“Do you ever read my blog?” I say, topping up our glasses with the new bottle of white wine I’ve just bought here in the Mr Morris Wine Bar. It’s around ten o’clock on a Wednesday evening and Ben has been talking, for most of the first bottle, about how badly his book shop is doing. It’s a familiar theme and one I sympathise with, even if I do buy most of my books from Amazon.

“Yes, of course I do,” he says, “along with the other hundred thousand writers’ blogs that clog up the ether with rather obvious remarks made in a surprisingly knowing tone.”

I feel this sarcastic remark may off-set my Amazon treachery somewhat.

“Last time, I wrote about openings to stories,” I say.

“I know. You talked about how important it is to get the tone right with an opening.”

“I thought you didn’t read it.”

“I don’t have to, because you always talk about it, so I get the gist.”

“Oh. So can I gist you with what comes after the opening?”

“You can try but that’s probably the most predictable bit.”


“Take self-help books,” he says. “I sell a lot of them; well I did before everyone decided to sacrifice their souls to a faceless international giant that doesn’t care about anything but feeding its endless fiscal appetite. Anyway, I’m pretty good at advising my customers which book is the one they most need.”

“You must read a lot of them, then.”

“No, that’s the point: the most I ever read is the introduction to a self-helper. That always sets out everything that’s going to appear in the rest of the book, nicely summarised.”

“So, why would anyone read the whole book?”

He shrugs. “I guess some people need the message repeated in a hundred different ways until they get the point.”

“Okay, but fiction is different to that,” I say.

“Well, it should be but a lot of it is just as predictable.”

As I’m thinking about this, he really goes for the narrative jugular.

“It’s the same with relationships. You meet a girl; it’s an exciting new beginning; could go anywhere, be anything. But in fact, anyone watching from the outside can easily predict that in no time at all the two of you will be watching the One Show every night, drinking a bottle of wine too many, having perfunctory sex a couple of times a month and basically waiting for death.”

“Jesus, do you have a self-help book that deals with that?” I say.

He smiles, drinks more wine.

“You don’t deal with it by pretending it’s not an inevitable factor of starting anything,” he says. “So, with a story, you set up a character in a situation with a problem then you have to tell the reader more about the specific nature of the problem, and about the world it’s taking place in. No way of avoiding it. Otherwise all you have is one of those dickhead thriller stories that rocket on from one drastic scene to another till you get to the end and realise you don’t give a damn about any of the characters involved.”

“So,” I say, “the trick is to do the predictable in an interesting way. That’s the ‘what follows’ bit.”

“Yes, and it’s what sorts out the writer men from the writer boys. The boys can set up a dramatic opening but what they can’t do is carry the reader through the exposition bits that need to follow. Instead, they try to skip through it quick and get to the next exciting part. Men writers, however, use the what follows bit to make you care about the characters.”

“And to do that, they have to care about the characters themselves.”

“I think they have to like the characters, too, whatever their function in the story, even the bad guys.”

I don’t have any time for royalty, I think, but I like the royal characters I write about sometimes.

This is what follows for Princess Gertrude in ‘[Dragon]’:

She searched his green eyes.

“I saw you missing the lines,” he said.

She climbed down and went to the balustrade, leaning far out into the night so he would tell her not to, but he didn’t.

“It’s bad luck to step on them,” she said. “And I’m going to need lots of luck tonight, because you won’t tell me anything about the dragon.”

She studied the big, hissing fountains and their wide, rippling pools below, and the busy little dots of the servants between them. As always, she wished she could fly down and surprise them by stepping on their heads very fast, keeping her balance, like sprinting over the rocks by the sea.

A strong gust of jasmine smothered her thoughts; the cicadas scratched in a tingly way at her ears, and suddenly she wanted to eat lots of cake. But she couldn’t eat anything tonight, they’d told her; tradition forbade it.

She frowned, realising her father hadn’t spoken, even though she still leaned out dangerously and for all he knew, could be dribbling spit on to the people below.

She turned to see him a few paces away, noticing for once the perfectly pressed navy tunic and cloak, the shiny polished black boots, and the thin gold crown in his black and grey hair, winking in the moon’s peach glow.

