I know I’m going to reject a story before I hit the end of the first page. The more slush I read, the more I find that I know by the end of the first sentence. I will often continue reading in order to give personal feedback, but in a lot of cases, that is the only reason I’ve kept reading.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard people say things like, “You only have two paragraphs to impress the editor.”
Or, “The beginning of your story needs to be the best part because that’s the hook.”
Well… not really.
I’m also going to go out on a limb here, and say that I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about The First Line. The reason that editors can confidently say that they usually know whether or not a story is going to be a “No” after the first sentence or paragraph is that in a good story, the first sentence gives an accurate representation of the high quality of the writing in the rest of the story.
The first line of your story does not have to sell the entire story. Sure, sure. The most perfect first line of a story would be the sort of sentence that leaps out of the page and smacks me in the face; that tells me exactly how everything is going to end, but in such a way that I don’t realize it until I’ve finished the story; that also bakes cookies and brings them to me while I’m reading.
Except that all the first sentence must do is convince me that the second sentence is going to be worth my time. The job of the second sentence is to convince me to read the third, and so on. You have the entire story to impress me with, and it’s your job as the writer to convince me to read until the end of it.
How does a first line signal to the editor that the story is a rejection waiting to happen?
Boring – nothing is happening
Sometimes this feels like the author is trying to tell the reader that there is a story happening now. This could either be a tacked on Beginning that needs to be cut or an indicator that you’ve started writing at the wrong place in the story. This would be the first line in which the protagonist walks home. Or opens a door. Or does nothing. Or in which the author basically seems to be stalling for time.
I can tell when you’re trying too hard, honest. Relax. Take some of those adverbs out.
The Return of the Overwritten
The first paragraph of the story promises exciting adventure!!! But then we go back in time ten years to the beginning of the story and are slowly introduced to the main character… yawn.
Example: “Joe entered the room, through the door, and…”
Most extraneous words and phrases are not quite that bad, but they do pop up in first lines. They’re a more subtle indicator that I want to reject the story, but they do serve that purpose. If the first line has sloppy phrasing, the rest of the story does too.
Telling me stuff I already know
This is the story opening that is supposed to be a deep insight about human nature, but falls flat. Or it’s something that would fit better in a Wikipedia entry.
So how do you write an amazing first line?
Here’s my advice. Don’t waste too much of your time on the first sentence of your story. You can use the rough guidelines I’ve mentioned above, but those are just a few ways that first lines can go wrong.
The best way to learn how to write great story openings is to read and write stories. That’s such typical advice!
How about you? When you read the beginning of a short story in a magazine, what convinces you to keep reading? Tell us in the comments!