07 May 2016

Shoot the Sheriff on the First Page

Much has been said at this blog about the openings of stories and novels, and how we writers try to make them as effective as possible. There are also a lot of rules about how to do that--as well as rules about how not to do it: don't start with character description, don't start with the protagonist waking up, don't start with backstory, don't start with cliches, don't start with (according to Elmore Leonard) the weather, and so on and so on.

Like most rules, some work and some don't. Starting with the weather didn't hurt The Red Badge of Courage ("The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting") or Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind" ("There was a desert wind blowing that night"). I do, however, like the idea of beginning with action ("They threw me off the hay truck about noon"--The Postman Always Rings Twice) or implied action ("The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida"--Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"). Most of all, I like openings that are intriguing enough to make the reader want to keep reading.

I'm paraphrasing here, but I remember what the late great writing instructor Jack Bickham once said, describing a conversation with one of his students about story openings:
TEACHER: Your problem is, you started your story on page 7.
STUDENT: What? No I didn't--I started it on page 1. See?
TEACHER: No, you started typing on page 1. You started your story on page 7.

Bickham believed that you should start as far along in the story as possible. That way you can begin with something happening, and let the preliminary information seep in later, as (and if) needed. Author L. Sprague Decamp is credited with the quote "Shoot the sheriff on the first page." In fact, if the story's short, shooting him in the first paragraph might be even better. Or in the first line.

As for first lines, here are a few from my own short stories. Alas, I doubt these opening sentences will ever show up as case studies in the writing classes of the future, but they do suit my purposes for this column, because I can remember exactly what I was trying to convey when I came up with them:

Jason Plumm lay on the beach for five hours before he was found.
--"The Blue Wolf," AHMM
Here, I wanted to introduce all kinds of questions. Why was he there? What had happened to him? Where was he, that was so isolated he wasn't discovered sooner? What will happen to him after his rescue, if indeed the purpose of those who found him was to rescue him?

Ed Parrott was cleaning his gun by the campfire, a hundred yards south of the herd, when the stranger stepped from the shadows.
--"The Pony Creek Gang," Reader's Break
One helpful hint about openings is to try to inject "change" of some kind into a character's life, whether it's death, divorce, marriage, relocation, a different job, the arrival of a new face in town, etc. We as human beings are wary of changes: If the protagonist feels threatened (and if Parrott doesn't, he ought to be), the reader will also feel that tension.

Susan Weeks had never seen a monster before.
--"The Wading Pool," Spinetingler Magazine
I've never seen one either, but I can imagine perfectly the one Susan saw in that story. Here I just wanted something scary, right away, to happen to my protagonist.

At 8:40 on a clear night in July, Jesse Pratt escaped from Building A at Crow Mountain State Penetentiary, stole a pickup from the staff parking lot, and promptly drove it into a lake fifty yards away.
--"Weekend Getaway," Pages of Stories
Another rule of story beginnings is to try to quickly identify as many as possible of "the five W's": what's happening, who's it happening to, why's it happening, when is it, and where is it. In this one, I think I managed to cover all of them in that opening sentence.

"What I can't figure out," Nate said, as he lay in the dirt behind a clump of cactus near Rosie Hapwell's house, "is why you married that idiot in the first place."
--"Saving Mrs. Hapwell,"  Dogwood Tales Magazine
More questions. Who are these people, and why are they hunkered down in the desert? Are they hiding? Who from? Rosie's husband, maybe? If so, is Nate a relative? A good Samaritan? Her lover? Hopefully, the reader will want to find out.

Sara Wilson was almost asleep when she heard her roommate scream.
--"Poetic Justice," Woman's World
One last "tip" that I try to keep in mind: whenever possible, start with action. Things are happening, and the plot is already moving forward. The obvious question here is What caused her roommate to scream?

Great first sentences set the stage for what comes next, and some are so powerful they'll be remembered forever. Here are twenty that won't be remembered forever (they're more opening lines from my own stories), but I like 'em anyway:

All things considered, Jerry thought, it wasn't a bad day to die.
--"The Last Sunset," Dream International Quarterly

Dave Cotten sat on his back porch with a .38 revolver in his lap, staring at nothing in particular.
--"Blackjack Road," The Strand Magazine

Rudy Tullos was in love with his neighbor.
--"The Garden Club," Eureka Literary Magazine

At three a.m. Alice Howell jerked awake.
--"The Range," Mystery Time

The two brothers lived together in the city at the end of the valley at the foot of the great blue mountains.
--"Custom Design," Lines in the Sand

Lou Rosewood stepped into the laboratory, closed the door behind him, and locked it.
--"A Place in History," T-Zero

