The crucial test of the short story is the manner in which it begins. Of three-fourths of the MSS. submitted to him the editor seldom reads more than the first page, for he has learned by experience that if the story lacks interest there, it will in all probability be lacking throughout. Therefore it behooves you to make the beginning as attractive and correct as possible.
The beginning of a good short story will seldom comprise more than two or three paragraphs, and often it can be compressed into one. If it cannot get to the story proper in that space there is something radically wrong—probably in the plot; for the conventional brevity of the short story requires particular conciseness in the introduction.
In every story there are certain foundation facts that must be understood by the reader at the outset if he would follow the narrative easily. These basic truths differ greatly in different stories, so that it is difficult to give a complete list; but they are usually such details as the time and scene of the story, the names, descriptions, characteristics, and relationships of the different characters, and the relation of events prior to the story that may influence its development. You must make sure that the details which you select are fundamental and that they do have a definite influence which requires some knowledge of them. Any or all of these facts, however, may be introduced later in the narrative when their need appears; or they may be left in abeyance to enhance the element of suspense or mystery.
But because they are necessary these facts need not be listed and ticketed like the dramatis personae of a play bill. They should be introduced so deftly that the reader will comprehend them involuntarily; they must seem an intrinsic part of the warp and woof of the narrative. In themselves they are commonplaces, tolerated only because they are necessary; and if they cannot be made interesting they can at least be made unobtrusive. To begin a story thus is to make a false start that may prove fatal:
This happy family consisted of six; a father, mother, two sons, and two daughters. Clara, the eldest, had completed a course at college, and during the past few months had been completing one in cooking, guided and instructed by her mother. Bessie, the youngest, was five years old. She sat rocking Amanda, her new doll, and was asking her all manner of questions. John and Henry, aged respectively ten and fourteen years, were helping their father.
Grandma and grandpa were expected to dinner; also Mr. Draco, or "Harry," as every one called him. He was a friend of the family's, and Clara's lover.
Note how Hawthorne handles a very similar family group in the initial paragraph of "The Ambitious Guest." He inserts his details without apparent effort; and yet he makes the persons individual and distinct. He does not say:
This family was happy, and comprised father, mother, grandmother, daughter of seventeen, and younger children.
The faces of the father and mother had a sober gladness; the children laughed. The eldest daughter was the image of Happiness at seventeen, and the aged grandmother, who was knitting in the warmest place, was the image of Happiness grown old.
Sometimes, in stories which consist largely of conversation, as so many of our modern stories do, the author never directly states the situation to the reader: it is made sufficiently plain either directly in the conversation itself, or indirectly in the necessary comments and descriptions. Or it may be presented as a retrospect indulged in by one of the characters. On the stage this takes the form of a soliloquy; but since few men in their right minds really think aloud, in the short story it is better for the author to imagine such thoughts running through the mind of the character, and to reproduce them as indirect discourse. We are so used to consider the author as omniscient that we experience no surprise or incredulity at such mind-reading. Such stories approach very nearly to the pure Dramatic Form. These are at once the most natural and the most artistic methods of introducing essential facts, and they are methods which can be advantageously employed to some extent in almost any story. With this method in mind read carefully any one of Hope's "Dolly Dialogue" stories and note how cleverly the facts are presented through the words and actions of the characters.
In the novel essential details are frequently held in suspense for some time, in order that the opening pages may be made attractive by the introduction of smart conversation or rapid action. A similar method is often followed in the short story, and it cannot be condemned offhand, for if used skillfully it is a clever and legitimate device for immediately fixing the reader's attention; but it holds danger for the uninitiated, for the amateur is liable to postpone the introduction of the details until the story is hopelessly obscure, or until he is reduced to dragging in those essential facts in the baldest manner. Even if he is otherwise successful, he runs the risk of destroying the proportion of his story by practically beginning it in the middle and endeavoring to go both ways at once. The conventions of the short story allow of little space for the retrospection necessary to such an introduction; and when the writer begins to say, "But first let me explain how all this came about," the reader begins to yawn, and the charm of the opening sentences is forgotten in the dreariness of the ensuing explanations. This method is of the modern school of short story writers, but Hawthorne, in "The Prophetic Pictures," gives us an excellent example of how it may be used to advantage; and the following well illustrates the absurd lengths to which it may be carried, and the desperate means to which the writer must then resort to patch up the broken thread of the narrative:
Joseph Johnson was a young man whose name appeared in the list of the dead heroes who had fallen at Santiago.
When Mamie Williams read the startling fact, her eyes filled with tears, as past history was unfolding itself in her mind, presenting one event after another. She thought about their early love, how she had clasped his hand and how his lips lingered long upon hers when last they parted before he started to the cruel war.
With a wounded heart and tear-stained eyes, she sank into a chair, and with her hands over her face, many reflections of the past chased each other through her mind.
She tried to console herself and smooth out the wrinkles in her troubled mind with the thought that God knows and does all things well. She was an intelligent girl, and reasoned farther with herself, "As all hope for Joseph has fled, I ought to marry some one else, and make most of what I have. There is Thomas Malloy, who loves me almost as well; however, my affection for him is not very great, but I think I shall unite my life with his, and do my best to make myself and the world around me happy."
