One of my absolute favorite blog topics is analyzing the first lines of my short stories and trying to divine whether a good one helps you get published. This all stems from a fantastic essay written by Stephen King called “Great Hookers I Have Known” in his now sadly out-of-print collection Secret Windows. The term “hooker” in this case comes from an old bit of publishing slang that means a first line that hooks the reader. Anyway, through the years, I’ve been taking a look at the first lines of my published short stories, rating them, and trying to find evidence that supports the theory that a great first line improves your chances of publication.
So let’s look at some of my recently published stores, analyze the first line, and then I’ll explain why I think it’s a good one or not so good. Then, at the end of this we’ll see if there’s any correlation between a good first line and how quickly the story was accepted. I’ve also linked to the stories that are free to read online so you can check out the first line and compare it to the rest of the story if you like.
1) “Bites” published by Flame Tree Press in Footsteps in the Dark
“Here’s your stop,” Katelyn said, pulling the Prius up to the curb.
Super exciting, huh? Did my mention of a Prius get your blood pumping? 🙂 Yeah, this is, uh, not a great first line, which is unfortunate because I think it’s one of the better short stories I’ve written in a while. I mean, it’s functional as kind of an establishing shot, but it sure as shit ain’t exciting. The second sentence and the first paragraph improved things, and we get cooking in the second paragraph, but, yeah, not awesome. Grade: D+
2) “Reading the Room” published by The Overcast
“What do you want with this guy, boss?” Barry Fitz said as he and Jesse walked through the gaming floor of the Lucky Load.
I often start stories with dialogue, and I know some folks say you’re not supposed to do that, but, meh, it’s worked for me. Anyway, this another one of those establishing shot first lines, and it gives you some flavor and does a halfway decent job of setting up some of the premise. It’s still not fantastic, but it’s better than “Bites.” Grade: C+
3) “The Back-Off” published by On Spec Magazine
Frank Lori yanked open the door to the Lucky Duck’s camera room and a fog of cigarette smoke and old coffee fumes washed over him.
Not too bad. This introduces the man character, gives you some clue about the setting, and throws in some halfway decent description. The word yanked implies some urgency, and the cigarette and coffee stink sets a tone. Yeah, as first lines go, you could do worse (and I have). Grade: B
4) “His Favorite Tune” published in the Flame Tree Fiction Newsletter
Colton Jackson walked along a dirt road while the man ordered to kill him pressed the barrel of a gun into his back.
I like this one because it established some tension right away and gives you a few important details to boot. It doesn’t wow you, but I think it gets you interested in what happens next, which is really what you need that first sentence to do. Grade: B
5) “Stall Number Two” published by Ellipsis Zine
There’s a gateway to hell in the men’s room at Cory’s Pub & Suds.
Heh, I’m a sucker for first lines like this, and I think is a pretty good one. It’s weird, unexpected, and even a little silly. I think that’s a great combo for a first line, and I deliver the goods in the first paragraph regarding ye olde poop chute to Hades. Grade: A-
6) “Story X” to be published by Super Secret Publisher
Jared Stiles knew a lot about murder, but he’d always viewed killing someone as a permanent situation.
Since this one hasn’t been published yet, only accepted, I need to maintain some secrecy. I think this is a good first line. The whole “permanent situation” thing sets up the premise, and should get the reader asking questions. This is probably the best of the bunch. Grade: A
Okay, now let’s compare the quality of the first line in the stories above to how long it took me to sell each piece and see if there’s any kind of pattern.
|Reading the Room||C+||5|
|His Favorite Tune||B||1|
|Stall Number Two||A-||3|
Huh, well, I’d call that data inconclusive. “Bites” did rack up a lot of rejections, but it was shortlisted at a number of pro markets and did eventually sell to one. On the other hand, “Story X” was rejected seven times, then I revised it, which included rewriting the first paragraph, and it sold on the next submission to a pro market. The rest are kind of all over the place. I mean, “The Back-Off” and “His Favorite Tune” both have the same grade for first lines, but the number of rejections they received is night and day different.
If there’s one bit of info I can maybe take away it’s that the first line is more important in short stories than flash fiction. A top-notch first line seems to have less impact on selling a 1,000-word story than it does on a longer tale. Yeah, I know, sample size and all, but that might be an interesting comparison to run in the next blog post I write on the subject.
Thoughts on my super-scientific grading method or first lines in general? Tell me about it in the comments.
I have a hypothesis why first lines matter less in flash than in short stories. Part is because editors are more likely to finish the whole flash regardless of the hook, but less likely to read the whole short story through if the opening is weak. Also, in a short story, a weak first line is more likely to mean structural issues with the opening, such as the story starting off too slowly or too far from the action, while in flash the word-count constraint forces one to get to the point, fast.
I think that’s a sound theory. I really do need to do a first line analysis comparing my published short stories with my published flash fiction.
I’m not sure I agree with some of your ratings. ‘Reading the Room’ is a solid A- as it sets all sorts of Film Noir expectations (think Sam & Rick from Casablanca). ‘Stall Number Two’ is a solid A+ for all the reasons you describe. And ‘Story X’ gets a B+, maybe A-. It’s good, but not as good as ‘Reading the Room’ – murder is cliche in a story.
Oh, sure, such things are always super subjective. I tend to rate these based on first lines I’ve read in other authors’ works that resonated with me. It’s definitely a YMMV situation. 🙂
I like the one from His Favorite Tune. It reminds me of the opening line to The Gunslinger.
Oh, man, talk about good first lines.
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
It’s funny because in the essay I reference in the post, King actually talks about how he’s not great with first lines. Well, he had at least one good one in him. 🙂
It’s one of my all time favorites.