YOU ARE AN EDITOR. You have in front ofyou a large pile of unsolicited short stories, or an even larger pile of first novels. You also have an editorial meeting in two hours, three phone calls to return this morning, and a problem with the art department that you wish would go away by itself but which probably won't. You pick up the first manuscript in the pile and start reading it. How far do you get before you decide to finish it or to put it back in its self-addressed stamped envelope with a form rejection slip?
Before we answer that question, let's look at the other end of this fictional communication. That's you, the writer of this story. You've worked hard on it. You have hopes for it—if not fame and fortune (at least, not right off), then certainly publication. This manuscript is important to you. In an ideal world, the editor would give this story the same attention you did, reading it without distraction (perhaps sitting in a wing chair in a cozy, book-lined study), with care, all the way through.
But this is not an ideal world. The truth is, you have about three paragraphs in a short story, three pages in a novel, to capture that editor's attention enough for her to finish your story. With busy editors, the biblical prophecy is, alas, too often true: "The first shall be last."
Does this discourage you? It shouldn't. It's just a fact of literary life, like overdue royalty statements and inept reviewers. And unlike those regrettable phenomena, this can work to your advantage. Once you know that you have just three paragraphs to create a good first impression, you can spend your time rewriting
and polishing that opening until it convinces an editor to keep reading.
You can deliberately incorporate the qualities that make an opening interesting and original: character, conflict, specificity and credibility. These are, of course, elements that are present throughout the entire length of successful stories and novels. However, for beginnings they have particular applications and forms. But before we consider these four elements, we must consider something even more basic to the success of any story's beginning—and its middle and its end. This crucial concept is the implicit promise.
Was this article helpful?