Kevin Andrew Murphy July 16th, 2006
While I can’t speak for Damon Knight, late creator of the “13 line critiques,” I think a bit of explanation is in order.Â The idea of being able to hook the reader (and hopefully the editor) with the first thirteen lines of a short story is fairly simple and straightforward.Â Â Yes, theÂ “first thirteen lines” may sound like an esoteric magical number–and the name “Damon Knight” certainly adds to that ambiance–but theyÂ spring fromÂ a veryÂ plain dry fact: When using proper manuscript procedure, a double-spaced sheet of paper has 25 lines, 1 1/4″ margins, and Courier typeface.Â However, on the first page of a short story, with the header, author informationÂ andÂ appropriateÂ spacing, that number is halvedÂ to thirteen lines.
There.Â Nothing esoteric about it.Â You could just as easily say “You have the first half a page” to hook the reader and entice an editor to remove the paperclip and turnÂ to page two, rather than reaching for the form rejection slip.
Unfortunately, this bit ofÂ commonsense practicality keeps getting misinterpreted as a form in-and-of itself, like a sonnet, with authors deliberately placing a cliffhanger at the final word of line thirteen.Â Stop this.Â Please.Â Â Just because you intrigue the reader enough to make them turn to page two does not mean they’ll want to go on to page three.Â Moreover, if you start the story with a demon dangling the baby off a cliff, what are you going to do for an encore?
The cliffhanger emphasis comes from television teasers, those short bits at theÂ start of TV shows which introduce the beginning of the episode and usually have an incredibly strong hook to entice the viewer to stay through the first commercial break, rather than channel surfing.
Short stories, thankfully, are not quite in that same boat, so “hooking the reader” does not mean “openÂ your story with a moment of high melodrama.”Â Â Yes, you can, but you areÂ alsoÂ allowed to start with something slower and softer.Â Â You don’t have to overcome two minutes of commercials and a hundred alternate channels, only a paperclip and editor enuii.Â This doesn’t mean readers will sit still for uninteresting blather, endless exposition or stultifying backstory–and editors and especially junior editors are just looking for some reason to be bored–but aÂ languid, lyrical or dreamy intro can still hook the reader so long as it provides sufficient intrigue.Â Do not underestimate the power of plain good writing.
Another trouble with melodrama/cliffhanger beginnings is that, all too often, they have nothing to do with the story at hand.Â If that’s the case, even if the readerÂ does get to the end of your story, the reader will feel cheated and the editor will be annoyedÂ if there is no payoff to what was right there at the start of the very first scene.Â You’re also cheating yourself as an author if you don’t put something, not just dramatic, but significant, as your very first line.Â Along withÂ the last line,Â those are going to beÂ two of the mostÂ powerful lines in your story, by sheer virtue of their placement.Â The first lines are the hook.Â The last lines are the clincher.Â The first thirteen lines of the hook are not just what gets your story read, but combined with the clincher at the end, if they match, they’re what gets your story sold.