For a while now I’ve been revisiting my published stories specifically to look at the first line and determine if it’s the kind of line that immediately hooks the reader. Once again, this is because of an essay by Stephen King called “Great Hookers I Have Known” from his collection Secret Windows. It’s a great little piece where King looks at the first lines from his novels to see if they qualify as “hookers.” That’s apparently old publisher slang for a first lines that grab a reader’s attention.
So let’s look at some of my recently published stories and see if I’m getting better, worse, or just treading water with my first lines. I’ll give you a link to the story if it’s free to read online, then the first line, and an excuse, er, I mean an explanation of why it’s a good or not so good.
1. “The Thing That Came With the Storm” published by The Molotov Cocktail
I’ve burned all the furniture and every scrap of paper in the house.
Pretty good. Like a lot of interesting first lines, I think it gets the reader asking questions. In this case, that question is why is he doing that? That’s the kind of thing that usually keeps a reader reading. Grade: B+
2. “Big Problems” published by Jersey Devil Press
Gorrus crawled on his hands and knees, squeezing through the narrow halls of his house.
Meh. This is one that gets a whole lot better when paired with the second sentence. His bedroom was the only room that could accommodate a giant’s frame because he’d knocked down the walls of the adjoining rooms. There’s an argument to be made, of course, that you should focus on the first paragraph as a hook, and this is one that probably supports that argument. Grade: C+ (B with second line)
3. “Paint Eater” published by The Arcanist
Ajay tossed the empty can of black Krylon on the ground and stepped back.
Yeah, bleh. I have a good paragraph to open this story, but this first sentence is kinda boring. The black Krylon is, I guess, mildly interesting just because you don’t read those words together very often and it tells you something about the story. Still, not awesome. Grade: C-
4. “Far Shores and Ancient Graves” published by New Myths
Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Grace smiled, hoping the stuffy looking British archaeologist had a sense of humor.
Not terrible (a little cliche maybe). This one gives you a little character note from the get-go, but it’s not exactly knock-your-socks-off. British archaeologist gives a hint at what the story might be about, but I’d say this one is just okay. Grade: B-
5. “Old as the Trees” published by Ellipsis Zine
Simon stood next to an ocean of waist-high weeds, their thin yellow stalks so densely packed you’d have to walk on top of them rather than through them.
I like this one. There’s some good imagery here, but it doesn’t tell you a whole lot. This is a horror story, and if I’d been able to inject something ominous into this first line it would really sing. As it is, it’s not bad, but not great. Grade: B
6. “Time Waits for One Man” published by Factor Four Magazine
Okay, so you’re immortal?” Nadine set her iPhone on the table and pressed record.
Here we go. This is a good one. I love starting a story with dialog when I can, and I think it works here. The question “Okay, so you’re immortal?” is pretty interesting, I think, and I believe most folks would want to keep reading (the whole point of a good first line). Grade: A
7. “Beyond the Block” published by Tales from the Magician’s Skull
My cell is not far from the executioner’s square, and the headsman is already at work.
Another solid first line. This one tells you a lot in a short space. You immediately know the narrator is in some kind of trouble and there’s the threat he’ll get his head chopped off. That’s pretty good. It’s not the best of the bunch, but well above average. Grade: A-
As usual, these grades are super subjective, and your mileage may vary. A lot. Ultimately, all these stories were published, and the question, as always, is did the first line help or hurt the story’s chances? This is not scientific or anything, but I will say the stories in this batch with better first lines were rejected fewer times or even sold on their first attempt. There are, of course, other factors at play. I’ve sold to a number of these markets more than once or even a lot, so the editor might give me the benefit of the doubt and read past a boring first line (bless them). Or, it’s entirely possible that some editors don’t really care about the first line and read every story start to finish and judge it in its entirety (also, bless them). Who knows? But it remains a fun little exercise. 🙂
Thoughts on first lines? Tell me about it in the comments and/or share some of yours.