By Hook or By Crook

Pardon the title. I couldn’t resist this phrase, first recorded in Middle English in 1380, the meaning to do anything necessary to achieve a goal. Translating the idea into writing for a short story competition with the hope of a prize, here I concentrate on how you can hook our initial readers (who may have a batch of 50 stories to read in their inbox). Let’s have a look at ‘Dead Dog’ the 2022 Bath Short Story Award first prize winner, by Kate 0’Grady

The title, ‘Dead Dog’, although simple starts off the intrigue. Now read the first sentence, which repeats this fact, and the rest of the paragraph:

It is late morning and the dog is dead. He is a wire-haired fox terrier named Bertie and he is lying on the red Kandahar rug in the living room of a tastfully furnished five-bedroomed house in Holland Park, with his two front legs lightly bent, as though in mid-walk. Flora stands at the edge of the rug, staring at the dead dog and nervously pulling at her lower lip with her thumnb and forefinger. She has played no part in Bertie’s demise. He was an elderly dog with a long list of ailments one of which took him out while she slept soundly in a guest bedroom at the top of the house.Flora is Bertie’s minder, hired less than twenty-four hours ago to look after him while his owners take a ten day autumn break to the Maldives. Finding a dead dog, one whose well being she has been entrusted with, is the second-worst thing that has ever happened to Flora

Everything here invites the reader to continue. The situation is comically horrible. The dog-minder (who sounds young) has been given a lot of responsbility by rich owners she scarcely knows as she was only hired twenty four hours previously. What will she do? And what is the first-worse thing that has heppened to Flora? The writer has also established a voice and a tone – cf. “an elderly dog with a long list of ailments, one of which took him out” (my italics).

The second prize story from the 2022 Award by Emily Devane starts with a less dramatic intrigue which invites the reader to find out more. The title, ‘The Ghosts That Dance Between Us’ immediately leads into the mystery. The ‘us’ is a father a daughter and a mother, all with secrets.

Tonight, as Papa tucks me in – so tight I can barely move – he says, Essie, let me tell you a story.’
‘The one about Mama?’
He reaches for the curtains.”How did you guess?’
My father stands there for a moment, watching the snowflakes. They are the kind that float as they fall, soft as powder. I stay under the covers hoping he hasn’t noticed the figurine that sits on my windowsill, tucked behind the curtain’s folds. I found her beneath the tangled roots of the old beech. Her pale skin was stained with moss and she wore a deep purplish-blue cloak. Now she stands as tall as my pointing finger, peeping out at the roads and the woods beyond.
Papa turns back to me without seeing the tiny, cloaked doll. His eyes crinkle at the edges. ‘It was just like this the night your mama arrived.’ he said.

This is a very atmospheric opening, its tone that of a folk tale. We learn there is a story, that is for some reason, often told by the father, about the mother turning up in the middle of another snow storm. But there is something new. The rather creepy figurine that the daughter has found and hidden from her father. And why does the father want to tuck his daughter in so tightly? Does he just want to keep her safe and secure?

You can buy the 2022 anthology from Ad Hoc Fiction or Amazon worldwide in paperback and read what happens in these two stories. And there are many more in the book with great openings.

For the next couple of weeks we are giving you some prompts to get a new story going. You have six full weeks until our deadline on April 24th. So forgetting all about Ian McKewn’s novel Enduring Love, which has a famous beginning about a hot air balloon, think what intrigues you about the image reproduced above. Who lives in the little thatched toll house? Who has arrived by balloon or landed by accident? How can you make your story take off and keep going following some opening intrigue and provide a satisfactory conclusion?

And if you want to pop into BSSA team member, Alison Woodhouse’s two hour evening workshop on point of view in short stories tomorrow, Tuesday 7th March, for the Flash Cabin, she is also looking at story beginnings.

Post by BSSA team member, Jude Higgins, March 6th, 2023