She became aware of the sagging trousers and loose cotton shirt she’d worn for the last six days straight, and the muddy boots she wouldn’t let the maids touch. She pulled matted red hair away from her face and said, “I suppose you want the servant women to scrub me with lime and pile up my hair like a big red bum on top of my head, and put me in a white dress with a girdle under it that will make me spew up everywhere.”

“Gertie, you know it’s–“

“Ah! Of course–that’s why I can’t eat tonight: so there’s nothing for my girdle to squeeze out.”

He looked away from her, at the moon or the spaces between the stars, and at last she felt the fear they’d said would only be natural.


He turned away, walked back into her room. She followed, not bothering to miss the lines this time. He sat on her favourite oak trunk, next to her bed, gently moving aside her woollen owl and fox to make room.

She sat on the edge of her bed and waited while he traced a wooden leaf with his finger.

“You’ll be the first princess in over a hundred years,” he said, “and, after I’m gone, the first queen since Marlianne.”

“I know that, Daddy. But I don’t want to be queen.”

He didn’t seem to hear. “When I was at my turning age like you, I didn’t need to meet the dragon to become a prince.” He looked up, his smile like a forgotten promise. “But girls have to meet the dragon before they can become a princess.”

“I don’t believe in the dragon,” she said. “No one’s ever seen it.”

“It lives forever, Gertie. It came a hundred years ago and it will come again tonight.”

He’d caught her in his arms so many times, when she’d fallen out of trees or slipped off the saddle, and often he’d brushed aside the servants to wipe the blood and dirt from her knees himself. But he wouldn’t be there tonight.

“Mother told me about it once,” she said, “when I was very young. She said Queen Marlianne was a just and respected ruler of Arcanadia.”

She pictured her mother’s flowing red hair and always occupied green eyes–before the sickness had sucked all the person out of her. She met her father’s gaze and knew he saw the same picture.

“But,” she went on, not wanting to, “no one knows what happened to Marlianne when she met the dragon. Because all the stupid books say you have to meet it alone.”

He said nothing, stricken at last.

“She lived a long life,” Gertie said, “but without a husband or children.”

The King of Arcanadia stood and went to his daughter; he took her in his arms and squeezed so tightly it hurt but she said nothing.

“There’s an awful lot of awful written shit in the world, calling itself art,” says Ben as we’re nearing the end of the second bottle and wondering if we can or should fit in another before Mr Morris decides to call it a night. “Because, I reckon, a lot of people want to be a writer than be a writer.”

“But why would anyone want to read shit?” I say.

He shakes his head at this, knowing I know the answer.

“For the same reason,” he says, “they can’t stop their relationships falling into the trap of being highly predictable and not in an interesting way.”

I stand, having decided that any more wine is going to mean the downhill walk from here to home is in danger of turning into a downhill arms-whirling sprint, ending abruptly and painfully in Nige’s hedge.

“What comes after the bit that comes after?” I say.

He stands and we walk out into the Brockley night, full of coloured splashes of light from the fried chicken takeaway and the rather blaring bus shelter.

“Either,” he says, “the reader is comatose with predictability or he’s joined hands with the author and they’re entering a temporary but highly fulfilling civic relationship that only a truly satisfying end to a story can better.”

I think of saying something but don’t because I reckon he’s probably right.


A lot has been said about the importance of opening lines. How they have to grab the reader from the first word. How it’s like a good chat up line. On the other hand . . .

Some research was once done into chat up lines that actually work. Perhaps not surprisingly, “Do you come here often?”, “Are they missing an angel in heaven?”, “My place or yours?” didn’t have a lot of success outside of the chancer’s head. However, the kind of line that had the most effect was something like, “Hi, my name’s Zak. I hope you don’t mind me talking to you. I’m a bit nervous but I just had to come over and say hello . . . “

Okay, I’m not suggesting that would make a good opening line to a story but the point is that snappy one-liners tend to lack the honest conviction of the bumbling Romeo who’s summoned all his courage to make a bold statement to a total stranger about how he actually feels. I do believe the opening has to be honest to the intent of the story. Nothing wrong with capturing the reader’s attention but don’t do it with gimmicks and wise-cracks (that probably aren’t anyway); do it with the mood and tone of the story.

It might be best to try explain this with actual examples. First, here is the opening to my story, ‘Big Dave’s in Love’ (which won the New Scientist/Arc SF short fiction award in 2012):

I skip down the street like I got sherbet up me backside. I sweep me arms wide and sing to the pigeons and the cats and the bespectacled mice what study form under the bookie’s shop floor.

