For the past couple of years I’ve written blog posts examining the first lines of my short stories. All of this is based on an essay by Stephen King called “Great Hookers I Have Known” from his collection Secret Windows. In the essay, he examines first lines (from his works and others) looking for “hookers,” which are (in old-timey publishing lingo) first lines that grab a reader’s attention. It’s a great essay if you can find it, and I do believe a great first line can help you land a publication, but how important is it?
Let’s once again try to answer that question by looking at my own work. We’ll focus on some of the stories I published last year, those that are free to read online, and see how I did. You can check out the first line here, and it it grabs you, follow the link to read the rest of the story. I’ll score each opening line with a letter grade and tell you why I think it’s a good one or not.
1. “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.
I think this a pretty good sentence. It’s definitely weird, and I think it does what a good first line should do – get the reader asking questions. Grade: A-
2. “Simulacra” published by EllipsisZine
Ice and a snow weren’t the best material for the task, but Jason didn’t have much else to work with.
Not terrible, but certainly not grab-you-by-the-throat good. I think it works a little because it might get the reader wondering what Jason is working on here. Still, not fantastic. Grade: C+
3. “Two Legs” published by The Molotov Cocktail
There had been no meat for too long.
Though it’s short, I think this one is solid. There’s something kind of icky and ominous about the word meat, and I think this sentence does enough to get the reader on to the next one. Grade: B
4. “The Inside People” published by EllipsisZine
Victor wiped the spittle from his mouth after another coughing fit and stared up at the tower.
Well, this one is definitely descriptive, and it does pretty well as an establishing shot. Grade: B-
5. “Do Me a Favor” published by The Arcanist
“I need you to shoot me in the head.” Howard tapped his temple.
This one gets your attention, doesn’t it? One of the better first lines I’ve written, I think. Grade: A
6. “The Last Scar” published by Trembling with Fear
The morphine is starting to kick in when Sergeant Freeman raps his nightstick against my door.
Like number four, this one falls into that establishing shot category. It’s descriptive and gives you a fair bit of information. It’s not knock-your-sock-off good, but it’s not bad either. Grade: B-
7. “What Kind of Hero?” published by EllipsisZine
“Look what I made.” Alyssa held up a black jumpsuit.
Yeah, not great. I think I got away with this one mostly because the story opens with some rapid-fire dialog, and the lines after are better and, well, you get to them quickly. Grade: D+
8. “Bear Necessity” published by The Molotov Cocktail
The knock on Jerry’s door startled him.
This is a first line saved by a much better second line. In this case, that’s – He nearly jerked the shotgun’s trigger and blew his TV to atoms. Those two together is maybe a B+. Alone, this is not much to look at. Grade: C-
9. “When the Lights Go On” published by The Arcanist
We don’t turn on the lights in Moore, Idaho.
I think this is the best of the bunch, edging out number five by a hair. It’s short, subtle, and I think it sets the tone of the story right away. Grade: A
Of course, these grades are entirely subjective, and you might disagree with my ratings. The question remains, though, does that first line help you get published? Let’s look at the two best (in my opinion). I sold “Do Me a Favor” on the first try, and, yeah, I do think that first line might have helped me a bit. On the other hand, I sent “When the Lights Go On” everywhere, and though it garnered a lot of short lists and personal rejections, it took me 10 tries to sell it. I honestly think “When the Lights Go On” is the better story, but the best first line in the world is just one piece of the publishing puzzle. You still need that winning combo of right story + right editor/market + right time.
Thoughts on first lines? Tell me about it in the comments and/or share some of yours.