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.

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”.

Image of Dark Moon Digest Issue #24
Author: Various Authors
Price: $7.95
Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing (2016)
Binding: Paperback, 104 pages
Image of Lost Signals
Author: Various Authors
Price: $16.93
Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing (2016)
Binding: Paperback, 378 pages

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Comments

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson August 15, 2016 - 11:00am

I wish I'd read this BEFORE Dark Moon Digest accepted that story I wrote that started with a dream! (That, now that I think about it, has a guy look at himself in the mirror, too.)

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David August 15, 2016 - 11:29am

But...what if your character wakes from dreaming about listing to the radio on a dark stormy night?

 

(I usually go into seclution for a few days after reading for our literary magazine so I don't snap)

Dave's picture
Dave from a city near you is reading constantly August 15, 2016 - 12:01pm

I ❤️ this so hard. 

Adrian Ludens's picture
Adrian Ludens August 15, 2016 - 12:15pm

I think #6 should be starting a story with a lengthy description of the architecture of, or the style of the furniture inside a home. 

RenegadeImage's picture
RenegadeImage from Berkeley, CA is reading The Gods of Tango August 15, 2016 - 12:51pm

While I strongly agree with most of these, I think #3 depends on type of story and how weather is a factor. Raymond Chandler certainly made it work, turning weather into a a character much as setting can be a character.

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

— from "Red Wind"

"It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars."

— from The Big Sleep

 

Russ Theriault's picture
Russ Theriault from Las Vegas is reading Revelation Space August 15, 2016 - 4:23pm

I'm a bit put off that there is nary a mention of squirrels. All my short story ideas are rejected, and all are about squirrels. Apparently, even my failings are unremarkable and mediocre. There was this one about a squirrel getting erections in a closet. I guess that that was one of my best. 

Bret Fowler's picture
Bret Fowler August 15, 2016 - 10:11pm

@RenegadeImage Well, yeah, if you're Raymond Chandler you can do whatever you want. It's the same thing with perspective. Everybody knows that good writers don't change perspectives mid-paragraph. But then there's Elmore Leonard, who will shift perspectives mid-sentence and it works beautifully. Another terrible idea is the "little did he know" omnicient-narrator break. It's a cheap suspense grab that's a hallmark of a hack writer, yet Stephen King's been using it effectively for 40 years. 

So, yeah, you can use any shitty, stupid, frustratingly common example of piss-poor writing if you're somehow miraculously talented enough to pull it off. Probably not a good idea to assume that, though. 

JM Robison's picture
JM Robison August 16, 2016 - 12:57am

All if it is good, except I disagree about readers not giving a shit about character appearance. I WANT to know what the character looks like. If I have to imagine what the character looks like, then I might as well imagine what the town looks like and imagine what happens in the rest of the story, and then I might as well not read the story and read something else that doesn't make me work for those details.

JonathanC's picture
JonathanC from Ireland is reading a whole lot of stuff! always. August 24, 2016 - 11:12am

Noob question alert... If I was going to volunteer to be a slush reader for a magazine, who would be the best person to contact with that request?

Thanks! :)

Great article!!

James B Ross's picture
James B Ross September 12, 2016 - 8:24pm

Actually, the reader does care. Because he needs to visualize and doesn't know that it's okay to put any stick figure in there. The key is to put that little hint so that the reader _thinks_he_knows_ and gets on with the show. 

The bad thing is when the writer puts too much emphasis on it, we suddenly realize that this is stupid. We cared, but now we realize there's nothing worth reading in there. Ooops!