Quite a few of the short story manuscripts we receive at The Fiction Desk are headed with quotations from other sources. These can be anything from religious texts to ’80s pop lyrics; sometimes the writer provides two or three — or a pageful — before getting to their story.
We are very, very unlikely to publish a story that starts like this, and if we did accept one, it would almost certainly be conditional on losing the quotation(s). I thought it might be worth writing a quick blog post here on why that is, and why writers might want to avoid the temptation to add quotations to their short stories.
As usual with our posts aimed at writers, the following is specifically from the point of view of The Fiction Desk, but much of it will apply to other publishers as well, or to good writing practice in general.
1. Thematic cannibalisation
Often, quotes are used by writers to simply express in brief the idea or theme that the story is going to explore in more detail. If the story explores the ideas well, there’s probably no need for an accompanying quote, and it can even take some of the punch out of the story. If the story doesn’t succeed, sticking a quote on the front won’t save it. (That said, there are times when a quote might give a different or more humorous take on the subject to the one the story provides.)
Take a look at the first page of one of our short stories: at the top is a comment introducing the story, then there’s a space, then the title, then the author’s name. The story itself begins at least halfway down the page. If we were to shoehorn a quote in there between the author’s name and the start of the story, there would probably only be three or four lines of story on the page, and so many different styles of text that the first page would be a hell of a mess, and not terribly tempting for the reader.
Using a quotation, especially a poorly chosen one, can sometimes make the writer look a little pompous. Novels seem to get away with it in a way that short stories often don’t.
4. Depowering the opening
The first few lines of a short story are where you meet the reader and have your chance to engage them and set the tone. Why compromise such an important moment by delegating it to Janis Joplin?
5. Rights issues
This doesn’t always apply, but if the quoted text is still in copyright, we’d likely have to get permission to use it. This takes time and often money, neither of which we really have to spare.
There are of course exceptions to every rule, and certainly not all of the above points apply in every case. But it’s worth thinking them over, even if you ultimately decide you disagree; and if you’re sending work to us, it’s definitely worth clipping Cicero or Pink Floyd off the top before you do.