How do you rope the reader and not become tacky, tired, or bombard them in the first few lines? Sometimes starting with questions (rolling in the protagonist’s head from other characters) gets things simply moving, especially, if the questions are hitting the reader with some scary ones. In “Swimming,” by T. Cooper and appearing in The New Yorker in April 2007, for example, the first short sentences are the following: “People say to me, ‘didn’t you hear anything?’ or ‘Why didn’t you stop when you felt something hit the bumper?’ But I don’t know how to answer either question.” I can hear the nosy people asking the protagonist these questions. It is an uncomfortable place, so as I read on, I am trying to imagine what I would do if I hit someone with my car. He will always be guilty of this event (it seems) even if he turns out to be innocent. Very smooth technique to keep you wondering, I would say. I felt the need to keep reading and so will you.
Another enticing beginning is not just “something” interesting said, but just plain being “someone” interesting. My favorite prompt is making a bullet list of all my characters’ likes and dislikes. I was a little apprehensive of wasting good writing time, but when I suddenly knew how, my character reacted to anything he encountered; it became one of my pre-writing commandments.
A good example of character introduction is in “Faulty Keys and Latches,” by Kathy Fish and appearing in Wild Life. I found her opening line about a guy not only with a “sort of a purse,” but it being “filled with rocks” to be a well-rounded character. We know three things about the protagonist in one short opening sentence: Male, Man-Purse, Rock Collector. This technique could really help in the compression of longer pieces that start with long character intros. Suddenly, I am not quite sure I need to know much more about his physicality, because I want to know the quirky man’s use for those rocks. Why is he transporting them in a purse instead of a wheelbarrow or paint bucket? These questions moved the reader past unnecessary descriptions, exposed the conflict, and tied it all up from there.
When in doubt about a potential flash fiction date going dismal, embrace the grim foreshadowing and let it all implode or explode. A good example of this first sentence leading into the deadly dismal is “A Wind From the North” by Bill Capossere and appearing in Imaginative Writing. He starts, “When three days had passed and the snow still lay in smooth unbrushed drifts across the cold glass and silvery metal of the car, the neighbors, curious or concerned began a trail of telephone calls that led, eventually, to my own heated home.” This first sentence foreshadowed something dreadful buried under the beauty of the setting. The author made a point to write “still lay in smooth unbrushed drifts” and I knew either a kid, animal, or something was lurking under that unbrushed windshield. The neighbors were concerned, so I was concerned and kept reading. It is a great hook but does the work of luring you in with growing trouble, scenery, and intrigue—all crucial points if you want to keep the reader invested in your story.
If you must be cliche, turn it on its head. “Safety Instructions” by Kerrin McCadden and appearing in Pank, Issue 6 does just that. She begins, “Unless directed by a crew member, do not construct if/then scenarios-not about the plane, not about your life.” This sentence is sort of laughing at itself because most of us who fly are already nervous of the “if/then scenarios” let alone crew members pre-planning our entire life by these decisions. McCadden uses an unexpected technique to capture attention from the everyday and cliche. Writers should try elements of this example in their first sentences if they want to try jolting a reader from thinking they know what to expect.
Finally, a reminder about using the title as your first line: It worked if you continued the next line coherently. However, putting the elements of the ending in the title or first line will give away your conclusion. Steve Almond, mentioned this idea in “Who Wants to Play with a Headless Doll” in This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey (Essays). Just like trying to pick up that perfect person sitting at the bar and following through, flash has a smooth process starting with the first line. Don’t tell the reader the Titled First Line is “Ten Days Ago in the Smokey Mountains” and then take us to your childhood in Philadelphia in the very next line. Remember, don’t put any hints that are in the last line or you have ruined everything. Like when I end this Top Five list with a Steve Almond-type sass and use my disclaimer: My words on great flash beginnings are not fiction gospel, but the greatest verses I have read made me pray I would eventually write like that author.
FF.Net Author’s Note
Cathy Colborn is a MFA student at Rosemont College. She was published by Outrider Press, Ripple Zine, and Writers’ Bloc and created a small online zine called Philly Flash Inferno. She loves sketching and painting graphic art with a psychedelic spin and recently had her work published in Pirene’s Anthology benefiting Japan: Sunrise from Blue Thunder. Cathy has studied ekphrasis for ten years and created her own chapbooks: Recycled Shoes and Stoned in Paris. On the weekends she loves preparing for the zombie apocalypse and baking cupcakes (but not at the same time).