Juggling Balls: An Exercise for Opening a Short Story

For whatever reason, I’m thinking this morning about the openings of short stories and what we expect of them. Rust Hills, in his excellent book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, says the end of a good story is always present in its beginning. The final move of a story is only possible because of everything set in motion in the opening.

For that reason, I’m interested in stories that open with some degree of forward momentum. That momentum can come on a plot level from a sense of mystery or a problem to be solved, but it can also come more quietly, but just as urgently, from a character struggling with something. Maybe it’s something about the self, or maybe it’s something about a certain situation or another character in the story. Whatever it is, there’s something to be resolved and the story from its opening words, is moving toward that resolution, or else toward the lack of a resolution and all that it will mean to the characters involved. No matter how quiet the opening a story may be, there’s tension and urgency because stories are about characters moving through pivotal moments of their lives.

So here’s an exercise for opening a short story.

1. Open a story with a line something like this: “I was cutting wheat when Burton Quick came to tell me (fill in the rest of the line however you’d like.)”

Something in this first line signals that the story is opening in the midst of something that will make this day unlike any others in our narrator’s life.

2. Write a second line something like this: “At the house, my wife was (fill in the rest of the line however you’d like.)”

Often one storyline isn’t enough. Two elements of the plot need to vibrate against each other to create a resonance. I assume from our opening two lines that whatever Burton Quick has come to say will bear upon whatever is at issue for the narrator and his wife.

3. Write a third line that contains the narrator’s initial response to whatever his wife is doing at the house. Something like this: “I’d told her (fill in the line however you’d like), but she wouldn’t listen, so I‘d decided to (again, fill this in however you’d like.)”

We now have three things to pay attention to in the story: (1) whatever it is that Burton Quick has come to tell the narrator, (2) whatever it is that the wife is doing in spite of her husband’s protestation, (3) whatever the narrator thinks he’s decided to do. Three balls up in the air within three sentences. Quite enough to arouse our curiosity, to make us keep writing to see where things might go.

THE BONUS ROUND: Write a few lines that you imagine might serve as a closing move. You’re free to create whatever you’d like, but I’ll offer up a few lines as an example. “That’s when my wife surprised me by (fill it in). It was like nothing I’d ever seen. Burton Quick’s story seemed like (fill it in). I felt myself moving toward something and I (fill it in).”

The final move of the story, of course, may change as you write the draft, but at least writing one now will give you some sense of the sort of ending that you’ve made possible with your beginning. Feel free to modify this exercise however you’d like. Keep doing the good work.


  1. Bren McClain on July 7, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    So useful, Lee — thanks! Wondering how this applies to a novel?????

  2. Auburn on July 7, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Yes, please. Would this exercise apply well to a novel?

Leave a Comment