Tuesday, August 20, 2019

First Lines Matter

Readers often read the opening few lines or page to a book before deciding to buy. What makes an opening sentence stand out above the rest? Give examples of openings, including your own, that you believe work brilliantly. Any tips or lessons learned for new authors about what to avoid on that first page?  

From Frank

This is a great question, and near and dear to my heart. I think first lines matter a lot, whether in a story or a novel. In fact, the only line that matters as much as the first line is the final line.

I did a whole series last fall about first lines on my personal blog, All The Madness in My Soul, beginning with my first novel. I shared the first line, gave a few thoughts on it, graded it, and then shared some background info on that particular book. The series continues forward through all of my novels and a few novellas, ending just this past May with In the Cut, a book scheduled for a January 2020 release. It was a fun exercise, if you want to get into the weeds a bit.

But keeping it a little more at the twenty-thousand foot level, what makes an opener stand out? It can be a number of things. The line can be different, it can be mysterious, it can hold promise. But the biggest thing is that it captures your attention, and makes you want to read more. The best openers do that. They're like the hook of a great song.


Stephen King's Gunslinger series opens with: 

Image result for the gunslinger
The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.  

Seriously, how do you not want to read more after that? In one sentence, there are at least four compelling questions. Who is the Man in Black? Why is he fleeing? Who is the Gunslinger? Why is he following the Man in Black? Add to that the desert setting, which certainly sets an particular tone.

Or how about Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five? 

All this happened, more or less. 

Perfect lead in. Some mystery, a little off-kilter.  Isn't that Vonnegut? Don't you want to learn more? Of course you do. But you're also wondering if you're up to deciphering what you learn. That's some magic, all in one sentence.

Same thing with Ray Bradbury's Farenheit-451.

It was a pleasure to burn.

What can I say? If you stop after that opener, I don't know what to tell you. I guess you're wired differently than most.

How about some crime fiction?  Here's a couple of my favorites:

Winter came in like an antichrist with a bomb.

Ed McBain, The Pusher

Like an antichrist with a bomb. Talk about throwing some power words into a simile.

Image result for richard stark backflashWhen the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.
Richard Stark, Backflash

Can you envision that scene? This is such a powerful en medias res beginning. It doesn't just capture your attention - it kidnaps it at gunpoint.

And because Stark was so good at it, here's another...

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.

Richard Stark, Firebreak

Less direct action, but just as interesting. You immediately know something about Parker and how dangerous he is. And I maybe wrong since it has been a while since I read this one, but I'll drop and give you twenty if the opener doesn't continue with Parker answering the phone and leaving us wondering about the intended victim in the garage for a little bit. Great tension.

There are more. Both Dennis Lehane and Lawrence Block write a good opening line, and so did John D. MacDonald. And Elmore Leonard. I could point to a slew of my colleagues who nail their openers, too.  

Even though I know I can't compare to any of those masters, but here are a few of what I think are some of my best opening lines....
Coming Jan 2020

Rolling up on trouble shouldn’t feel so cold.
 - In the Cut

This book takes place against the backdrop of an outlaw motorcycle gang.


There’s always some cop who thinks he can beat the system. It’s my job to stop them.
- Good Shepherd

Not really an anti-hero, but certainly despised by most readers of my River City series, Lieutenant Alan Hart of Internal Affairs is the narrator of this novella.


- At Their Own Game

Former cop turned criminal Jake Stankovic narrates this book.

- Blood on Blood 

This comes from Gar Sawyer, the father of the two protagonists in this book I wrote with Jim Wilsky. It's his only POV chapter, but it sets the tone for the whole book, the rest of which is a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters between his sons, Mick and Jerzy.


-Heroes Often Fail

My second River City novel opens with a chapter told from a child's point of view...


And since it remains one of my favorite books (especially the final line), I'll include Waist Deep here, too: 

This is the first in a spin-off of my River City series starring Stefan Kopriva, who made a terrible mistake and is living with the guilt from it.

So, did I grab you at all?


If I did, I hope you'll check out more of my work on my website, including my current release, Charlie-316. I didn't include the first line of this one, since my co-author, Colin Conway, wrote it.


Paul D. Marks said...

A great selection of first lines, Frank. Makes me want to read, or re-read, several of those books.

Brenda Chapman said...

Great examples! The first lines to your books are real attention-grabbers.

Frank Zafiro said...

Thanks, PAUL and BRENDA! I appreciate the feedback.