Her mind, moved by an emotion of a noble heart, caused her to make the last remark.
Soon they were married, but there was no happiness in life for her; for the one she lived for was gone, and had carried off her affection with him.
Returning to the war we find that Joseph was not killed in the battle but was taken prisoner by the enemy.
There is a questionable sort of beginning, which might be called dilatory, that consists in carrying the literary aspect of the essential facts to the extreme, and making them occupy a deal more valuable space than is rightly theirs. This is generally the method of a past school of short story writers, or of the writers of to-day who are not yet well versed in the technique of their art. Of this class Washington Irving is a great example. In "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" he devotes to the introduction almost as much space as a writer to-day would give to the whole tale. He is so skillful in gently urging the narrative along, while he introduces new essentials and interpolates literary but non-essential matter, that in neither story can one exactly fix the bounds of the beginning; but in each a modern story teller would combine the first ten paragraphs into one introductory paragraph. I do not mean to say that this is a fault in Irving: if it is a fault at all it belongs to his time; then, too, these tales were supposed to be written by the garrulous antiquarian, Diedrich Knickerbocker; but their discursive style is not in vogue to-day, and is therefore to be avoided.
As an awful example of the extent to which this dilly-dallying may be carried, let me introduce the following:
The train rolled onward with a speed of twenty-five miles an hour, the great iron engine puffing and screeching as if its very sides would burst. In the rear car of the six coaches which seemed to follow the monstrous iron horse with dizzy speed, sat an aged man holding a pretty child of four summers, who was fast asleep. The grandfather gazed on the sleeping face and deeply sighed. His thoughts returned to the long ago when his only child was the same age as the little one he held so fondly clasped in his dear old arms. He thought how years ago he had held his own darling thus; how happy and bright his home had been in those sweet bygone days. He recalled how she had been reared in a home of plenty, how she had everything which constitutes the happiness of a young girl.
The time was a warm summer evening in August, the place one of those quiet little towns west of the great Mississippi, and the scene opens in a neat little parlor where a number of young folks had gathered to tender a fitting reception to a newly married couple. A few days previous a stranger had arrived in the town to visit some former friends; these friends attended the reception and were accompanied by their guest. The stranger was formally introduced to the crowd of merry-makers as Elmer Charleston. He was a tall, splendidly formed, intelligent looking young man. Among the young women present was one Jennie Shelby, who was but little more than twenty; she was a blonde, of graceful figure, with a peculiarly animated expression of countenance. Her complexion was beautiful, her dimples deep and mischievous, her large blue eyes full of latent fire, and her features would pass muster among sculptors. Suitors had she by the score. At last she had met her fate. Elmer Charleston accepted a position in the town and at once began to court the only daughter of Squire Shelby.
It seems almost incredible that any writer, however inexperienced, should begin his narrative in this fashion. The introductory paragraph is of course entirely unnecessary—even the author had some inkling of that fact, for he takes pains to specify when "the story" proper actually begins; but even after he is supposed to be in the midst of his narration, he stops to give us wholly gratuitous information concerning the time of day, the state of the weather, and the occasion when Elmer Charleston first met Jennie Shelby—all of which was apparently introduced for the purpose of discouraging further interest: at least, that is what it certainly accomplishes.
The short story has no space for the "glittering generalities" with which young writers delight to preface their work. A tale which requires a page or even a paragraph to elucidate its relation to life and things in general is seldom worth the perusal, much less the writing. These introductory remarks are usually in the nature of a moral, or a bit of philosophizing; but if the story has any point it will be evident in the narrative itself, and no preliminary explanation will atone for later neglect to make it of human interest. There is no good reason, unless it be the perversity of human nature, why you should begin a story by making trite remarks about things in general, as this writer did:
Love is a very small word, but the feeling that it expresses bears the richest and choicest fruit of any vine that curls its clinging tendrils around the human heart. And a bosom without it is a bosom without warmth; a life without it is like a honeysuckle without its nectar; a heart that has never felt its sweet emotions is like a rosebud that has never unfolded. But in some people it remains latent for a number of years, like an apple which remains green and hard for a time, but suddenly ripens into softness, so when love flashes into the human breast, the once hard heart is changed into mellowness.
Mary Green was just such a character as the one last described, etc.
It would be wrong, however, to say that the prefatory introduction is the sign of a poor story, for many good writers produce such stories, and many critical editors accept and publish them. A large majority of Poe's tales begins so; yet in nearly every case the beginning could have been cut and the story improved. Kipling, too, has a liking for this method of beginning; usually he states his abstract idea, as a preacher announces his text, and then proceeds to make the practical application. With these masters the transition from the general to the specific is usually easy and gradual, but in the following example from Kipling's "On the Strength of a Likeness" the line of demarcation is well defined:
Next to a requited attachment, one of the most convenient things that a young man can carry about with him at the beginning of his career is an unrequited attachment. It makes him feel important and business-like, and blasé, and cynical; and whenever he has a touch of liver, or suffers from want of exercise, he can mourn over his lost love, and be very happy in a tender, twilight fashion.
