Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What makes a great beginning?

Sandra Parshall

You have to hook the reader with the opening lines.

Writers hear that so often it’s a wonder any of us makes it past the first sentences of a book. As it is, most authors probably revisit those first lines more times than we’d care to admit before we declare a book finished. Wouldn’t we all love to come up with something that would lift our openings into “Call me Ishmael” territory? An opening that would let no reader put down the book, that any sentient being would find compelling, intriguing, unforgettable?

Yeah, well. We try.

The opening lines of a book have to carry a heavy burden. They must tell the reader what kind of book this is, they must set the mood and/or the scene. They must intrigue. They must make people believe that reading this book will be a worthwhile investment of a few hours out of their lives.

Will I give up on a book if the first line doesn’t sing? Not necessarily. Some of my favorite writers have committed dull openings. But I trust them enough to hang in there. Because I know the caliber of the writer, I am confident the book will rise above its weak opening. Usually it does. Sometimes the reverse happens: the beginning shines but the book as a whole disappoints. A terrific opening followed by a terrific story – that’s what writers aim for and readers demand. 

Looking around the room I’m sitting in and grabbing books at random, I came up with these openings that I like a lot. Can you tell what kind of books they are just from the first lines?

From Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, my very favorite book of 2010:
"The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house."

Lies of the Heart by Michelle Boyajian (2010):
"It’s one of those surreal moments in life, sitting there in the courtroom and staring into the eyes of her husband’s killer."

Fourth Day by Zoe Sharp (2011):
"Nothing brings home a sense of your own mortality like being locked up alone in the dark.
Which was, of course, precisely why they’d done it."

A Hard Day’s Fright by Casey Daniels (2011):
"Here’s the thing people didn’t get about Lucy Pasternak, I mean people who never met her: Lucy sparkled."

If Books Could Kill by Kate Carlisle (2010):
"If my life were a book, I would have masking tape holding my hinges together. My pages would be loose, my edges tattered and my boards exposed, the front flyleaf torn and the leather mottled and moth-eaten. I’d have to take myself apart and put myself back together, as any good book restoration expert would do."

Breakheart Hill by Thomas H. Cook (1995), one of my all-time favorite novels:
"This is the darkest story that I ever heard, and all my life I have labored not to tell it."

Hearts and Bones by Margaret Lawrence (1996), another lasting favorite:
"Whatever they thought when they found her was bound to be wrong."

What first lines have you come across lately that instantly caught your interest? Quote them in the comments section, with the book titles and authors’ names so others will know what to look for if they’re also intrigued.

For those of you who are writers: Please feel free to show off the opening lines of your latest books! And tell us how much time and thought went into crafting them. 


Steve Liskow said...

I have to admit that I think the emphasis on opening lines is a little overdone, but I still have several favorites. My most recent, from Ann Patchett's RUN, is "Bernadette had been dead two weeks when her sisters showed up in Doyle's living room asking for the statue back."

I generally write the whole book or story and go back to polish that opening line and paragraph several times. I have to understand where everything else has to lead before I can do that, though.

I need tone, rhythm, a sense of dissonance, and a voice to draw the reader in, and I don't know the right ones when I start writing.

My novel Who Wrote The Book of Death?, opens with "No way in Hell her real name is Taliesyn Holroyd."

It creates doubt about the character's identity right up front, and that's going to be crucial to the book.

My newest and still unsold work, The Whammer Jammers, is currently a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. Here's the opening:

"Kevlar makes Hendrix itch."

Alan Orloff said...

A fun post!

Here's mine, from KILLER ROUTINE (a mystery featuring a stand-up comic):

"I lurked in the wings watching the man kill."

Sheila Connolly said...

Shoot--with this gimpy leg I can't lay hands on the book, but the first page of Sara Henry's new book (her first), Learning to Swim, is a real grabber.

In contrast, at a meeting of assorted writers last night, we were all commiserating about how blasted slowly The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo starts, and wondering if we would have continued reading if there hadn't been so much discussion on various loops.

I've always been very fond of the beginning of Mary Stewart's My Brother Michael, where the protagonist says, "Nothing ever happens to me."

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, I wouldn't have read past the first page of DRAGON TATTOO if not for all the hype. And I didn't make it all the way through the book. Liked the movie though. :-)

I don't think the emphasis on openings is misplaced at all. If a writer can't be bothered to begin the book in an intriguing way, I'm going to have doubts about the rest of it -- unless I already know and trust the author.

