29 December 2018

Grand (?) Openings


by John M. Floyd



Earlier this month my old (or maybe I should say long-time) friend O'Neil De Noux wrote an interesting column here at SleuthSayers about his best, worst, and favorite opening lines of stories and novels that he himself has written. That set me to thinking: since I admire O'Neil and since one of the best things a writer can do is try to copy other writers he admires . . .

Here are some opening lines of my own short stories, lines that might not be grand but that I hope are at least--how should I put it?--effective.


First, a quick note. I've always heard that ideal openings should (1) introduce your lead character and/or (2) establish the setting (time, place) and/or (3) introduce conflict. A fourth goal is to make the reader curious about what might happen next. I tried to do some of those things in these openings:


Jason Plumm lay on the beach for five hours before he was found.
--"The Blue Wolf," AHMM, Feb 2000

All things considered, Jerry thought, it wasn't a bad day to die.
--"The Last Sunset," Listen Magazine, Dec 2005

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, Vol. VII, 1998

"If he's sick," O'Neal said, "maybe he'll die on his own."
--"Flu Season," The Norwegian American, Nov 2016

The dead woman lay in a pecan orchard fifty yards from the road.
--"Oversight," Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, Winter 2003

Terry Gibbs could remember a thousand unpleasant duties in the course of his twelve years on the police force.
--"200 Feet," Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2014

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, May/June 1994

Lou Rosewood stepped into the laboratory, closed the door behind him, and locked it.
--"A Place in History," T-Zero, July 2003

I met Jenny Bartlett two days ago, when she rang my doorbell at six in the morning.
--"Rainbow's End," Woman's World, July 27, 1999

At first Eddie thought he'd been carjacked.
--"Wheels of Fortune," Heist Magazine, April 2002

Joe Higby stomped into the ice cream shop, leaned his axe against the wall, and took a seat at the counter.
--"In the Wee Hours," Over My Dead Body, April 2012

"Is he still out there?" Patty asked.
--"Knights of the Court," Red Herring Mystery Magazine, Vol. 3, #3.5, 1996

The bank stood on the west end of Palmetto Street, an old and gray lump of a building in an old and gray part of town.
--"Molly's Plan," Strand Magazine, June-Sep 2014

It was quiet at the edge of the woods.
--"The Blue Delta," Blood on the Bayou (Bouchercon anthology), Sep 2016

"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, March/April 1997

Two dozen people stood in a group around the hanging tree.
--"Sand Hill," Gathering Storm Magazine, April 2017

Hank Stegall saw her as soon as she stepped out of the building.
--"Ladies of the North," Phoebe, Spring/Fall 2002

Ames and his driver sat in the black Lincoln outside Ross Vardeman's apartment building, in a parking space as far as they could get from a streetlight.
--"Watched," Untreed Reads, Oct 2011

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, July/Aug 2015

"Driver?" the senator's wife said. "Where exactly are we?"
--"Driver," Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2015

Angela Potts noticed, as she plopped down on the park bench beside Sheriff Jones, that he looked grumpy--but that was nothing unusual.
--"Picture This," Woman's World, July 22, 2013

At 8:40 on a clear Friday night in July, Jesse Pratt escaped from Crow Mountain State Penitentiary, stole a pickup from the staff parking lot, and promptly drove it into a lake some fifty yards away.
--"Weekend Getaway," Pages of Stories, Summer 2010

George Tate had fed his cousin's livestock and was trudging back from the barn when he heard the woman scream.
--"Tomboy," Prairie Times, Nov 2010

The scariest day of my life--and the most wonderful--happened when I was ten years old.
--"The Winslow Tunnel," Amazon Shorts, March 2006

Dave Cotten sat on his back porch with a .38 revolver in his lap, staring at nothing in particular.
--"Blackjack Road," Strand Magazine, June-Sep 2012

The old man was popping the last of the breakfast biscuits into his mouth when the door crashed open.
--"Newton's Law," Western Digest, Oct 1998

Milo Stinson thought it would be quiet in the jungle.
--"Two in the Bush," Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Issue #2, 2018

The car was waiting in the alley, with Eddie Stark at the wheel and half a dozen cigarette butts littering the pavement below the driver's-side door.
--"Frontier Justice," Florida Happens (Bouchercon anthology), Sep 2018

Charlie Hunter sat stiff and cramped in the fake leather chair in his back office, watching the clock on the paneled wall.
--"Hunters," AHMM, May 2014

"So if he dies," Niles said, "I get everything. Right?"
--"Silent Partner," Crimestalker Casebook, Spring 2004

Amos Garrett had switched off his dashboard radio, ejected Willie Nelson, and plugged in Tammy Wynette when he looked up and saw the little white car pulled over on the grassy shoulder of the road just ahead.
--"Crow's Nest," EQMM, upcoming in 2019

