science fiction and fantasy writer

On Killer First Lines and Boiling Frogs

When we’re talking about the ‘Beginning’ of a movie or novel, we’re about roughly the first quarter of the story, in which the hero’s normal existence is shown, and then summarily trashed. That formally structured Beginning might not exist at all in a short story, or is likely to only partly exist. However, the below advice (not rules, advice) applies whether we’re talking about the Beginning beginning, or just the first couple of pages of wherever your story happens to start.

A new short story writer is often hit with the statement that “you need to hook your reader right from the start”, but what does that really mean? I think new writers often take this as an imperative to come up with a killer first line – I did. Certainly there’s a lot of great fiction, long and short, out there that opens with killer lines, like my personal favourite:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” (James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss)

While these kinds of lines catch a reader’s attention, they can also be a trap. The hook is in the language – the words strut across the page like Mohammed Ali in his prime. If the writer, particularly the new writer, can’t sustain that strut, while also delivering the dramatic content necessary to tell their story, the reader will probably bail out before the story’s end. Clever prose can easily get in the way of clear storytelling.

A killer first line might also be one that opens the story with a narrative lump of 4 x 2 in the reader’s face – with a bang, like:

It was the day my grandmother exploded” (Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road)

The bang sets up an expectation in the reader for more and better bangs through the rest of the story. If, unlike Mr Banks, the writer doesn’t deliver, once again, they lose the reader.

The best opening line, the best hook, is the one that opens a range of possibilities, or sows a question in the reader’s mind, that pricks their curiosity and that – often – has a sense of motion that draws the reader on to the second line. But the first line doesn’t have to be a killer line to be a great hook. For example:

A screaming comes across the sky.” (Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow)

The leap from the bridge is ungainly.” (Charles Tuomi, ‘The Leap From the Bridge is Ungainly’)

The rest of the beginning flows from these unassuming – but intriguing – first lines, with each subsequent line giving the reader a little more knowledge, a little more forward progress, a little more investment – and the writer reels them in. (You can look up the start of the Pynchon at Amazon, and the Tuomi is archived at ideomancer.com).

One reason a writer might take this softer approach is to lull the reader into a false sense of security and then whack them in the face with the narrative lump of 4 x 2. A great example is Lee Battersby’s story ‘Father Renoir’s Hands’, which I read an early draft of, way back when, that opened with the eponymous priest strangling his lover (it must be said, an unsurprising opening for a Battersby story). But then I turned the page… and found out that the ‘lover’ was a little girl. This is the only story I’ve ever physically flung away from myself in horror. But of course, by then I was hooked, so I picked it up again and read the rest.

More often, in plot-driven fiction at least, the writer just keeps building – growing tension and narrowing down the range of possibilities – until they reach the story’s climax. Writing the story is kind of like boiling a frog. As the metaphor goes: drop a frog into boiling water and it’ll jump straight out; drop it into cold water and gradually turn up the heat and it’ll sit there until it cooks. Drop the reader in with too much of a bang – and then don’t follow it up – and they might jump straight out. In fiction, particularly in short stories, you don’t want to start from cold, but if you start from warm and progressively turn up the heat (tension, stakes, emotion) to boiling, then your reader is more likely to stay and be cooked.

Starting from warm – “dropping the reader into the middle of the action” – is another truism of short stories that’s trotted out for the new writer. This means that when the story opens, the story problem must already exist, or be emerging right there and then. That is, the story begins at or after the inciting incident that sets in motion the events that end the protagonist’s normal existence. All the context (character, backstory, setting) is then built in on the fly as the action unfolds. In The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass says that within the first five pages, the reader should know who the protagonist is and, if they’re an ordinary person, what their pertinent strength is – or, if they’re a heroic figure, what their flaw is. These strengths and flaws, Maass argues, are the reader’s incentive to bond with the protagonist. And Maass is talking about novels. In the beginning part of a short story, the writer has much less time to deliver this information and also needs to show what the protagonist’s problem is and how they’re setting out to respond to it. Ideally, the immediate response to the problem is what highlights the protagonist’s strengths and flaws.

Oh, and you should find some (subtle!) way to state your story’s theme within about the first 10% of the word length, too.

Particularly at the start of your story, before your reader is fully immersed in the narrative, it’s important to try and deliver this content without infodumping. Big blocks of exposition stop the forward motion of a story dead. If you’re Terry Pratchett or Charles Stross, you can get away with that through sheer verve and wit. For most of the rest of us, infodumping risks the reader turning their nose up like my son would to a large lump of broccoli.

A better way to try and deliver as much expositional content as possible is through ‘incluing’ – building the exposition into the action (hiding the broccoli in a tasty bolognaise sauce). Possibly the pithiest example of incluing of all time is Robert A. Heinlein’s “The door dilated”, from Beyond This Horizon. From just three words, the reader knows they are not in their own familiar world, has a hint of what to expect in this unfamiliar world, and can reasonably expect to meet someone from this unfamiliar world in the next sentence.

For most of us, that’s an aspirational example. An example from my own work is the opening line from my story ‘Bitter Dreams’: “The blackfellas brought the body down to the town gate in the grey of morning, when the mist was lifting but hadn’t yet burned off.” From that line the reader knows this body is significant, and can reasonably expect to learn why, has maybe a hint from the mist about the environment and time of year, knows that the townsfolk are not ‘blackfellas’, and may infer that the town having a gate also means the town has a wall of some kind. (It also demonstrates that it takes me twenty-five words to achieve what Heinlein could deliver in three.) In practice, you can drive yourself nuts trying to inclue everything. Sometimes it’s just not practical. At the very least, it’s worth aiming to deliver exposition in small, digestible chunks.

So, in sum, when you’re starting a story: Do your best to hide the greens with a tasty sauce. Boil your frogs slowly. Or, if you’re going for the 4 x 2 approach, be sure you can follow it up.

And that’s just the beginning, then you have to write the Middle.

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