“What’s up, Jack?” says one of the cats.

I should hold back the news, at least until I make it to the public bar of The Airpod and Nanomule. Then again, everyone in Gaffville deserves to hear the glad tidings.

“Big Dave’s in love!” I shout, so loud I even gain the attention of the rebellious rooks on the multi-coloured cogni-nylon thatched roofs. Other less cynical birds whoop and coo and shake their feathers in sheer joy. And I do a leap to click my boot heels together because this is what we’ve all needed to save us, ain’t it the truth.

 I started this story with just an image and a tone, not knowing how it would end. In fact, I wrote the first page or so then it took me over a year to find the rest of the story and finish it. What I wanted the story to do was reflect the humour and exuberance that I find in many of my relatives from the East End of London, off-setting a little of the irritation I feel that most of the time people from that part of the country are portrayed in books, TV and film as self-centred thickos.

I also wanted to establish the world we were in but as naturally as possible, seeing it through Jack’s eyes. So, we learn that in Gaffville animals talk and even the houses can respond to outside influences. We also are shown the point of the story which is that whatever Gaffville and its inhabitants actually are, their future depends on Big Dave falling in love. This suggest, perhaps, that Jack and the others are not quite real; that Dave is perhaps their owner, that they may be his very advanced toys.           

But possibly the tone is the most important element, and for that I had to just launch myself into it; show it, in other words, not tell it.           

How do you do that? First, you have to commit to it, rather than try to control it. This is a subtle balance to get right. Clearly, the author is in control of the story, at least in terms of the plot (even if it does a twist at the end he didn’t anticipate, he still has to control the factors that can allow such a twist to occur organically).           

So, you let the tone carry your voice within the story. To a degree, I had to become Jack and let his needs, his voice, his character lead the actual prose. You want your character to eventually arrive at the plot resolution that makes your story work; but you want him to be more like a curious child on the journey than a properly kitted out professional rambler, following his map and compass, sticking closely to the designated path.           

How do you know if you’ve succeeded? I think it’s when the reader feels immersed in a story, rather than just admiring it from the outside.           

Here’s the opening of a story called ‘[Dragon]’ which appeared in Realms of Fantasy:

Gertrude ran, stomping the white marble squares of her bedroom, making sure her boots never landed on a line. The black glass doors to her balcony stood open, a pink moon peeping over the balustrade; she reached the last square and jumped.

            “Ow–Gert!” said her father. “You’re getting much too heavy for this.” But he smiled and didn’t put her down right away, so she wrapped her legs around his waist, satisfied that for once she’d made him stagger back a pace.

            “You could have let me jump over the balcony,” she said. “The dragon would have saved me.”

Here, the fact the title is in brackets is significant, supported by Gertrude’s sarcastic reference to ‘the dragon’. I wanted to tip off the reader that this was not a story about a typical dragon; that it was perhaps more representative of the change in character that Gertrude needs to go through if she’s to succeed in her destiny (which is to be a ruling monarch in a land that hasn’t seen a female ruler for many years).           

Essentially, it’s a Young Adult story so I wanted to establish the tone as such. Therefore, the prose is in Gertrude’s point of view, a girl who is on the point of having to become a woman. Which is why we see her on the one hand running around her bedroom in boots but on the other grown up enough that her father has trouble holding her. And her comment about the dragon shows she is developing a teenager’s natural desire to question of authority.           

Interestingly, this story appeared in an issue which dealt with certain tropes of Fantasy, but none of them in a way that might be expected.           

This is the opening to my story, ‘A Most Notorious Woman’, which appeared in Albedo One:

The most powerful woman in England put out her hand to the most powerful woman in Ireland, and the witnesses held their breath. Quartermaster Harris watched, fascinated, disguised as a courtier.

Elizabeth’s white, oblong, face and black, sharp eyes glinted with what might have been curiosity but could just as easily have been displeasure. She wore white silk, embroidered with pearls the size of coffee beans, under a mantle of black silk shot through with silver threads, the end of her long train carried by a marchioness. Her white powdered chest was mostly uncovered, broken by a gold collar studded with fabulous jewels. Her auburn hair, obviously false, supported a small but ornate gold crown.