Steven M Moore said...

Hi! Great discussion.
I'm coming over from FB and offer the following lines from my novels (flagrant self-promotion). From The Midas Bomb: "Near the pier at the end of West 23rd Street a stooped figure sat at the water's edge and stared down at the eddies in the Hudson River." From Full Medical: "The escape from the Center was only a partial success." And from Soldiers of God: "The President has been shot!" Probably first lines are overrated relative to first paragraphs, but that initial and traditional hook is important. I started my YA novel out with "Call me Mr. Paws" in honor of Melville's famous opening.
r/Steve Moore

Barb Goffman said...

Same rule applies to short stories, Sandra, and we both know we heard it as journalists, too. You have 10 seconds to capture the reader's attention. Here's how I tried to do it with one of my short stories this past year. The story opens with dialogue: "Holy Mother of God. What have you done?" This from "An Officer and a Gentleman's Agreement," which appeared in MURDER TO MIL-SPEC. I hope the reader will have to find out what happened.

Looking at other authors' books, this isn't a recent book, but Julia Spencer Fleming's first book, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, had a stand-out opening that has always stuck in my mind. (I hope I'm remembering correctly.) "It was a hell of a night to throw away a baby." Draws you right in.

Sandra Parshall said...

Barb, Julia's opening line in her first book will always be one of my favorites. Who could stop reading after that?

You're right about short stories. The first line in a short may be even more important than a novel's opening. Any more short story writers out there who want to share your first lines?

Sara Hoklotubbe said...

From THE AMERICAN CAFE, the second in the Sadie Walela mystery series by Sara Sue Hoklotubbe: "Goldie Ray knew she didn't have long to live, but she wasn't going to sit around and mope about it."

Warren Bull said...

"When the two riders appeared out of nowhere I knew they came to kill my Pa."

Warren Bull, author of Murder Manhattan Style

The first line took roughly the same amount of time to write as the rest of the story. I kept getting it wrong and revising it over and over again. I don't think I ever got it right; I just finally eliminated every single way to do it wrong.

Anonymous said...

"If there was an arctic version of hell, Joe Rose was living it in Leadville, Colorado."

First line of my first book in the Silver Rush historical mystery series, and still my favorite (of the ones I've created, that is). It sets up the momentum and atmosphere for the whole story. :-)

It's also fun to pair up first lines and last lines of various novels and see whether they "resonate" or not. When the start and finish are done right, I close the book with a satisfied sigh, ready for more.

Lucy Burdette said...

"FTD told her to say it with flowers, but my mother said it with food."

Right now that's the opening line for A TASTE FOR MURDER, coming next January. Of course, things can change--haven't heard back from the editor yet:).


and ps, yes Julia's first book first line is one of my all time favorites.

JJM said...

Just keeping it to mysteries, and limited by what I could look up quickly via Amazon previews, I'd say this one would do it:

I still see the bed -- its white expanse floating like a snowy island on the deep pearly carpet -- the creamy tufted silk coverlet neatly folded back -- the soft heaped pillows, their pale lace soaked and stiff with her blood.

The opening sentence of Art's Blood by Vicki Lane.

One of my all-time favourite openings, though, has got to be: "He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony." From, of course, Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini.

JJM said...

(JJM = Mario Rups -- keep forgetting to sign. Not that it matters, of course.)

Sandra Parshall said...

Ann brings up an interesting point: first lines and last lines that resonate and produce a feeling of satisfaction in the reader. Some writers believe the last lines should echo or answer the first. That's another blog, I think. :-)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Looking over a couple of my openings, I can see I chose establishing voice over fitting the snap into a single sentence.

"The Green Cross," my Agatha-nominated short story:
"I had never thought to be a sailor, but my father knew the Admiral. So I boarded his flagship on the evening of August 2, carrying my few possessions wrapped in a shawl. It was Tisha B’av, the Day of Mourning."

A Death Will novella I'm currently working on:
"The real name of the place was the Aquarius Institute. Barbara called it a New Age intentional community. Jimmy called it a dude ranch for space cadets. Anyone who had heard of Esalen and Sedona but wouldn't be caught dead going there called it Woo-Woo Farm."

Can anyone doubt my two protagonists live five centuries apart?

JJM said...

