Friday, August 23, 2019

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines

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? 

by Paul D. Marks

“It was the best of times,
It was the worst of times.”

I don’t think you can beat Dickens and that opening line. And despite the title of this post, I’m not doing the worst lines here.

It’s interesting, when I first started writing this piece I went back to a lot of mystery/crime (and some non-mystery) books that I really like. And I found that a lot of them didn’t have what I would consider particularly catchy or hook-y opening lines. Though I did find some (see below). Yet for one reason or another I was still hooked into those stories. So this leads me to believe that, while a good opening line is a good thing, it’s not the only thing that one needs. Maybe these days it’s a little more important because everything is moving faster and people need to be hooked quicker. But I’m thinking that a good opening paragraph or even a few pages will do the trick.

Also, some of the lines I would have used have been snatched up earlier in the week. Not wanting to repeat those, I’ve come up with some other examples.

Re: my own openings, coming from a screenwriting background, I do usually try to open a story with a hook or teaser. You need something to draw readers in and give them a little taste of what lies in store for them. Like some of my fellow Criminal Minds have noted, it doesn’t have to be a body or a murder, but something intriguing has to happen. There has to be a compelling reason to keep reading. And clearly the style or genre of the story will make a difference in terms of the opening. So let’s get to it.

Here’s the openings from some novels that I like:


The Poet  – Michael Connelly:


Talk about a great opening line—the first sentence really intrigues you. You know this character is involved in crime—maybe a cop, a newspaper reporter? Death is a normal occurrence for him, but then comes the reversal, “But my rule didn’t protect me—.” Now the reader knows something unusual is happening, something different and this is not going to be your run of the mill murder story. This is, however, my favorite Michael Connelly story of all of them.


Nightmare Alley – William Lindsay Gresham:

Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek. 

This geek was a thin man who wore a suit of long underwear dyed chocolate brown. The wig was black and looked like a mop, and the brown greasepaint on the emaciated face was streaked and smeared with the heat and rubbed off around the mouth.

This opening sets an atmosphere that’s mysterious and piques your curiosity. You have no idea where the story is going, but the description gives you a visual image that is so strong you feel like you’re there and you want to know who the geek is? What’s he going to do? And where is this story going to take me?


Tell No One – Harlan Coben:



This opening creates so many questions. It lets the reader know that they’re in store for a mystery that will be complex and multi-layered. It sets us up to wonder what happened in the past and what happened that altered everything? Already your imagination starts going into overdrive.


The Grifters – Jim Thompson:




Three paragraphs into the story and we don’t know who Dillon is yet or what his problem is, but we immediately know he has problems. And we know they’re not your ordinary type of problems. And we’re sucked into Dillon’s life and dragged into all his issues. Again, this opening sets a tone and mood. You know you’re in for a rough ride.


Down There: A.K.A. Shoot the Piano Player – David Goodis:



Why were there no street lamps? Why was the man kneeling at the curb, spitting blood? That intrigues me in this, my favorite David Goodis novel. And don’t go by the movie where the action was changed to France.

This is an example where the opening starts at the end of the story and we go back to find out what led up to this. A great opening sets mood, tone and makes us ask questions. It draws you in.


Devil in a Blue Dress – Walter Mosley:



Here you have a great example of voice. We get a taste of the narrator’s (Easy Rawlins’) personality and we want to know more about him. Yes, we are intrigued by the white man who walks into the room, but the real grabber is Easy’s reaction and the little tidbit of his history that we learn about. His character draws us in.


And one I always site from Raymond Chandler’s short story Red Wind:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

This is the classic opening that I’ve been inspired by again and again. What do I love about it? It describes a mood and setting that is so real you can feel it, taste it and smell it. And, of course, there’s Chandler’s voice, his acerbic wit and keen observation of human nature. He’s a master at openings.

Here are some openings from some of my novels:


Broken Windows:

The Hollywood Sign beckoned her like a magnet—or like a moth to a flame. The sign glowed golden in the magic hour sun—that time of day around sunrise and sunset when the light falls soft and warm and cinematographers love to shoot. Like so many others, Susan Karubian had come here seeking fame and fortune, hoping to make her mark on the world. Oh hell, she had come to be a star like all the others. And she would do it, just not quite in the heady way she’d anticipated.

I mostly write things set in L.A., so I like using film terms like “magic hour” to set a tone for the story. And I try to set up the mood and tone and describe the scene so readers can feel like they’re there. I want the reader to feel like they are in Susan’s place and empathize. And to wonder what she’s doing at the Hollywood Sign and why.


White Heat:

My father always said I was a fuckup, that the only reason we get along is ’cause he keeps his mouth shut. Maybe he’s right:

I fucked up high school.

Fucked up college.

Fucked up my marriage.

Fucked up my life by leaving the service.

And now I’ve fucked up a case.

Fucked it up real bad.

Teddie Matson was different. She had a golden life, until her path had the misfortune of crossing mine. I sat staring out the window of my office, k.d. lang playing in the background. It was a while till the sun would set, that golden hour when everything takes on a gilded glow.

