Many editors will tell you that, when plowing through a slush pile of freelance submissions, they often never get past the first sentence of a story, much less the first paragraph. Writers may think this unfair, but an editor's instinct about a story is usually dead on -- if the first few lines of a story don't snare your attention, you're not likely to read further.
Strong, compelling first lines are critical.
Consider the following examples of first lines from best-selling authors.
- Everything, Sam Peebles decided later, was the fault of the god-damned acrobat. If the acrobat hadn't gotten drunk at exactly the wrong time, Sam never would have ended up in such trouble. ("The Library Policeman" by Stephen King)
- Red Tongue Jurgis (we called him that because he ate red-hots all the time) stood under my window one cold October morning and yelled at the metal weathercock on top of our house. ("The Last Circus" by Ray Bradbury)
- It was hell's season, and the air smelled of burning children. ("Gone South" by Robert McCammon)
- On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. ("The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" by Harlan Ellison)
- Barberio felt fine, despite the bullet. ("Son of Celluloid" by Clive Barker)
Well-written first lines engage the inquisitive human brain, pulling us into a story by appealing to our natural curiosity, appealing to our emotions, or ideally both. And very often brevity enhances those appeals. (Barker's six-word sentence, for example, begs many questions that urge you to read more.) First lines should raise questions in our minds, with the promise that the answers will be divulged if we continue reading the story. First lines should jumpstart the reader's imagination. The excellent writer understands the psychology of the reader and uses this knowledge to manipulate, entertain, and even educate the reader -- right out of the gate.
Consider the first sentence from Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs." Ellison was inspired to write this short story after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964; Genovese was stabbed repeatedly near her apartment in New York City, and the murder was witnessed by 38 of her neighbors who did not interfere with the killer, despite the woman's screams for help. Ellison starts the story with mention of a mundane chore (painting louvered window shutters), then counterpoints this with a knifing in Beth's courtyard. Subtle psychology going on here. In one sentence, Ellison has us hooked. What did Beth do? What happened next? Who was the slain woman? The murderer? How can you not read more?
If you are a fiction writer, spend a good deal of time tailoring the first sentence or two of your stories. Consider the questions you want in your reader's mind as the story begins, then write a lead that plants those questions -- and drive them to read more.