"Some writers believe the last lines should echo or answer the first."

I'll give you the best durn example I've ever come across -- the opening and closing lines of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting.

Believe me, if your present post had invited us to submit an opening paragraph, The Haunting would have landed on the comments like a flash. With the opening paragraph of her We Have Always Lived in the Castle right after it. (If you don't know either, just wigwag me, I've got 'em both handy and can copy/paste 'em to you, here in comments, or via e-mail or FB.)--Mario

Geraldine Evans said...

Death Line by Geraldine Evans (1995 and ebook 2011)
'Jasper Moon, internationally renowned "Seer to the Stars" had signally failed to predict his own future. He lay sprawled on the dark carpet of his consulting room with the back of his skull caved-in. A small crystal ball - presumably the murder weapon - lay beside him.'

Sandra Parshall said...

Mario, I am a devoted Shirley Jackson fan. I've read everything of hers. Feel free to post something from one or two of her books. "Opening lines" can extend to paragraphs.

Sandra Parshall said...

Would you believe I was on the verge of quoting that same Vicki Lane opening that Mario quoted above? What a marvelous writer she is, and I am proud to call her a friend.

Ruth McCarty said...

The opening line for my story "No Flowers for Stacey" is:

Reginald Stearns tucked himself in the shadows of the dumpster behind the Diamond Heights Mall and waited for the last store to close.

It won an Derringer for Best Flash.

I too love Julia's first line. Great topic.

JJM said...

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone. -- the first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

JJM said...

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.--Opening paragraph of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson.

JJM said...

(I took advantage of your generosity, Sandy ... [grin]) Wish I had the last paragraph of the Jackson, too, but the book is in storage ...

Vicki is most definitely a superb writer, and just hitting her stride. And I am at least her Facebook friend, as I am yours ... a source of pride for me, both of them. :)


Jackie King said...

What a great subject. Might I add the beginning from my mystery THE INCONVENIENT CORPSE?
“Grace Cassidy stared at the stranger’s body. He was about sixty, pot-bellied, naked, and very dead. She knew he was dead because his skin was the color of concrete. Worst of all, he was lying smack dab in the middle of her bed.”

Anonymous said...

Personally, I like opening wth conversation. Packs a punch and gets the reader into the story immediately. Too much description or exposition will bore me. And lots of backstory upfront will make me throw the book out the window.
My soon-to-be-published book haven't been edited yet but here's the opening as it stands now.
"What you're telling me is that my career is dead."
"I wouldn't stay that, Ernest. More like it's in ICU on life support."
That's a former teen idol/TV star talking with his manager. The working title is "The Baffled Beatlemaniac Mystery."
Sally Carpenter

Sandra Parshall said...

My favorite of my own openings is the first line of Disturbing the Dead:
He wanted the skull.

(Skulls are important in that book.)

Vicki Lane said...

Ooh! Thanks for the kind words, Mario and Sandy -- and I agree about the opening line of Julia's and Sandy's books.

Here's the opening of my upcoming Elizabeth Goodweather mystery UNDER THE SKIN. It's not as poetic as the one you all liked...

“I should have known Gloria would come up with something like this right before our wedding. It’s just like her. I swear, she’s . . .”
. . . crazy as the proverbial shithouse rat were the words on the tip of my tongue but I bit them back.

Anonymous said...

I would be inclined to agree with Steve that the emphasis on opening lines is a little overdone, but then I think of how satisfying it is to encounter a good zinger that introduces both story and voice.

From WIP #2 (Law & Disorder):
In my considerable experience, drug dealers are more likely to die a violent death than get hit by a bus.

From #1 (Diary of a Small Fish, unsold):
I used to play an obscene amount of golf at the exclusive Hyannisport Club. I knew at the time it was reckless, but I never thought it was a federal crime.

Norma Huss said...

I see I'm not the only one a day late to comment. I'm really enjoying all the first lines.

From Yesterday's Body, my published book: "If a woman goes on vacation and leaves her keys in a drawer, I say they’re fair game."

From Death of a Hot Chick, doing the agent rounds: "The boat needed a lot of work, which was good. I needed to scrub, wax, polish and definitely not think."

From my WIP, a ghost-story YA I'm calling Cherish: "Late October wouldn’t be the same without every class from first grade through high school doing a tour of the cemetary." (And, of course, that one may change - the second as well.)