Despite the finery and status of the English Queen, her guest captured Harris’s attention — in her mid-sixties, like the Queen, but with a face full of weathered lines. She wore a long saffron leine — a simple robe with billowing sleeves — under a plain green dress and long, woollen cloak. Her naturally red hair, now streaked with grey, was held back by a simple silver pin. A little taller than the Queen, she took the English monarch’s hand and said, in Latin, “I am honoured to be invited to your majesty’s magnificent palace at Greenwich, and subject myself to your will.”

At this, the tension increased further amongst the surrounding dignitaries, courtiers, ambassadors and servants. For, although the Irish Queen had formally acceded to the English sovereign, it was more than apparent, by her bearing and holding of the Queen’s gaze, that she saw herself as an equal.

       After a long moment, Elizabeth’s lips parted in a smile, displaying sugar-blackened teeth. “Welcome to my court, Grace O’Malley,” she said. “I have heard much about you and would now hear the truth from your own lips.”

This is a very different opening to the previous two, of course, but then it has a different job to do. Essentially, the story is a ripping yarn, involving pirates, talking sea serpents, love and death. But it’s also based on a real person: Grace O’Malley the Irish ‘Pirate Queen’, sometimes also known as ‘A Most Notorious Woman’. Partly because it’s a longer story than normal, I thought it could start slower than perhaps is usual for a shorter tale. It seemed worth taking the time, not just to build a picture of Grace’s world, but also of her strength of character, especially since that is the backbone of the story.           

This scene is based on true events. Grace really was summoned to Elizabeth’s court, mainly to answer to charges of piracy; and her wealth was certainly based on piracy. However, although it isn’t clear why, Elizabeth pardoned Grace at this meeting. And I thought that would be a good starting point: to show that even as an older woman, Grace had the character, charm, and desire to win others to her way, even the most powerful woman in Britain it seemed.

The opening of a story, then, has to establish the following, but not in equal amounts necessarily:







But it doesn’t happen through the author working out precisely what each of these means and exactly how to portray them. He has to bundle it all up into his will, in something like the way he would carry within him the essence of a close friend, in this case his main character, then let it loose.           

Essentially, he’s looking for a balance between world-setting and fun. Readers want to enjoy themselves, whatever genre they’re into. But they also want to be educated and convinced about the world they’re going to give themselves to, if only for the twenty minutes or so it takes to read a short story.           

Which brings us back to honesty. A wise-crack leading to a predictable plot involving a generic character in a tired setting is just cheating the reader. It’s not satisfying for the writer, either, unless he’s the kind who measures success strictly in terms of output rather than quality of mood, magic and morality.           

And morality is the last point I want to make about openings. Everyone knows a writer shouldn’t moralise to his readers. But at the same time, a story without a moral core is like an only mildly amusing joke. Characters that stay in the memory, making actions that thrill us, living in worlds we wish we could visit, stem from the author having some kind of moral point of passion driving him.           

I’m using ‘morality’ in perhaps a wider sense than normal here; to mean having a position about; a view on; a desire to see a truth expressed.           

As said, with ‘Big Dave’s in Love’ I wanted to show the warmth and intelligence of East End people that is a large my experience. With ‘[Dragon]’ I wanted to explore what might be closer to the original truth of dragons: as Earth spirit manifestations that can be joined by a human but always with the price of change the cost. With ‘A Most Notorious Woman’ I wanted to explore for modern readers the psychology of a person who doesn’t equivocate and moderate her passions in the way we’re encouraged to do today.           

I’ve talked before about the seven-point plot structure used by many authors and which has the opening three elements:


SETTING with a


These make a good skeleton for a story but of course it’s the flesh that a reader is really interested in.           

Too often, writers follow these plot formats with the religious devotion of those who can’t work out their own faith. All that results is a predictable story with predictable quasi-emotions. I once read a story by a very famous FS/Fantasy writer which centred around a good idea. Unfortunately, he hadn’t taken the time or effort to get inside what the idea meant for him, to give the story feel and tone and intent. About half way through, he needed the reader to feel empathy with the main character. So he gave her one terrible illness after another, to the point the fact she survived as long as she did was actually funny instead of tragic.           

The last thing, then, you want your opening to do is tick structure boxes to the point where even the reader least interested in craft can see it all coming a mile off. Instead, you want your opening to fire inspiration, wonder, magic, or simply an unusual emotion; then the structure is a subtle, unseen guide for that magic, not a series of coloured indicator flags around a race track.