Susan Weeks had never seen a monster before.
--"The Wading Pool," Spinetingler Magazine, 2006


I know, I probably included about twenty too many of these. But hang in there--here are some more, from writers a bit more famous and talented than I am, that I think are among the best opening lines ever:


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

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.
--The Gunslinger, Stephen King

The last camel collapsed at noon.
--The Key to Rebecca, Ken Follett

It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.
--"The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber," Ernest Hemingway

I'm pretty much fucked.
--The Martian, Andy Weir

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

The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida.
--"A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Flannery O'Connor

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

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

At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from the luxury deck of the cruise liner Sun Duchess.
--Skinny Dip, Carl Hiaasen

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

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex downs, and nearly stepped on him.
--The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King

There was a desert wind blowing that night.
--"Red Wind," Raymond Chandler

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've put some plastic down.
--Gun Monkeys, Victor Gischler

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


Remember any of those? I love 'em. To wind this up, here's something I found in Secret Windows, Stephen King's often-overlooked, 400-page book of essays on writing. The chapter about story and novel openings that hook the reader is called "Great Hookers I Have Known," and King says the granddaddy of all hookers is this one:

"In the beginning, God created heaven and earth."


It's hard to top that.



13 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Definitely hard to top that last one, John. But maybe a close second would be "Let there be light and there was light." Now, where the hell's my Maglite?

O'Neil De Noux said...

Awesome opening lines from you, John.
I'll add another to your list of others.
"The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming." Elmore Leonard, GLITZ

O'Neil De Noux said...

John, just read through your opening lines again. Excellent work.

Steve Liskow said...

I love some of these, John. I even cite a few of the same ones in my own workshops.

One of the dangers of worrying about hooks is that you risk being so clever and intriguing that the line doesn't really connect that well with the rest of the story. It's just a device, and that turns people off.

(P.S.: The grandmother DIDN'T want to go to Florida.)

Let me add a couple:

It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying. (Hank Phillippi Ryan, Air Time)

They shoot the white girl first. (Toni Morrison, Paradise)

I poisoned your drink. (Duane Swierczynski, The Blonde)

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch. (That's from my own book, The Whammer Jammers)

janice law said...

I like the opening for The Last Sunset!
Congratulations on the Golden Derringer life time achievement award from the Short Mystery Story writers. That is very much deserved!

John Floyd said...

Yep, King is right when he said that was a great hooker, Paul. I happened to find that collection of his essays in a sale bin some years ago, and I've never seen it anywhere else--but it's a great book.

Thanks, O'Neil, for the kind words--it really is fun to go back through stories and see those opening lines and try to remember what you were thinking when you wrote them. As for Dutch Leonard, you could make an entire list of just his openings and have some of the very best. One of those I remember was from The Big Bounce: "They were watching Ryan beat up the Mexican crew leader on 16mm Commercial Ektachrome."

Steve, you're correct: The grandmother DIDN'T want to go to Florida. (And for good reason, right??) Thanks for the correction! As for your examples, I love yours from The Whammer Jammers. Well done.

Thank you, Janice!! I don't know how deserved it was, but I was certainly pleased and honored!

David Edgerley Gates said...

Terrific selection, both yours and theirs.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, David. Openings (first lines AND first paragraphs) are something I find myself worrying about and rewriting many times. And sometimes I wish I could do them over.

Hope all's well with you. Have a great New Year's!

Melodie Campbell said...

Great lists! I've always thought the opening line was the most fun to write of all writing. The next few lines are a little more work. But this is where I think short story writers trump novel writers (and particularly short story writers who become novel writers trump novelist purists.) Writing short trains you to be a word-master. Short story writers are the masters of opening lines.

John Floyd said...

Hey Melodie! Yep, the challenge (as Steve said in a comment earlier) is to keep up whatever momentum you gain with a good opening. That IS hard work. I'm reminded of the movie Cliffhanger, which had a WONDERFUL opening scene and then fizzled a bit, in fact it fizzled a lot, before picking up speed again. If that were a novel or a short, I wonder if readers would've hung in there long enough to realize it was a good tale. And I think you're right about shorts writers--they seem to understand the importance of starting strong. (Maybe it's a matter of proportions: the opening line of a short story is a bigger part of the whole than the opening line of a novel.)

Thanks for the thoughts!

Eve Fisher said...

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." - Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas"


Robert Lopresti said...

John, one of your first sentences just gave me a great opening line idea of my own. Now all I need is a story idea to go with it...

Here is one of my favorites:
"On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen." Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

John Floyd said...

That IS a good one, Eve. Thanks!!

Rob, I didn't know about the Hoban line! Interesting, to say the least. And hey, if one of my openings triggered a idea, that's great!!--the resulting story'll probably turn out better than the one that inspired it.