Rose Cartwright was sipping coffee and knitting a blue sweater for her grandson when she heard the tinkle of the bell on the front door of the shop.
--"Rosie's Choice," SMFS Flash and Bang anthology

Jimmy should be back by now, Karen thought.
--"Night Watchers," Short Stuff

Hank Stegall saw her as soon as she stepped out of the building.
--"Ladies of the North," Phoebe

Tom stood alone in the hallway, staring at the number on the door in front of him.
--"Vital Signs," Red Herring Mystery Magazine

Catherine Munsen was less than thrilled about her job.
--"A Thousand Words," Pleiades

"Get in the truck!" Morton said, as he pushed through the door of the quick-stop and marched toward his pickup.
--"Lost and Found," Writers on the River

"I know you have my grandpa's gun," Eddie said.
--"The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," Writer's Block Magazine

Jack Hollister woke up in a room he'd never seen before: two doors, three windows, bare walls, no furniture.
--"High Places," After Death anthology

The dead woman lay in a pecan orchard fifty yards from the road.
--"Oversight," Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine

Around nine a.m. Billy Roland saw the water tower and the first cluster of buildings in the distance, steered his rented Ford to the shoulder of the road, and stopped.
--"Saving Grace," The Saturday Evening Post

For once, the Swede was speechless.
--"Greased Lightnin'," The Atlantean Press Review

Sheriff Lucy Valentine trudged up the muddy slope to find the first rays of the sun peeking over the horizon and an ancient purple gas-guzzler parked beside her patrol car.
--"Traveling Light," Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine

The scariest day of my life--and the most wonderful--happened when I was ten years old.
--"The Winslow Tunnel," Amazon Shorts

The old man was popping the last of the breakfast biscuits into his mouth when the door crashed open.
--"Newton's Law," Western Digest

Enough of that. Here's the good stuff--a dozen of my favorite opening sentences from both novels and shorts:

I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should have put some plastic down.
--Gun Monkeys, Victor Gischler

Fedship ASN/29 fell out of the sky and crashed.
--"Beachworld," Stephen King

What was the worst thing you've ever done?
--Ghost Story, Peter Straub

The magician's underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.
--Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins

He rode into our valley in the summer of '89.
--Shane, Jack Schaefer

You better not never tell nobody but God.
--The Color Purple, Alice Walker

The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.
--Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes.
--The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
--"Until Gwen," Dennis Lehane

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
--1984, George Orwell

Every time they got a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body, Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something.
--Bandits, Elmore Leonard

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.
--Darker Than Amber, John D. MacDonald

How could a reader NOT keep going, after those?

Okay, what do you think, about all this? Do you find opening lines easy to write? Difficult? Are there specific things you try to do in an opening, like start with action or dialogue or a catchy situation? Do you try to introduce your main character, call him Ishmael, have her dream of Manderley, make his last camel collapse at noon, and get the plot rolling? What are some of your favorite opening sentences, from your own work or that of others?

In an interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King said first sentences are "a tricky thing." But he added that he was sure about one thing: "An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this."

King's good at doing that. Here's an example:

"The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed."

So did millions of readers.


  1. Like you say, John, some rules work and some don’t. I think it’s not to anyone’s advantage to be too strict about them. But, as I’ve heard, you have to know the rules in order to be able to break them. But I love the examples you give from Red Badge of Courage and Red Wind (a particular favorite opening of mine).

    And I like your line: “Dave Cotten sat on his back porch with a .38 revolver in his lap, staring at nothing in particular.” Makes me want to know what comes next.

    Also like your example of the teacher telling the student that their story doesn’t begin until page 7. Once, when I was rewriting/script doctoring a screenplay, I basically threw out the entire first act because, to paraphrase the teacher, the original writer’s story didn’t begin until act two. I kept a few bits of info or dialogue from act one, but threw out 99% because it was all backstory that was unnecessary, especially at the beginning and the real story didn’t kick in till much later.

  2. A good piece and interesting how many of the real grabbers are short!

  3. Paul, there are a number of rules about openings that I think can be happily violated. One I didn't mention is "Never start with dialogue." I've forgotten where I heard that one, but it certainly doesn't always apply. Some of the best stories/novels I've read begin with a single line spoken by a character who obviously hasn't been introduced yet, and much of the interest comes from WHY whatever is being said is being said.

    Bickham's "start as far into the story as possible" approach always seems to work best. I can't help noticing how many books/stories/movies begin that way, these days. Hook the reader/viewer, and only then worry about furnishing the backstory, etc.

    Thanks, Janice. I really do believe that the best of these can be very short. To quote King yet again, he once said the best "hook" ever was "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth."

