Showing posts with label opening lines. Show all posts
Showing posts with label opening lines. Show all posts

07 May 2019

The Importance of a Solid Beginning

by Barb Goffman

 "Will you walk into my parlour?" said the spider to the fly; "Tis the prettiest little parlor that you ever did spy."

--"The Spider and the Fly" by Mary Howitt

I spent the last few days at the Malice Domestic mystery convention, learning about new mystery novels and stories, catching up with old friends, and listening to panels about books and writing. One topic that particularly interested me was the importance of first lines.

I was reminded of some research results I learned in journalism graduate school nearly three decades ago. If I remember correctly, the average newspaper reader first looked at the photo accompanying an article, then at the headline, then at the cutline (caption) under the photo, and then, maybe, started reading the article. If the author didn't grab the reader in those first ten (or was it thirty?) seconds, it wouldn't matter how good or important the rest of the article was; that reader was never going to know what it said.

I don't know if these results would still be the same today, though I'd guess readers probably spend even less time considering whether to read an article, especially because sometimes all they see is a photo and the headline; then they have to decide to click if they want to read more.

And this all brings me to this question: how do these results apply to reading novels and short stories? Before buying or borrowing a book, do readers look at the cover (akin to the newspaper photo), then the headline (the title), then the cutline (perhaps a blurb on the cover), and then check out the first sentence or first page before deciding whether to buy or borrow a book? I'd bet that a lot of readers do.

My approach is to look at a book's cover and to consider its author. If I'm intrigued by the cover, if it has the right mood, or if the book is written by an author I've enjoyed before, I might decide to read it without gathering any additional information. If I'm still unsure, I'll read the book's description and maybe some reviews online. I don't usually check out the writing--the first line or first paragraph--before before deciding whether to move forward. Maybe I should do that because the quality of the writing will definitely affect whether I ultimately read to the end or give up early. If a writer has lured me in, like the spider with the fly, I'll probably keep turning those pages. But if I don't care about the characters, I might stop after two or three chapters. Sometimes I'll flip to the end of a whodunit to see if my guess about who the bad guy is was right. But sometimes I don't even care about that. As the saying goes, life is too short to waste time on bad books.
How's this for an anthology
cover that lures the reader in?


I take a more lenient approach with short stories, perhaps because the short story is my preferred medium. Unless the writing is poor or the story is particularly boring or way too dark for me, I'll usually read the whole thing. But that doesn't mean that a solid first line or first paragraph isn't important. Indeed, that opening can sometimes make or break the "is this boring?" decision.

That said, thinking about the openings to my own short stories, I hope other readers are even more lenient than I am. For while I sometimes write openings that, I hope, make readers react, luring them in with a splash, at other times, I use the opening to bring readers into a particular setting, where they might see something important. It might not seem exciting, but it sets the stage for all that comes. And at other times, the opening is all about setting the mood.

Here are some examples:

  • Murder's always a sin. But it especially feels like sacrilege when I get called from church on a Sunday morning because a body's been found. 

"Till Murder Do Us Part" in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies

This is a mood opening, as well as an opening with a bang. I hoped this beginning's mood would lure the reader in, as would the knowledge that the reader is embarking on a murder case with a caring, honest sheriff.

  • Looking back, I should have known something was wrong when the pot roast disappeared.

"The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" in Florida Happens

With this first sentence, I aimed to convey that something odd--and funny--was happening, something that the main character was overlooking. That, I hoped, would intrigue the reader to keep going.

  • It was the night before Thanksgiving, and Garner Duffy stood just inside the entrance of the community center, scanning the large room. He knew exactly what he was looking for.

"Bug Appetit" in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine

By using an opening similar to that of Clement Clark Moore's famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," I hoped to get the reader into the mood to read a holiday-related story. And I hoped the second sentence would make the reader wonder what Garner was looking for and read on to find out.

  • "The defense calls Emily Forester."
  • My attorney squeezed my hand as I rose. If anyone noticed, they probably viewed it as a comforting gesture. I knew better. Bob was imploring me to use his plan, not mine. Too bad, Bob. This was my murder trial, and we were doing things my way.

"The Power Behind the Throne" in Deadly Southern Charm

This opening drops the reader into the middle of the action and, I hoped, intrigues the reader to want to see what happens next with this headstrong defendant.

  • They say appearances can be deceiving. No one knows that better than me. Everyone's always thought I had it made. Only kid in the richest family in town with a steady supply of cool new clothes and fancy vacation plans. Never had a worry.  

"Punching Bag" in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries

This opening is more of a setting-the-stage opening. There's no pounding action here. Instead, the reader is invited into the life of a minor--the character's age isn't clear yet. There's the hint of secrets. Of a family unraveling.That something is definitely wrong. All of this, I hoped, would intrigue the reader to keep going.

Do these opening work? Do they achieve their goal of luring the reader into the story? Of letting the reader know that something interesting, something enticing, something the reader *must* know  about is happening? I certainly hope so. Because as I learned in journalism school nearly three decades ago, if you don't lure the reader in, it doesn't matter how good the rest is because a lot of people won't bother to read it.