“I’m still writing about what an author needs to do before he gets going on a short story,” I say.

Nige raises his eyebrows, apparently not surprised to hear this.

We’re in the Tavern, even though neither of us really approves of its new look. The old look was actually a new made to look old look but at least it had tatty appeal. Now it’s a new made to look old but not quite as old as before and probably erring on the side of new because that should bring in more of ‘the kids’ look. Nige is also suspicious of the uniform white shirts the bar staff have to wear. Before, they also had a uniform but it was one that wasn’t meant to look like one: kind of slightly sloppy cool. After a few pints, you could pretend they were ordinary folk, just like us punters.

“When Cristiano Ronaldo picks up the ball on the half way line,” he says, “what do you think he’s got in mind?”

“Running like fury through the other team’s defence and banging it into the back of the net?”

He smiles; we both know what he’s getting at.

We’re leaning against the counter and Nige has his end of night three pints of lager before him. Well, two now, since he’s just finished the last half of the first while I’m pondering what to say next.

“But, come on,” I say, “scoring goals in football is a very obvious objective.”

“Tell that to Charlton,” he says. “Their forwards need a satnav to get anywhere near the posts this season.”

“But you don’t necessarily know where a story’s going to end when you start it.”

“Bit like going on a date with someone new, then,” he says.

“Well, yeah; I guess so. You wouldn’t want to presume it’s going to end in the bedroom, even if that’s what you wanted.”

He shakes his head, grinning. “But if you don’t presume, Tel, you definitely won’t end up anywhere interesting. Because what you presume is where all the power is, mate. And it’s power – positivity and charm, in this case – what will lead to the mattress of infinite possibility.”

“Again, that’s just another rather obvious kind of score, though, isn’t it?” I say. “Anyone reading you at the start of the night, Nige, is going to see mattresses bouncing in your irises. But a reader shouldn’t find it so easy to guess the ending.”

He reaches for pint number two and downs half of it. He’s frowning at the same time, however, so I know he won’t have fully appreciated the taste.

“You’re missing the point,” he says. “I know you don’t want to telegraph the ending of your story before it’s even got going. But what I’m saying is that the writer needs to have his head and balls fully charged up with passion when he leaps over the half way line, or through the bedroom door, depending on the analogy of your choice.”

I think I know what he means and order two more pints.

“Okay,” I say, “so a writer needs be full of passion, drive, mesmerising ball skills and a clear idea of where the net is, but kind of disguise it from the reader. Because unlike with footy where the ending is obvious, with a short story, as a reader you want to be deliberately misled and distracted before the, um, spermatozoa lands.”

“Yeah, it’d be like Ronaldo not running straight for the goal; instead he sits on the ball and has a chat with his marker about Nietzsche’s concept of the superman translated into the modern footy game.”

“But Ronaldo will only get away with that kind of diversion if he goes on to put the ball in the net.”

He swallows another half a pint and says, “So, what’s stopping you running for the net, Tel?”

“Nothing, really. I mean, I write plenty of stories. I just feel that every story should have a point; not just be about some character experiencing conflict and over-coming it. Or not.”

“But didn’t some bloke once say there’s nothing new; that every bleedin’ story’s been told?”

And with that, I realise I don’t really know what I’m trying to say. Perhaps Nige sees my problem because he appears to change the subject now.

“As it happens, ” he says, “I’m quite fond of conspiracy theories, but here’s the thing: what most of us theorists don’t like to admit is that the objects of our theories – the establishment, the royals, the government, Simon Cowell – are just as trapped in the conspiracy as we are.”

He’s grinning at me knowingly, so I say, “Are you saying that the writer and the reader are trapped together in the limitations of the story form?”

“Yeah. Because they kind of dance around each other like a couple of courting mallards: one of them is all shiny feathers, showing off, and the other’s kind of brown and dull-looking, but they’re both the same species. Which is how eggs get produced, of course, but we aren’t talking plain old, always the same, eggs here, Tel, are we?”

“We aren’t?”

“What I’m saying is: the writer has to be bigger than the story.”

I don’t reply because my neck is tingling with the truth of this statement, even if I might not like what it portends.

“You’re going to have to elaborate on that,” I say.

But the bell for drinking up has just sounded and Nige has more pressing matters to deal with.

Still, there’s always tomorrow.