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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|What You Pay For||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.