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Short Stories: Start Off With A Bang

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.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: Ready to give it a try? Write a killer first line in our comments section!

21 Responses to Short Stories: Start Off With A Bang

  1. She woke to the sound of the roaring river–which was odd, becuase normally she could not hear the river at all.
    *
    At midnight, she began to worry in earnest why he had not called.
    *
    He never saw it coming.

    -

    Anybody can feel free to take these to use them as a writing prompt if they want to! Feel free!

  2. One of our terrific out-of-the-blue Florida thunderstorms sent me scurrying to the computer to jot down: “The sky purpled like a nasty bruise shot through with streaks of yellow bile.”
    An entire prize-winning short story began with that line!

  3. Sound advice. Particularly when submitting short stories in writing contests. The time reviewers allocate to submissions precludes thorough attention to each story.First lines are critical.

  4. Virginia, that sentence certainly exemplifies what our article is about. We’re not surprised that it was the opening line of a prize-winning story; it’s full of sensory details and immediately catches the mind of the reader. Kudos!

  5. Amanda though ruefully, “If fantasizin’ about the men you regret shaggin is more interesting then the bloke chattin’ you up,, you’d better tip the barman and leave.”

  6. Great info! I’ve been wanting to write short stories for a while, but this article encourages me even more, thank you!

    “Staring at that same crack in the wall, it had always reminded me of my past, I couldn’t stop my uncontrollable sobs and cries as my legs buckled underneath me for the umpteenth time.”

  7. We’re ecstatic to hear that this article gives you encouragement, Leanne! By the way, GREAT first line.

  8. As satisfying as it was to be have a premium parking space anywhere she went, there was one desire the handicap sticker on her license plate could not give her: revenge.

  9. The feel of rain pouring onto my face roused me from my sleep. It wasn’t possible, as I was inside. But I was very wrong.

  10. Awesome advice, thank you!

    “She swung the axe for the third and final time. Sweet Jesus. How good that felt.”

  11. Great advice, thank you !

    “ She felt fragments of seats flying towards her as she leached onto the remaining handles. The engine had failed. ”

    I guess I start by using this if there was an accident in a plane or something

  12. Oh God thanks for this! I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember, but always find the opening sentence and the title the most difficult things to write. How does this sound? “Her world once in darkness, she opened her eyes to find herself in a vast hospital ward.”

  13. A high pitched scream echoed throughout the shop as Colton and Cory look over both now on the floor laughing.

    My opening line for my story

  14. She stared into the darkness. The abyss of water looked deep and inviting.
    OR
    The sound of breaking glass stopped her. She froze in place, the incriminating item grasped tightly in her palm. She spun around at the sound of nails tapping on the bookcase.
    I could never seem to write short stories before. :P

  15. Toes are slippery & not easy to chew let alone swallow, so I started with his meaty thumb instead.

  16. “The bear was skinny, looked mean, and was pointing his gun at me.”

    Thirteen words, and you hit that William Tare Fox moment. It signals so much, but some of that signaling might prompt an editor to an extreme response. It would fit a particular market. And totally not-fit so many.

    A good first line is not good if it goes to the wrong place.

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