I generally don’t like this kind of negative approach: lists of what not to do. I prefer to encourage you to do things, not discourage you from doing things, but back to the subject of short stories, I can’t help but point out some very common pitfalls that I’ve seen over and over again for years—decades, actually. So here goes, in no particular order, half a dozen things you should never do in the first page of a short story:
Too Many Ideas in a Sentence
Especially in the first sentence of your story, limit each sentence to one idea.
Example of what not to do:
I woke up that morning wondering when I would stop having visions of the future when all of a sudden a flying saucer landed on my front lawn.
Is this a story about a guy with precognitive abilities, or UFOs, or both? It could be both, but that doesn’t mean you have to list them all up front.
Example of what to do instead (from “Enchanted Village” by A.E. van Vogt):
“Explorers of a new frontier” they had been called before they left for Mars.
This is a story about a voyage to Mars. Let’s see what else happens as the story progresses.
The Newspaper Lead
It could be that practitioners of this gem took some journalism classes. A good newspaper reporter doesn’t want to “bury the lead.” But a good fiction writer needs to imbue his or her work with a sense of discovery. Don’t sum up the whole thing in the first paragraph, or your readers (like most newspaper skimmers) will leave it at that.
What not to do:
I am a robot, model ZXQ7, manufactured on Zeta-3 for industrial labor, and when I fell in love with a human woman I ended up destroying both our lives. Here’s how it happened . . .
What to do (from “Brightness Falls from the Air” by Margaret St. Clair):
Kerr used to go into the tepidarium of the identification bureau to practice singing.
Ms. St. Clair’s first paragraph goes on to describe what a tepidarium is, but only really in the context of why Kerr is there to practice singing. It’s about her character’s emotional connection to the place. No more of the plot, setting, and characters is explained in that paragraph than is necessary to get you to the next paragraph. The reader is participating in the unfolding drama, not being read a list of events…
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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.
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