Independent publishers of new short fiction. i This site uses cookies: for more info see our privacy policy.

Your cart: 0 items0)

View Cart | Checkout

“These regular anthologies ... are becoming essential volumes for fans of short fiction.”

— Scott Pack

Sign up for our newsletter:

Somewhere This Way

Quite a few of the short story manuscripts we receive at The Fiction Desk are headed with quotations from other sources. These can be anything from religious texts to ’80s pop lyrics; sometimes the writer provides two or three — or a pageful — before getting to their story.

We are very, very unlikely to publish a story that starts like this, and if we did accept one, it would almost certainly be conditional on losing the quotation(s). I thought it might be worth writing a quick blog post here on why that is, and why writers might want to avoid the temptation to add quotations to their short stories.

As usual with our posts aimed at writers, the following is specifically from the point of view of The Fiction Desk, but much of it will apply to other publishers as well, or to good writing practice in general.

1. Thematic cannibalisation

Often, quotes are used by writers to simply express in brief the idea or theme that the story is going to explore in more detail. If the story explores the ideas well, there’s probably no need for an accompanying quote, and it can even take some of the punch out of the story. If the story doesn’t succeed, sticking a quote on the front won’t save it. (That said, there are times when a quote might give a different or more humorous take on the subject to the one the story provides.)

2. Typography

Take a look at the first page of one of our short stories: at the top is a comment introducing the story, then there’s a space, then the title, then the author’s name. The story itself begins at least halfway down the page. If we were to shoehorn a quote in there between the author’s name and the start of the story, there would probably only be three or four lines of story on the page, and so many different styles of text that the first page would be a hell of a mess, and not terribly tempting for the reader.

3. Pomposity

Using a quotation, especially a poorly chosen one, can sometimes make the writer look a little pompous. Novels seem to get away with it in a way that short stories often don’t.

4. Depowering the opening

The first few lines of a short story are where you meet the reader and have your chance to engage them and set the tone. Why compromise such an important moment by delegating it to Janis Joplin?

5. Rights issues

This doesn’t always apply, but if the quoted text is still in copyright, we’d likely have to get permission to use it. This takes time and often money, neither of which we really have to spare.

There are of course exceptions to every rule, and certainly not all of the above points apply in every case. But it’s worth thinking them over, even if you ultimately decide you disagree; and if you’re sending work to us, it’s definitely worth clipping Cicero or Pink Floyd off the top before you do.

7 Comments on “Why you shouldn’t start a short story with a quotation”

  1. Five Links « Frisbee: A Book Journal Says:

    […]  Rob at The Fiction Desk tells you why you shouldn’t begin a short story with a quote.   Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  2. The Casket Says:

    As a short story writer I have to say I have never, so far, added a quote at the start of a story. In a short story you often have little time and space. To me a short story is a small crafted object, with a narrative where every word counts. Don’t waste them on someone elses.

  3. Helen Says:

    I beg to differ; as a reader I actually really like it (occasionally) when a short, well chosen quote pre-empts a piece of writing. Although I appreciate all the above points also.

  4. Nuala Ní Chonchúir Says:

    I love: “Why compromise such an important moment by delegating it to Janis Joplin?” Spot on!
    I’ve judged comps and have found that after a pompous quote usually comes a pompous story.
    So, yes, I agree wholeheartedly.

  5. Jeanette Stafford Says:

    I once entered a short story competition that required a quote. Trying to get permission to use the one I had chosen was a nightmare. In the end I had to settle for something completely different by an author who had been dead for more than 70 years to avoid the need to pay royalties. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it.

  6. Rob Says:

    Thanks everybody for your comments. It’s always interesting to get such a range of responses.

    To be fair, there certainly are times when a quotation can work, but it’s worth taking into account the potential problems before using one!

  7. William Thirsk-Gaskill Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the blog article. I don’t particularly like quotations at the beginning of chapters in novels, either. Any quotation, if there is one, should always be part of the subject matter of the story. Garnishes are as unnecessary to a good, literary, contemporary short story as a sprig of parsley is to a good steak.

Leave a Comment