Golden hour is the time when the light hits just right in the early morning or late afternoon. The time when movie cinematographers most like to shoot. The light is tawny and warm. Gentle. It makes the stars shine brighter.

Golden hour is the time when Teddie Matson was killed.

This opening introduces my character Duke and hopefully draws readers in in response to Duke’s voice. Again, I’m using film terms like “golden hour’ to set a tone and to contrast the illusion of the film world to the harsh reality of real life.


Vortex:

All I wanted was to forget the past. Put it behind me and never think about it again. But you can’t forget the past. Not really. It’s always there inside you, like a leech holding on, sucking blood and life from you every minute of every day. Sucking down part of your soul, holding you back and keeping you from moving forward. Like a shark, if you don’t—or can’t—move forward you die. The past is one harsh mistress. And it won’t let you forget it either.

I came home from the war and felt like I was on the front line again. To hell and back and back to hell again.

I guess this opening sums up my character’s philosophy and maybe makes you want to read more. It makes you wonder what happened that could be as bad as being in a war?


So, there you have it. What are some of your favorite openings?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

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22 comments:

  1. Paul,

    Excellent blog! You provide so many fine examples of opening sentences, paragraphs and narrative hooks. These days in particular with short attention spans of readers, we need to intrigue the reader's attention immediately. Not easy to do but necessary. I really like your openings.

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  2. Thanks, Jacqueline. I think it is harder these days with people's shorter attention spans. And I'm glad you enjoyed it and especially my openings :-) .

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  3. Great post. Has me thinking about opening lines. Here's the working opening lines of my current WIP:

    Wendy Gleason and I have been keeping company for nine months, so I suppose it’s high time for our first big argument. If it weren’t over something so silly, it would have been worth it. But the Jubilee Motorcycle Rally?

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  4. I always like an opening that either sets the stage or introduces the main character so I can see if I want to go along for the ride. Older classics might not always do that, but their reputation as a book you really should read compels me to keep reading. But most older books do grab my interest. I can't say that for many new authors. So your point about a grabber being something writers should consider in their work is really a good thought. Another great post, Paul.

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  5. I agree, Paul, a good opening line isn't the only thing needed, but it's the hook. And from there you need a consistent and well-told story to go with it.

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  6. Excellent post, Paul. Chandler’s great openings always fulfill their promise. Your White Heat opening is brutal, like repeated blows from a hammer. Good stuff.

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  7. Great post! Here’s a favorite of mine from With Friends Like These, by Gillian Roberts:

    It was a dark and stormy night. Honestly. Earlier, it had been a dim and stormy day. Demonstrating no originality, March had indeed come in like a lion---a wet, angry one who blew ill winds every which way.

    And here I was, not home cuddling by the fire with whatever was available---a man, a cat, a book---but driving in the rain with my mother, wearing my sisters’ panty hose and fulfilling social obligations that were not mine.

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  8. Thanks, Terry. I like your opening. And that’s really the way it is, isn’t it?

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  9. Thanks, Gayle. And I agree re: older classics. They tend to wind up a lot slower, but often are still worth the ride.

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  10. Thanks, Dietrich. I think sometimes we get bogged down in some guru’s advice and feel like we have to follow it completely. But, while a good opening line is a good thing I think we should give a book a little more time than that.

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  11. Thanks, Larry. Can’t beat Chandler. And thanks for your comment on White Heat.

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  12. Thanks, Maggie. And I love that G. Roberts opening. I hadn’t read it, but it’s hilarious and fun (if those aren’t the same things).

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  13. OMG, I can't believe you quoted "Nightmare Alley." I'm obsessed with that book. I have a first edition I've been carrying around for years.

    And LOVE your opening lines.

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  14. Thanks, Ellen. I like Nightmare Alley a lot, but you really are obsessed, aren't you ;) ? It's a great book. What do you like so much about it? And thank you for your comment on my opening lines.

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  15. Great article, Paul. Fun AND informative.

    Here's the opening lines from an 1100-word satiric story I wrote probably two decades ago, entitled A Politically Correct Medieval Fable


    'Twas an illumination-challenged and stormy night.
    'Twas raining Feline-Americans and Canine-Americans.
    'Twas a night out in which no human personage of any gender nor non-human Americans should be.
    ('Twas also a night in a time when way too many human personages of any gender said "'Twas" and other intellectually-challenged [and yet idiomatically appropriate to the community standards of the time, and, of course, not to imply that there's anything wrong or demeaning or disrespectful in the term "intellectually-challenged"] things like that.)

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  16. Thanks, Jake. And thanks for your opening, too.

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  17. I really like posts about opening lines because they're so hard to write but so important for the story and the reader. A good opening line sweeps me into a book, and if the writer sustains it for a page, I'll stay with her or him through the book. I also appreciated the variety in your choices. Good post.

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  18. Thanks, Susan. I agree that a good opening line can sweep you into the book, and if the writer keeps it going for a page or two they've hooked me.

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  19. A good opening is like a catchy song. You need a hook and you need to keep the reader there, wanting the chorus to come.

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