The Hook Up: Yet More Fun With First Lines

A blog topic I keep coming back to is analyzing the first lines of my flash and short stories. As before, all this comes from the essay written by Stephen King called “Great Hookers I Have Known” in his now sadly out-of-print collection Secret Windows. The term “hooker” comes from an old bit of publishing slang that means a first line that hooks the reader. Over the years, I’ve been looking at the first lines of my published stories, rating them, and trying to find evidence that supports the theory that a great first line improves your chances of publication. So, here we go again.

First, let’s talk about what makes a good first line, in my opinion. There are three elements I think are necessary.

  1. Then What? I think the best first lines make the reader want to read more. They need to know what happens after you’ve set the hook.
  2. Informative. A good first line tells you something about the story. It sets the tone, gives you a glimpse of the protagonist’s motives, or even hints at what the story might be about.
  3. Attention-Grabbing. It doesn’t have to be over the top (though it can be), but a first line that is somewhat shocking or arresting or even just straight-up weird can be effective.

Now let’s look at a few of my recently published stores, analyze the first lines, see if they hit my three vital elements, then I’ll give them a letter grade. I’ll also link to the stories, so you can read the whole thing and see if the first line affects the overall piece.

1) “Mixed Signals” published by Flash Point SF

Colton peered through the binoculars at the tiny red cabin and frowned. “I don’t understand.”

As first lines go, this isn’t exactly hitting a homerun. Let’s see how it does with our three first line musts.

  • Then What? Eh, sort of. It’s not a particularly exciting line, but there’s maybe just enough there to prompt a then what.
  • Informative. You get one of the protagonists’ names but not anything about him. I’d say it mostly fails here.
  • Attention-Grabbing. Nope. Pretty run of the mill, honestly.

This one kinda hits a single element and maybe brushes the surface of another. Grade: D

2) “What You Pay For” published by The Arcanist 

When Angelos Hasapi woke, the demon sat in a chair next to his bed.

Okay, this is better. Let’s see how it does.

  • Then What? Definitely. Dude wakes up and there’s a demon sitting next to him. I think most folks want to know what happens next.
  • Informative. Some. The protagonist and antagonist are introduced, and since one is a demon, that does give the reader an idea of the kind of story they’re about to read.
  • Attention-Grabbing. Yeah, I think so.

This line hits one point hard, another point pretty well, and another okay. Not bad. Grade: B

3) “Grave Concerns” published by MetaStellar 

Heather glanced around the GraveSecure office, at beige walls, a desk of unvarnished pine, and two brown plastic IKEA chairs, one of which she currently sat in.

Yeah, not great.

  • Then What? A woman sits in a beige office, so, no.
  • Informative. The mention of GraveSecure is important and kind of interesting, but it’s lost in all that beige description.
  • Attention-Grabbing. Haha. No.

Thank god editors generally read beyond the first line. The opening paragraph is good, which clearly saved me. Grade: F

4) “Fertilizer” published by Radon Journal

Victor stared down at the naked corpse of a man in his forties.

Another pretty good one.

  • Then What? Yeah, I think so. Guy staring at a naked corpse puts a question or two in the reader’s mind.
  • Informative. It kind of whiffs here. Giving the protagonist’s name isn’t really informative. There’s a bit of a tone thing but not enough to matter.
  • Attention-Grabbing. Yes. Naked corpses are forty(ish) dudes are generally attention-getting.

So this one gets two out of three, and the two it does get, it gets pretty good. Grade: B-

5) “Rhymes With Dead” published by Wyldblood Press

“Knees, if you please, Brandon,” Rosie said, pitching her voice low to keep it from echoing in the cavernous space of the empty shopping mall.

This one’s not bad either.

  • Then What? It’s not killing it here, but the description of the area is good enough along with the opening bit of dialogue that it gets the job done.
  • Informative. This is the one the line hits the strongest. It introduces a character but also gives you a glimpse into her personality. The description of the space hints at some things too.
  • Attention-Grabbing. The rhyme is pretty good, and the fact that it ties into the title I think works.

This line bullseyes one element and does an okay job with the other two. Some folks detest a story that opens with dialogue. I don’t, obviously, but I’ll downgrade this one a bit for that very real editorial bias. Grade: B

I don’t think I hit it out of the park with any of these, but how did the quality of my first lines affect things in the real world? Did I have difficulty publishing the stories with weaker first lines? Let’s take a look.

Story Grade  Rejections
Mixed Signals D 3
What You Pay For B 4
Grave Concerns F 4
Fertilizer B- 4
Rhymes With Dead B 1

I’d say that’s pretty inconclusive. The story with the worst first line got as many rejections as two stories with better ones. The other good one was a one-and-done, but that’s likely just good submission targeting (a rarity for me). So, what does this say? I think it says that a good first line can be helpful, but most editors will read past it even if it’s ho hum. I’d say a good first paragraph gets you further with an editor, and, of course, a good story get’s you to the vaunted state of acceptance. 🙂

Thoughts about my first line formula or the effect of good first lines in general? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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