I’ve written a couple posts about the importance of the first line in a short story. The idea being that a great first line sets the tone, instantly engages the reader, gets them asking questions about the story, and, hopefully, keeps them reading. These posts were inspired by a Stephen King essay called “Great Hookers I Have Known” from his collection Secret Windows. According to King’s essay, a “hooker” is a term once used by pulp fiction editors to describe a great first line that immediately captures the reader’s attention.
In the previous two posts I examined first lines in some of my published stories to see if I was, well, any good at writing a first line. Since I’ve had kind of a bumper crop of acceptances this year, I thought I’d revisit the concept and see if I’ve improved. Here are the first lines from five flash fiction stories I published this year. Let’s see how I did.
1) “New Arrivals” published by Havok Magazine
Senior Agent Howard Townsend parked his Ford Explorer at the head of an old dirt road.
This is not the greatest first line I’ve ever written. “Senior Agent” is kind of interesting, but Ford Explorers and dirt roads not so much. I think what saves this is the first paragraph, which is a lot better. This one received two rejections before Havok accepted it, and that’s not bad. Still, if we’re just rating first lines, I’d give this one a C-.
2) “The Food Bank” published by The Arcanist
A beetle the size of a battleship came out of the afternoon sky, its gargantuan wings buzzing like the drone of a thousand helicopters.
Okay, this is pretty good if I do say so myself. At the very least it should illicit a WTF from the reader. Giant beetle, droning wings, a thousand helicopters, that’s not bad. This story also received two rejections before it was accepted, but I’d give this first line an A-.
3) “Simulacra” Published by Ellipsis Zine
Ice and a snow weren’t the best material for the task, but Jason didn’t have much else to work with.
This one is okay, and it’s another where the first paragraph is better. The first line gives you a little info and starts with the main character doing something (important for flash, in my opinion), but it’s not exactly a knock-your-socks-off first line. Just one rejection for this story before it was accepted. I’d score this first line a C.
4) “Two Legs” published by The Molotov Cocktail
There had been no meat for too long.
Sometimes a good first line is short and simple, and I think this one is pretty good. Not my best, but solid. The word “meat” conjures all kinds of sightly disturbing images. This story received five rejections before The Molotov accepted it. I rate the first line a solid B.
5) “The Inside People” published by Ellipsis Zine
Victor wiped the spittle from his mouth after another coughing fit and stared up at the tower.
Not bad. Kind of gross, but not bad. It creates an image, I think, and maybe invites the question, “What’s wrong with Victor?” The tower by itself isn’t particularly interesting, but combined with the coughing fit, I think it works. This one received two rejections before acceptance, and I’d rate the first line a B-.
Does a killer first line help your chances at publication? Maybe, a little. You still have to write a good story, but a solid opener that pulls the reader in and gets them asking questions can’t hurt. That said, of the fives stories here, only one of them had what I would consider a great first line. The rest were solid to mediocre, and I think it was the first paragraph that did the heavy lifting. So, a killer first line is a good tool to have at your disposal, but it’s just one piece of the getting-published puzzle.
Got any great first lines of your own? Share them in the comments.
What, no mention of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest? 🙂
“Your heart is in your throat as you arrive.”
The Gulf, a flash story about a ghost which I submitted for the finals of a large competition a few years ago. I chanced it with 2nd person, and it got an Honorable Mention. It hasn’t found a home yet, but 2nd person is hard to place and I’m not willing to rework it just yet.
I recall an editor of either Analog or Asimov’s years ago saying how important the hooker was for a short story. Still, King’s first sentence in The Gunslinger is my favorite to this day. I’ve tried to replicate that with my short stories and give myself two A-, one B, and the rest failing grades.