  4. Wow. Thanks, John. In presentations to writers' groups, I "preach" first lines, first pages, first chapters; and your post says it the best I've read. I always bring a couple of pages of first line examples to hand out, and you've given me some fresh ideas. And speaking of starting with dialogue, my current WIP starts with "We bury our dead alive, don't we." It is not a question. Marilyn

  5. Your first line is one I intend to quote, Marilyn. As we've agreed, the whole point is to make the reader want to find out what's happening, and why. And I would guess that a big percentage of my stories start with dialogue. Why NOT? I've always heard using dialogue is a good way to make sure you're showing and not telling. What better way to begin?

    Thanks for the note!

  6. Great column, John. When I first entered fiction, a NY Time best-selling author visited our little writers' group and volunteered to critique the first ten pages of each participant's novel. I can still see her x-ing out the first five pages of almost every manuscript and saying, "Your story starts HERE." I agree with all you said, John, and to this day, I like to get the first murder in the first three pages or shock or surprise with that first line.

  7. And you do it well, Fran! Thanks for chiming in.

    I re-watched the movie Hannibal recently, and I found it interesting that the opening scene didn't involve Dr. Lecter or anything to do with the main plot. It featured the protagonist (with a different actress playing Clarice Starling this time around, of course) involved in an gut-wrenching shootout with a drug gang. Only then did the movie slow down and begin the main storyline. And it worked--it showed us how brave/capable/compassionate the main character was, before anything else happened.

  8. Super post, John. I do a whole three hour class on openings in my Crafting a Novel college course at Sheridan college. With beginning novelists, I almost always end up telling them, "Throw out your first two chapters. Your story starts in Chapter 3." I say it more nicely, of course!

  9. Thanks, Melodie. I too have heard that it's sometimes best just to throw out the first couple chapters--or maybe switch the first two, if something's happening in the second one and not the first. That, to me, has always been a good argument for the use of prologues, if the prologue is interesting enough. Although I know that for many, prologues are no longer cool.

    And I think starting with action is at least as important (maybe even more important) in a short story.

  10. John, that theory must work: I remember some of those stories and damn well worth reading.

    In contrast, I had one story that wasn’t working and wasn’t selling. It opened with a man crouching among desert rocks. Then for some reason I added a two paragraph geology, geography, and ancient history lesson and it started to improve. But I also murdered two Mexican cops on page 2.

  11. "Although it was winter, the nearest ocean four hundred miles away, and the Tribal Weathermen asleep because of boredom, a hurricane dropped from the sky in 1976 and fell so hard on the Spokane Indian Reservation that it knocked Victor from bed and his latest nightmare." - "Every Little Hurricane" by Sherman Alexie

  12. "'Quien es?' he said again. And in that moment the first shot fired and then the second." N. Scott Momaday, "The Ancient Child." (OK, I know technically this is 2 sentences rather than one. But it's the same idea and just as short. :-)

  13. Darn! I ruined the cadence by omitting a word! Here's the correct version:

    "'Quien es?' he said again. And in that moment the first shot was fired and then the second." N. Scott Momaday, "The Ancient Child."

  14. Wonderful advice for all of us. Great examples! Beginnings are always the most difficult part for me. I generally rewrite several times before being satisfied.

  15. Sorry, folks--I've been away at another signing, and just got back.

    Leigh, I think that was part of Decamp's quote: "Shoot the sheriff on the first page and two Mexican cops on the second." Or maybe not.

    Liz, I love that one! I wish I had come up with it.

    Anonymous, I agree: two short sentences amount to the same thing. I like that quote.

    Thanks, Jacqueline! I think beginnings should almost always be rewritten, many times. When they're finally right, you know it.

    1. As usual, a great article. I love first lines as prompts. Sometimes, I don't know what I'm going to write until a first excites me.

  16. Thanks, Deborah. Whatever works, do it--right? I don't know that I've ever used a first line as a prompt (maybe I should've), but I do try hard to make sure it reels the reader into whatever story I've created. Anytime I read a great opening sentences or paragraph, I suspect that the author worked hard at trying to put his or her best foot forward.

    Good openings do not automatically ensure that a good story will follow, but I have noticed that good stories rarely have bad openings.

  17. I'm a little late to the party, but had to laugh when I saw CROOKED LETTER here. I actually bought it when we were in MS, based on the first line. Same reason I love all your short stories, John--great opening lines.

    Most of my story ideas start with an opening line of some sort. I'll admit I love using dialogue, but don't always use it.

    Interesting that you mentioned Bickham. I have well-worn copies of his books that I re-read over and over.

  18. Thanks, Bobbi! Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is one of Tom Franklin's best novels, I thought. He's good at shorts as well.

    Jack Bickham must have been a great writing instructor, because his books are wonderful. I often quote him, on several different writing points.


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