Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Opening lines - a quiz

By R.J. Harlick

I'm afraid I got caught up in Victoria Day family gatherings and found myself out of time to do my blog, so I am treating you to one I posted a few years ago.

"Some authors think that the opening line of a book is what grabs a reader. Do you agree with this? What are some of your favorite opening lines?”

She inched closer to the edge of the cliff, unsure of what she would find. Fearing the worst, she peered over the ledge at the rocks below…and presto she had her opening line. 

Or if you prefer

She rocked back and forth on her chair, scratching her head, trying to come up with an opening line for the bloody book.

Opening lines don’t come easily, but I find, they are key for getting me into the story I am about to write.  Rarely am I satisfied with my first attempts. I will often keep massaging those first words until the final edits. Sometimes I even adjust them slightly when reading from the published book.

And yes, I believe that not only the opening lines, but the opening paragraphs, the opening scene, the opening chapter are key in capturing a reader’s interest.  It is particularly critical for an the aspiring writer, who must grab a prospective editor or agent’s attention in those first paragraphs otherwise the manuscript will be chucked into the garbage.

If you have ever attended a Hammett Awards ceremony you would have had an opportunity to experience first hand the importance of good openings. Excerpts from each of the five nominated books are read out. They tend to be short, only a couple of paragraphs from the opening chapter. I have yet to listen to one of these readings that didn’t capture my attention from the get go. There was a very good reason these books were Hammett finalists.

But as critical as the start is, a writer has to ensure that the rest of the book lives up to the promise of those opening words.

I thought I would let you test your knowledge of crime fiction. I’ve selected opening lines from ten books and provided a list of twelve well known writers, some living, some not.  I want you to match the opening line with the author and guess the title of the book. I’ll give you a hint. Most books are the first published by the author. I’ll post the answers at 9:00 EST tonight. So you have all day to test your wits.

1.     “It was a solecism of the very worst kind.  He sneezed loudly, wetly and quite unforgivably into the woman’s face.”

2.     “Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th-17thSeptember, a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday the 17th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.”

3.     “The girl screamed once, only the once. 
Even that, however, was a minor slip on his part.”

4.     “The boy couldn’t see in the dark, but he didn’t need to. Experience and long practice told him it was good.”

5.     “The night air was thick and damp.  As I drove south along Lake Michigan, I could smell rotting alewives like a faint perfume on the heavy air.”

6.     “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.”

7.     “Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all round.”

8.     “The woman stepped into the circle of light and began to undress.”

9.     “”Bob Barnes says they got a dead body out on BLM land. He’s on line one.”
She might have knocked, but I didn’t hear it because I was watching the geese.”

10.  “It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday.”

The authors

1.     Gail Bowen
2.     Agatha Christie
3.     Michael Connelly
4.     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
5.     Elizabeth George
6.     P.D. James
7.     Craig Johnson
8.     Stieg Larssen
9.     Sara Paretsky
10.  Louise Penny
11.  Ian Rankin

12.  Peter Robinson

1 comment:

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Yes, there's nothing like a great opening line and first paragraph, Robin. It should be a good gauge of what you can expect next.