Do you have any favorite opening lines? Please share in the comments and include why you think that line works so well.


07 December 2018

Opening Lines: Best and Favorite

by O'Neil De Noux
OK, we've had a few posts about opening lines but I do not think we SleuthSayers put up a post about the favorite and the best opening lines of a short story and novel we have written. So here is my subjective opinion of mine.

The Best opening line of a novel I've written is:

The wail of bagpipes echoes through the cold fog and silences the men at the earthen rampart behind the Rodriguez Canal.
– from BATTLE KISS (2011)

American breastworks at The Battle of New Orleans battlefield, Chalmette, LA
Photo ©2011 O'Neil De Noux

My favorite opening line of a novel I've written is:

There is no trick-or-treating Halloween night, two months AK – After Katrina.
– from CITY OF SECRETS (2013)


Photo of sculpture Mackenzie by Vincent De Noux used on cover of CITY OF SECRETS

The Best opening line of a short story I've written is:

It was a kiss with promise behind it, as much promise as a good girl would give, enough to make my heart race as we stood under the yellow bulb of her front gallery.
– from "Too Wise" (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Vol 132, No. 5, November 2008 Issue

My favorite opening line of a short story I've written is:

The black German shepherd wasn't a cadaver dog but she found the skeleton in the hideaway closet under the stairs of the unpainted, wooden shotgun house.
– from "Just a Old Lady" (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Vol. 60, No. 9, September 2015 Issue)

Lagniappe. How about a Worst? Here is the Worst opening line of a story I wrote that was published:

It was a dark and stormy night with the wind barking through the mangroves like the voices of angry two-year olds fighting over crayons and I dreamt of a land far away, very far away, a helluva distance away, probably on the other side of the world where it wasn't dark nor was there a storm barking through the mangroves, a place where the mangroves were peaceful and green and I could sit reading Shelley or Keats or maybe Sidney Shelton without the wind whipping the pages of my book or the rain pelting my eyes, blurring my vision of Daphne in a see-through dress with the sunlight streaming through the diaphanous material and I could see all her goodies and make yummy sounds as she slinked up to me like a skank in the night (no, it wouldn't be night because we would be on the other side of the world and the sun would be shining – through her dress).
– from "Like a Stank in the Night" (Hardboiled Sex 2006 Collection)

So what are your favorite and best opening lines? What about your worst?

www.oneildenoux.com



22 May 2017

You Come Here Often?

by Steve Liskow

Tell me what these sentences have in common:

Where have you been all my life?

What's a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?

If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?



You got it. They're all horrible opening lines. One of my favorite pieces of advice on openings is the tagline of the film Crossroads, from back in the eighties: Where second-best never gets a second chance.

More often than not, the opening is the last part of a story I polish. I need to get the rest of the story right (hysterical laughter from off-stage) and figure out where I'm going before I understand the best place to start. Three of my novels (four, if you count Hit Somebody, currently in final fixing) picked up a new opening along the way. In two, it was a completely new scene and in another it was a prologue--something editors tell you they hate--that also demanded an epilogue for a frame story. In the other case, I moved a different scene to the beginning.

Hallie Ephron offers solid advice for openings. Don't worry so much about a brilliant hook because that risks becoming a gimmick. Instead, try to present the idea that something is "wrong." It doesn't have to be huge, but suggest dissonance right away, sort of a "what's wrong with this picture?" ambiance.

Right now, my growing list of favorite openings/hooks stands at 34, and 26 are from novels. Others might qualify as novellas: Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," Cornell Woolrich's "Rear Window," and Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." Some other are comparatively old, like O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."

What should a good opening do? Well, let's look at some that work.

The Grandmother didn't want to go to Florida.

This is from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and right away we see that the story is in 3rd person POV, and the Grandmother, presumably an important character, has a conflict. Someone wants her to go to Florida against her wishes. Calling her "The Grandmother" makes her a specific grandmother, but not using her real name turns her into an archetype or symbol. The tone is detached. We get all this from eight words. It also makes us ask why she doesn't want to go, and O'Connor answers that in the following sentences. The early pay-off encourages us to keep reading until we reach the final pay-off, which, if you've never read the story, is worth it. The opening scene even sets up the ending, too.

That's a pretty good opening, wouldn't you agree? How about this one?

They throw him out when he falls off the bar stool.

That's from Laura Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing. These eleven words tell us the story (or at least part of it) is in present tense, detached third-person POV, and the unnamed male is probably drunk in a bar. This sets up many potential problems: drunks get into fights or accidents. Maybe he will have a black-out and not remember important details later. We don't know the man's name, but is a safe bet that he will be the protagonist or a victim, maybe even both. The lack of a name (again) adds distance and detachment. If you're like me, you want to read on to see what happens to this guy next. We're pretty sure it won't be good.

Let's try one more. In the spirit of blatant self-promotion, this is from my roller derby novel, The Whammer Jammers.                          

