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If you write short stories, you’ve got to have a good opening line. Sometimes the first sentence of a short story is all you get to impress an editor.
Imagine you’re a fly on the wall at a busy literary magazine office. As a writer of short stories and a diligent submitter to dozens of similar magazines, you are naturally interested in the process of selection. How do editors choose which short stories to publish?
You watch in horror as the editors glance through story after story, sometimes pulling a submission halfway from its manilla envelope and scanning the first paragraph before tossing it over their shoulders.
From your point of view, it appears that these short stories are barely being considered at all, and in some ways, you’re right.
In a typical publishing house, the number of short story submissions far outweighs the number of pieces selected for publication (by an incredibly wide margin), and first readers have no choice but to make lightning-quick decisions, often based on a first glance alone.
What, then, makes the difference between forwarding this piece on to an editor for further consideration, or being gobbled by the Round File? For the short story writer, it all comes down to the first sentences. Because, quite literally, those first sentences are often all that you will be judged on.
How To Write A Good First Line For A Short Story
Start with some sort of conflict or threat. Grab the reader’s attention with the unusual or the unexpected. Create tension, and make the reader anxious to read more, to learn what happens to this character and how this character will deal with the threat or the change.
A moving van pulls up to the curb, and a bizarre-looking family begins to emerge…
The doctor calls with some startling news…
The doorbell rings. Who is that familiar-looking stranger at the door?
Weather reports are boring and probably have no bearing on the story (unless your story involves a hurricane or some other exciting weather event). Long, flowery descriptions of the story’s setting do not count as attention-grabbers. Neither do detailed histories of the characters or their motivations. If you must include some background or describe the setting, do so later, after your reader has been intrigued enough to read further.
Writers of short fiction should bear in mind this fact: Readers (and busy editors) are more impatient than ever before. They will not tolerate a story that takes several paragraphs to warm up—they want to get right to the action, and they want it now. So get the story started right off the bat, and give the reader what they want: a powerful opening and a great story.
Have you written a great short story? Writer’s Relief has helped thousands of short story writers place their work in literary magazines.