions far in the past, they hold little interest for your reader in the present.

I’ve encountered many of my own stories in which the problems of the narrative are solved by bringing in the actions close, to a single focal point, and beginning it there. I’m not saying every story needs to start with a plane crash while the main character delivers a baby in the cockpit… actually I think I may have just wrote the opening to Fast&Furious 7 (but I’ll still watch Vin Diesel in anything.) In the story I’m working on now, a war of attrition begins a year and a half before the story begins, and a mother dies only six months after that, but all of that culminates at the start of the story when the two people these actions most affect finally meet on earth. Before, when I couldn’t figure out why I was having problems, the war was some nebulous threat looming out in the future (little impact on the story), and the mother hadn’t been alive for several years (giving all the characters in action time to get used to the idea of an important person not being around, and again, toning down the impact.)

So here’s my advice, sans clever: If the story isn’t working, think about the important Moments in the story. Where are they in relation to the time frame of the short story? Is there a way to bring them closer, make them realer, get away from the blurriness of time? And once you’ve done that, begin. And carry it out until the end.