Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Closing thoughts on opening lines

by Dietrich Kalteis

As a writer, what do you make of readers who flip to the end and see what happens last first?

Flipping to the end of a novel to find out how it ends is like reaching under the Christmas tree when no one’s around and unwrapping a present, getting a sneak-peek, then rewrapping it, and trying to act surprised Christmas morning. To me, that just ruins the moment. 

The ending to a good novel is the wrap up of everything that came before. At times the author may hint at several possibilities to a story’s ending, or throw some last minute twists and surprises to keep the reader from predicting the ending. Maybe for some people, novels should come with spoiler alert stickers. 

William Goldman said, “The key to all story end­ings is to give the audi­ence what it wants, but not in the way it expects.”

While the ending to a good story is like the punchline to a good joke, I’m more interested in the first few pages of a book — the opening. If it doesn’t grab me, I may not read much more before putting the book down. If it doesn’t grab me, I won’t keep turning pages to see what the ending holds in store.

There’s a lot of promise in a strong opening, and it’s hard to imagine putting a book down that starts like this:

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern.
Dennis Lehane, Live by Night

As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.
Charles Willeford, Miami Blue

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. — James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss

Dennis Lenahan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that's what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder. — Elmore Leonard, Tishomingo Blues

Great opening lines are real grabbers, but a great book is a combination of all the story elements that have to work together to keep me turning the pages. It’s the writer’s voice, the pace, plot, conflict, setting, and the characters and their dialog. And when it’s all working together, it’s like magic. I recently finished The Force by Don Winslow and it was like that for me, the story just fired on all cylinders. Another one I just read that was hard to put down was Trouble in Paradise, Robert B. Parker’s second Jesse Stone novel, and one of his best.

While I love to discover authors I’ve never read before, the greats are always worth revisiting because they just did everything so well. And although I already know the story’s outcome, I like to reread classics by Hemingway, Steinbeck and Salinger from time to time — those rare authors who mastered every aspect of a great story, from the opening line to the final scene. And there are great crime writers who I’ve read more than once authors like Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, James Crumley, and Charles Willeford.

So, if a novel can be this great adventure, with a killer opening, interesting characters and dialog, with exciting and unexpected twists, and told in a voice that resonates, why flip to the last few pages to see how it ends?


Paul D. Marks said...

Love the Goldman quote, Dieter. He has a lot of good things to say.

Susan C Shea said...

I like the simile, Dieter!

ktford said...

Thank you Dieter, all well said..particularly re encounters, re reading experiences..