5 Story Opening Clichés That Need to Die
Any lunatic interested in writing fiction should volunteer at a magazine as a slush-reader for at least three months. Reading dozens if not hundreds of stories every month will not necessarily teach you how to write, but it will teach you how not to write, and knowing how not to write might be a stronger skill than any other you could possibly wish to acquire.
I started my nonexistent career reading slush for Dark Moon Digest, and now look at me. I write for LitReactor and ghostwrite porn. You, too, can achieve the American dream. To read slush is to take a daily hike up Pai Mei’s torturous staircase from Kill Bill. You will want to kill yourself by the time you reach the top, but eventually your muscles will strengthen, and you will finally know how to perform the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.
I should note that my own small press, Perpetual Motion Machine, purchased Dark Moon Digest from Dark Moon Books last year. Lori Michelle, co-owner of PMMP, operates as Editor-in-Chief, while I’m considered the Managing Editor, which is a fancy way of saying “yup, I'm still reading the goddamn slush."
The beauty of slush-reading is you will start to discover what makes a short story worth reading. Short stories are perhaps the hardest thing on this planet to write. More difficult than novels. A novel gives you time to develop characterization. A novel grants you patience. Short stories, however, demand immediacy. In a short story, a writer must tell a story consisting of a beginning, middle, and end all within a reasonably short word limit. Anything less than ten thousand words is going to be a bitch to sell. Anything more than fifteen thousand words is a novella, which is a whole different ballgame.
There is a common misconception you will find most writers have about short stories. Many writers focus on the word “short” and kind of brush “story” into the closet. Just because the word count is limited, it’s viewed acceptable to ignore the basic structure of solid storytelling. Too often in the slush you will encounter stories that end abruptly without any real resolution. You will finish these stories and think, okay, so where’s the rest of the novel you obviously cut and pasted this from?
If a short story feels like the opening of a much longer piece of work, it ceases to be a short story. Short stories are not the equivalent of a horror movie’s jump-scare prologue, and the quicker writers realize this, the sooner they will begin improving their craft.
The moment you start reading slush you will immediately learn a very important truth: most people should not be writers. They will try, and some of them might grow wise and give up, but others will be stubborn. You will see stories from them every month, and there will never be any signs of improvement. Not everybody can write, but everybody believes they can. You will want to hug them and murder them, but you will do nothing.
I will encourage creative writing until the day I die, but I will never deny somebody the choice to give up. There is nothing wrong with admitting failure. If you think this is depressing, you haven’t read slush long enough. You must become numb. You must cease to be a human being. Every rejection you send will slowly cripple your humanity.
There comes a point in every slush-reader’s life when they start knowing whether or not a story will be rejected based off the first paragraph. Hell, sometimes even the title is enough. If that sounds insane and evil, don’t bother seeing a doctor because you’re absolutely correct.
There are also certain story openings that will make a slush-reader’s teeth gnaw into their knuckles. Openings we all see, week-after-week, that never fail to disappoint. If stories ever came with warning signs, these would be the brightest and loudest:
5. IT WAS ALL A CRAZY DREAM
In many horror stories, you’ll come across openings that describe in very graphic detail somebody dying. Usually the person dying is the narrator, slowly being tortured in the most extreme way possible. This will stretch on for a couple pages until the narrator suddenly wakes up in a cold sweat. Wow, what a weird dream. So creepy. Then the narrator will go on about their day until something vaguely connected to the previous dream pops up. Dreams are cheap tricks that allow writers to create cool, sometimes disgusting, sometimes surreal scenes without fully committing to them. If you have to grip the reader by relying on fake-ass dream logic, you aren’t a writer: You’re a goddamn liar, and no reader will ever trust you again.
4. OMG THIS SENTENCE IS SO WEIRD AND RANDOM LOL
Some writers will take the “you must hook the reader from the very first sentence” bit of advice and run it off a cliff. It’s true you should aim to grab the reader’s attention from the very first sentence, but it’s very easy to try too hard and make the first sentence so insane, it’s impossible to follow the rest of the story. The first sentence should not be a story’s best sentence. If a writer’s too busy trying to out-weird their own opening, then the story will suffer and become unreadable. In conclusion: yes, hook us on that first sentence, but don’t promise more than you can deliver.
3. IT SURE IS SOME WEATHER
Nobody gives a shit about the weather. There are few things more boring than hearing what it’s like outside. Is there snow in your story? Okay, cool, then let your characters’ feet crunch on the ground. Let their eyebrows freeze. Just don’t actually tell us about the flakes falling from the sky, because holy shit nobody has time for that.
2. SERIAL KILLER JERK-OFF-ATHON
By far one of the most common stories slush-readers will encounter are the ones told in first-person present tense from a narrator describing some chick he wants to either screw or kill—or, in many cases, both. These stories will almost always be from the killer's POV, and they will one-hundred-percent of the time be creepy for all the wrong reasons. If a writer spends the first thousand words of a story describing how hot and perfect a woman appears to be while the narrator watches from outside a window or inside a closet, then this is no longer a story: it’s a journal entry from the writer’s own private fantasies. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying most writers who spend over half their story detailing a stalker drooling and growing erections are dangerous perverts in real life. I’m saying all of them are dangerous perverts in real life.
1. I WAKE UP AND LOOK IN THE MIRROR AND ADMIRE MY BODY
Here’s a cool way to immediately get me and, I assume, most slush-readers to reject you: in the first sentence of your story, have your narrator open their eyes. If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what the hell will. Writers seem to believe that the action of eyes opening is more thrilling than Michael Bay’s personalized helicopter-exploding alarm clock. Sometimes they might get creative and have the character’s eyes flutter or snap open, but that’s just applying makeup to a half-decomposed corpse. You aren’t fooling anybody. Once the character wakes up, there is a very good chance they will approach the closest mirror and inspect their body in lengthy detail. If a character doesn’t do this, then how else will the reader know what they look like, right? Here’s the thing: nobody gives a shit about characters’ appearances. The readers are just going to make it up themselves as the story progresses. Don’t describe them unless there’s something abnormal about their appearance that’s crucial to the story. And don’t try getting slick with the mirror gag, because that shit will get slime dumped on your head faster than you can say “luscious curves”.
If you’ve gotten this far in the article and you’re thinking, “Oh my God, I’ve used every one of these openings before. I am a terrible writer,” you’re probably right. But don’t worry. I’ve also used at least a couple of them. And guess what? Those stories are garbage. But they’re not unsalvageable. Rewriting will always be a writer’s best friend, right after whiskey.
But you might also be thinking, “Screw you, Max. I’ve written great stories that begin some of these ways! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” In which case, you are also right. I’m sure there are wonderful stories that begin with people waking up and inspecting themselves in front of a mirror. But I’ll never know, because my finger’s clicking “decline” as soon as I read the word “eyes”.
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