What makes a perfect first line?
When I’m reading a story, I think what I’m looking for most in a first line is confidence. I want to feel that a story is about to be told, whether I choose to read it or not. I love it when a story feels like a train is already starting to chug along out of the station just as I’m reading the first sentence. The conductor isn’t going to waste his time convincing me how pleasant the experience of the train ride is going to be. He’s taking off one way or another. He’s got places to be. I can choose to hop on or not.
And confidence doesn’t necessarily mean “grabby” or “flashy,” either. In fact, some of those really flashy first lines can actually reveal a lack of confidence, I think. “I was fourteen when I decided to murder my orthodontist.” That kind of thing. (Although reading that back, maybe it’s actually a fantastic first line? Hmm.)
So it’s all very abstract and vague and unhelpful when you’re actually doing the work of writing. But if you read enough, hopefully you recognize one when you see it?
How can one word like “still” indicate a relationship?
I love this question. Obviously economy of words is everything in all forms of writing, but especially when you start getting down to flash, and especially especially when you’re in micro territory, where each word carries incrementally more weight because the piece surrounding it is leaner.
In this story, with “Upstairs, I hear Mom still crying,” “still” hopefully does the factual work of giving us an idea of the severity of the fight that preceded the story. But it also hopefully gives us a glimpse at who this mom is, and who the narrator is. The fact that “still” is a word that could be used to describe her crying, and the fact that this boy is the type of kid who would think to use “still” when describing his mom’s crying. That says something about both of them, and their relationship to one another. “Still crying” is very different than “off-and-on crying” which is very different than “uncontrollably crying.”
How do you select which key details to include?
It’s tough! It’s very easy to write stories that become like, “look at how particular my details are!” The details have to do a lot of work without looking like they’re doing a lot of work. In this story for instance, hopefully the Ford F-250 Highboy gives us some sense of time (the seventies, when that truck was popular), the father’s character (presumably a little rough-and-tumble, rugged, outdoorsy guy), and a sense of the narrator’s preferences/interests (he’s the type of kid who prides himself on his knowledge of vehicle models and their nicknames).
Plus, hopefully it creates a sense of shorthand between the narrator and the reader. If I were talking to my brother or sister, I’d never use the phrase “mom’s car when we were kids.” I’d say “the station wagon,” because all three of us know exactly which car I’m talking about when I say that, because we have this shared history between the three of us. I think the best key details do this, too; they’re like the narrator is treating it as a given that the reader has this same shared history as them. Hopefully, like the perfect first line, that presumed intimacy gives the reader the feeling that this story will exist whether they choose to read it or not.