Wake up, Polly Parrot.


For Openers
by Brian Plante

A lot of books on writing will tell you that your story's opening is crucial. They are right, especially when you're just starting out as a writer. There once was a time when writers could start a story or novel with some character-building, introducing the reader to the point-of-view character and the setting before adding the complications that started the plot. Today, however, with readers raised on TV and movies, you don't have the luxury of a leisurely introduction. James Bond is always falling off a mountain or diving out of a plane in the first 60 seconds. You need to grab the readers' attention on the first page. No, scratch that -- the first paragraph. No, no, forget that -- it's the FIRST LINE!

Sure, Stephen King can take 100 pages to get his plot rolling, but you're not Stephen King. His editors buy his stories, no matter how padded, because they know he knows what he's doing and has a good track record. But the editors don't know YOU, and they have a tall stack of manuscripts to plow through before lunchtime. You've got maybe 30 seconds to make the editor think your story is worth finishing. If you don't grab his attention in that short time, your story will be back in its return envelope and on its way home faster than you can say "James A. Michener."

I've written over a hundred stories and sold 40. This hardly makes me an expert, but if you're just starting out, then I may have a bit of experience on you. Maybe you can learn something from my successes -- and failures. Below, I list a bunch of opening lines from some of my stories. See if you can guess which ones sold, and which ones are gathering dust in my trunk. The answers are at the bottom of the page, but don't peek.

1. His teeth were gleaming white. It was disgusting.

2. "Not oatmeal again, Faye!" said Frank Morris, staring at the proffered breakfast.

3. Such a small thing is a peanut, yet see what it has done to Quentin Perry, the renowned molecular biologist.

4. I'm lonely. I want someone, male or female, to correspond with.

5. Russell knew immediately as he walked in the door that Gail had been with her buddies that day.

6. Effluvia Hunter bought herself a big head and got the promotion I was counting on, and she's still as dumb as a post.

7. Fatso and Moody were typical crawlers--stupid, helpless and desperate to mate.

8. The Memorial Day weekend arrived, and the swimming pool at the Pine Hollows Apartments was noisy with the boisterous sounds of the opening day crowd.

9. Getting my right arm sucked down the meat grinder at work might have been the best thing that ever happened to me, but it required some getting used to at first.

10. The small heart hovered in lifelike detail above the holographic imager, contracting in syncopated spasms.

11. This freaky guy came into Addictions, and I could tell right away there was something weird going on there.

12. Sometimes you wonder about all the decisions and events that happen every day that control the direction of your life.

13. The first one was a big old crow that perched on the railing of my back yard deck and cawed defiantly at me.

14. I become aware as Mrs. Shaughnessy enters the confessional, her weight on the floor triggering the circuits that bring me out of my slumber.

15. So many of you babies. Good Lord, I'm too old and tired to be changing diapers at this stage in my life.

16. The vast mats of blue-green algae on Egerere were a sight to behold at night.

17. Debbi waited patiently for Ed to come home.

18. My crew is insane.

19. My boss, Fletcher, pulled the Rick-we-gotta-get-this-done-before-we-go-home routine on me at four o'clock in the afternoon again, so I wished him dead.

20. Once upon a time to come, there lived a young man named Daudi, who hunted with a wolf-dog called Trotter.

21. Getting plugged into the Net was going to make our love even more perfect.

22. Howdy. I'm George Simmons and I live next door.

So, how did you do? I think it's easy to see where a lot of these lines succeeded or failed, but a few aren't quite so obvious. Some stories sold despite clunker first lines, and some good first lines are attached to stories that didn't find a home. That's life. Perhaps because I have a bit of a track record now, a few sympathetic editors gave me the benefit of the doubt, despite a so-so opening, and found the rest of the story overcame a weak beginning. And a good opening line, no matter how gripping, cannot save an otherwise lousy story (of which I have several). So sometimes you can't tell if a story is a winner or not just from the first line.

Work on your openings -- they will get your foot in the door, or get the door slammed in your face. But once through that door, your story still has to stand on its own. Opening lines are just ONE thing to think about in selling your story. There are many others.

ANSWERS: 1-sold, 2-unsold 3-unsold 4-sold 5-unsold 6-sold 7-sold 8-unsold 9-sold 10-sold 11-unsold 12-unsold 13-unsold 14-sold 15-sold 16-unsold 17-unsold 18-sold 19-sold 20-sold 21-unsold 22-unsold

Copyright © 2001 Brian Plante

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