The opening paragraph of your story should grab the reader’s attention by activating their curiosity about your character and the situation they find themselves in. This is where you introduce the main character and the reader wonders: who is this character? How the hell did they end up in this situation? How will they get out? You can also use a mystery or an intriguing piece of dialogue to hook the reader and get things going.
A CHARACTER TO ROOT
Your main character should be someone who really wants something; a clear goal. They might want to save someone, fulfill their dreams, or triumph against a formidable adversary, and the best way to get the reader to root for them is to put obstacles in their way. How a character handles challenges (whether they succeed or not) is what motivates us to take them on. A character with whom the reader can identify and sympathize is an intriguing character.
TENSION AND CONFLICT
A captivating story will see your character facing a difficult decision or dilemma that must be resolved in order to fulfill their desire. Tension and conflict (external threats and challenges, and internal conflicts within your characters themselves) are essential to a good short story.
ENGAGE MULTIPLE SENSES
There’s no need to limit the reading experience to just what your character sees. Use all the senses in your descriptions, such as sounds, tastes, smells, and textures, to make the story more vivid and visceral. This allows the reader to feel immersed in the scene and setting, experiencing the story with your characters.
What a character says and how they talk says a lot about their motivations and personality, and helps make a story real and believable. To familiarize yourself with the style of dialogue used in short stories, try to read as much as you can, paying particular attention to how the characters speak. You will notice that the dialogue in a short story can be very different from the dialogue in the real world. It’s clean, stripped of most of the fluff that populates day-to-day dialogue, and focused on revealing aspects of a character’s personality, helping to fill us in on the backstory and move the story forward.
This article was originally published in The Penguin Posta book magazine for book lovers from Penguin Random House South Africa.