Hannasyde's affair of the heart had been a godsend to him. It was four years old, etc.
There is no real abruptness here, and the author's observations are apt and sound; but the fact remains that they are not essential and so a strict observance of conventions requires their elimination.
"The background of a story should always be the last thing to be chosen, but it is the first thing to consider when one comes to actual writing out. A story is much like a painting.... In story writing it appears to be simple portraits that need least background." Scenes may play an important part in a story by influencing the actors or by offering a contrast to the events; in such cases they must be made specific, but rather after the broad free manner of the impressionist. The employment of the contrast or harmony of man and nature is one of the oldest devices of story telling, but also one of the most artistic and effective. It is not an artificial device, though it occasionally appears so from its misuse: it is a fact that all of us must have experienced in some degree, for we are all, though often unconsciously, influenced by the weather or by our environments; and though our emotions may be so intense as to counteract that influence, we are sufficiently self-centered to think it strange that all nature should not be in harmony with us.
You should, however, take care that the scene is important before you attempt to present it. Unless it does influence the action of the story or is necessary for the understanding of what is to come it has no place in the narrative, no matter how great may be its beauties or how artistic your description of them. Above all things, never clutter your story with commonplaces and details which would serve to picture any one of a hundred different places. "When a tale begins, 'The golden orb of day was slowly sinking among the hills, shedding an effulgent glory over the distant landscape,' the discerning reader, whether official or volunteer, is apt to pause right there. He knows exactly what happens when the orb of day finds it time to disappear, and he does not care for your fine language unless it conveys a fact or an idea worth noting."
The best method of procedure is to suggest the scene, as you do the character, by the few specific features which distinguish it from other similar scenes, and to permit the reader's imagination to fill in the details. Hawthorne gives a very distinct idea of the setting of "The Ambitious Guest;" and yet, from his description alone, no two persons would draw the same picture. It suffices that they would all possess the essential elements of loneliness, bleakness and haunting terror. At the same time he effects a sharp contrast between the wildness and discomforts of the night and the peace and cheer of the tavern.
In locating the story it is absurdly shiftless to designate the place by a dash or a single letter, or a combination of the two. One of your first objects is to make your story vivid, and you will not further that end by the use of impossible or indefinite substitutes for names. If you are relating a true story and desire to disguise it, adopt or invent some appellation different enough to avoid detection; but never be so foolish as to say:
The story I am about to relate occurred to my friend X., in the little village of Z——, during the latter part of the year 18—.
It would be just as sensible to go through the rest of the story and substitute blanks or hieroglyphics for the important words. Specificness in minor details is a great aid to vividness, and you cannot afford to miss that desirable quality through sheer laziness.
The safest way to begin a story is to begin at the beginning, state the necessary facts as succinctly as possible, and lead the reader into the quick of the action before he has had time to become weary. For it must be remembered that the object of the short story is always to amuse, and that even in the introductory paragraphs the reader must be interested. If he is not he will very likely cast the story aside as dry and dull; if he does read it through he will be prejudiced at the outset, so that the result will be about the same.
In "The Ambitious Guest" the introduction occupies ¶ 1-4, or one-eleventh of the entire story, measured by paragraphs. In that space Hawthorne locates the scene, introduces and individualizes the characters, determines the atmosphere of the tale, and recounts the necessary preliminaries; and all this he does in the easiest way, while skillfully leading up to the story proper. A writer of to-day would probably condense these four paragraphs into one, without neglecting any essentials; but he would hardly attain the literary finish of Hawthorne's work.
To prove further that the beginning of a story does influence its success, I would ask you to consider the following, which is typical of the style of introduction most affected by the novice:
It was a bright, crisp, twilight evening, and two young girls sat together in a richly furnished parlor of a splendid country house.
One, tall and slender, with a richly moulded figure; handsome brunette features, and raven tresses—Edith Laingsford, the daughter of the house; the other, a girl of medium height, with a figure perfectly rounded, and a fair Grecian face.
Her eyes were of a soft gray, and her hair a waving chestnut. She was Marion Leland, a dependent cousin of Miss Laingsford's.
Now, frankly, do you care to read further? Surely there is nothing in the glimpse of the plot here presented that encourages you to hope that the tale may improve upon further perusal. From these three paragraphs you can construct the whole story: you know that the "dependent cousin" and the girl with the "handsome brunette features" will be rivals for the affections of some "nice young man" of corresponding conventionality, and that the poor relation will finally win him—chiefly because it always happens so in stories and seldom in real life. And you know from these specimen paragraphs that there will be nothing in the handling of this poor old hackneyed plot that will repay its perusal. Of course there is always a chance that you may be mistaken in your surmises; but the chance is too slight, and you cast the story aside with a yawn, even as the editor would do. See to it, then, that your own stories do not deserve like treatment.
 "How to Write Fiction." Published anonymously by Bellaires & Co., London. Part I, Chapter VII.
 "Magazine Fiction and How Not to Write It," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Nov., '94.
Excerpted From Short Story Writing, by Charles Raymond Barrett