With this blog post I’d like to return to the subject of wading through the slush pile, though I’m on a less curmudgeonly mission this time. Once you’ve read enough submissions, it’s fairly easy to diagnose the many ways stories can fail. It’s far more challenging, however, to explain why successful stories are, well, successful. My project with this blog post is to try to identify at least one shared trait of successful stories, with the hope of helping some of you as you revise and refine your work to submit it to IR and elsewhere. (Speaking of submitting, don’t forget that you still have time to submit to our fiction contest.)
As far as I can tell, every good or great story must have a good or great opening. Perhaps this is a fairly obvious observation, but I can’t think of a single good or great story that opens with a mediocre first page. When you submit your fiction to journals, the opening pages of your story are absolutely essential in determining whether or not your story makes it beyond the slush pile. The opening convinces a reader to devote his or her time to reading the rest of your story, rather than moving on to another story, and editors are readers with a virtually limitless supply of other stories to move on to.
Of course, this leads to the question: What makes a successful story’s opening successful? There are as many different kinds of successful openings as there are kinds of successful stories, but I want to borrow a term from Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction to suggest a trait common to all successful openings. I believe that every successful opening must have at least one compelling intrigant. As Stern writes, “An intrigant, a word whose meaning I have somewhat bent (from ‘one who makes intrigues’ to ‘that which does intrigue’), is any device that keeps readers going.”
Like good openings and good stories, good intrigants come in seemingly endless varieties. A conversation between two characters might be an intrigant. An anecdote about a character might be an intrigant. An unusual narrative voice might be an intrigant. A description of a setting might be an intrigant. The purpose of all intrigants is the same, however: to spark a desire in the reader, the desire to continue turning the pages. If your story sparks this desire on the first page, then you’ve likely taken a large step towards moving your story out of the slush pile and farther down the editorial pipeline.
I would argue that the reader’s desire to continue turning the pages is intimately related to the reader’s sense that something important is at stake in the story being told. While intrigants come in many shapes and sizes, I find that I’m most engaged by stories with opening intrigants that center around the desires or goals of the characters. In other words, I’m drawn in by stories that give me a sense of what’s at stake on the first page or two. If I get through two pages of a story and I don’t know why the events being related are important to the character and, thus, why these events should be important to me, then I’m unlikely to be intrigued by the story and, thus, unlikely to continue turning the pages.
While I don’t want to suggest that stories submitted to IR must have certain specific types of intrigants in their opening pages, I think it might be useful to identify two species of intrigants that I find in many of the successful stories I receive.
1) A Character in Danger. A character in danger on the first page quite often creates the intrigue necessary for me to read the story’s subsequent pages. The danger doesn’t have to be of the car chase and explosions variety, either. Characters leading simple lives can feel threatened by simple changes in their lives, and if a character’s sense of being threatened is rendered vividly in a story’s opening pages, then that threat is likely to be a successful intrigant.
2) Characters in Conflict. Stories that open with two or more characters who want different things (or who want to thwart one another’s desires) are almost always intriguing. As with the danger mentioned above, the source and scope of the conflict need not be earth-shattering. As long as the conflict threatens to shatter the characters’ worlds, however small those worlds may be, the conflict will serve as an effective intrigant. Establishing tension between characters on the first page will go a long way towards making me want to read the second page.
These aren’t the only kinds of openings that grab my attention, of course, but I do think these are two reliable ways to begin a story with an intrigant. I’m curious, however, about the kinds of openings that grab the attention of our readers. What moves can an author make on the first page to intrigue you and convince you to continue turning the pages? Please take a moment to share your favorite kinds of story openings in the comments thread, or maybe share the titles of stories that you think have great first pages.