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

Hendrix, the protagonist, is (present tense again) wearing a bullet-proof vest, which suggests he's not going to a backyard barbecue. We can infer there may be shooting (which there is), and it will lead to further problems.

The first sentence is important, but most people will read beyond that. Even agents will give the MS a page, but they expect something in return. These openings all show us the story's essential style (vocabulary, point of view, tone or mood), the presumed protagonist, and some tension or conflict. All these elements draw the reader into the story.

If you're writing a novel, you have more time, but begin your story as close as possible to the important action (inciting incident ) as you can without any back-story. Get the ball rolling before you slow down to explain. If you need to explain something, do it through action, not exposition. Look at the first ten minutes of the James Cagney classic White Heat (1949) for a great demonstration of how to do it. It's all car chases and shooting, but we understand the relationships of major characters without a lot of chatter. If you can't begin with conflict, at the very least introduce the element that will cause it. O'Connor does that in the grandmother example above.

O'Connor's opening sets up her ending, too, another good trick if you can do it. Songs end on the tonic chord, and your story can repeat or refine an image from your opening. If you're writing a mystery, this can be as general as suggesting that there will be a solution, preferably not the one the reader sees coming, or the lovers with end up together...or not. But that's another reason to polish your opening in your final draft...when you know where you're going.


27 July 2015

The Last Camel Collapsed at Noon

by Susan Rogers Cooper

Several years ago I was invited to give a lecture at a Rice University summer workshop for writers. I was given the assignment of discussing hooks or opening lines – which led to one of the more enjoyable research studies I've ever done. My research consisted almost primarily of pulling out every mystery on my bookshelves (and believe me there were a lot then and even more now) and reading the opening line or paragraph. Then trying to figure out why it worked. If it did. Sometimes it didn't. Hook me, that is. And that was the entire reason for my lecture. How do you hook a reader, how do you keep them reading your book beyond that first line, paragraph, page or chapter? There's got to be a hook.

I entitled this essay “The Last Camel Collapsed at Noon” because, to me at least, Ken Follett's opening line in THE KEY TO REBECCA is one of the greatest. Why? Because you learn so much from those six simple words: You get a vague place – not a lot of camels on the streets of Manhattan – one is to assume this is a desert area, and one can also only assume that these people are in very deep doo-doo. 
 
But I found so many more wonderful opening lines, and all of them so different that it led me to do my own classification of openers: Slap in the Face, Character, Travel Log, and Puzzler, among others. Here's the short list, honed down from a much, much larger one, that fits perfectly in these categories.

Slap in the Face: PRIMARY JUSTICE, William Bernardt – “'Once again,' the man said, pulling the little girl along by the leash tied to his wrist and hers. 'Tell me your name.'” DEAD BOLT, Jay Brandon – “His child was on the ledge.” And one of my all time favorites, SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT, Bill Crider – “Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.” In all three of these examples, I dare the reader not to read on! These opening lines grab your attention and keep you riveted.

For a really good example of a character opening I go way back to one of my favorite writers, Raymond Chandler, who wrote these opening lines for TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS: “Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said, 'I need a man.'”

Sharyn McCrumb once honored me by using my book, CHASING AWAY THE DEVIL, in a class she was teaching as an example of how to hook the reader. When she told me that, I had to go back to the book and read that opening paragraph to figure out why. I knew I didn't kill anybody in that first paragraph, knew there wasn't any great action. So why did she single out this opening?

The third week in November is Pioneer Week in my home, Prophesy County, Oklahoma. There's nothing in this goddam world I hate more than Pioneer Week. They make us deputies dress up for it. In chaps. And cowboy hats. And boots. And spurs. And real-live six-guns on our hips. It's goddam ridiculous.” I had to read this a couple of times before I realized that this, like Chandler's opening paragraph above (although unfortunately not nearly as classic) is a character opening. Milt Kovak's personality is smeared all over those few sentences. The reader knows, right off the bat, what kind of person he/she's going to be sharing the next several hundred pages with.

Travel Log: THE JUDAS GOAT, Robert B. Parker – “Hugh Dixon's home sat on a hill in Weston and looked out over the low Massachusetts hills as if asphalt had not been invented yet.” Marcia Muller often opens her books with vivid descriptions of northern California. But her opening lines for PENNIES ON A DEAD WOMAN'S EYES – “At first they were going to kill me. Then they changed their minds and only took away thirty-six years of my life” – is a good example of the Puzzler category. Others are Joseph Wambaugh's opening line in the THE ONION FIELD, “The gardener was a thief,” Barbara Michaels' opener for THE DARK ON THE OTHER SIDE,The house talked,” and Jonathan Kellerman's first line of OVER THE EDGE, It was my first middle-of-the-night crisis call in three years.”

A book does not necessarily start at the beginning of the story. A writer can always go back and pick up the chronological beginning of the story – a beginning that may not be overly dramatic. Of course the beginning of the story needs to be there – but not necessarily on page one. Page one should be reserved for the hook.


While writing FAT TUESDAY, Earl Emerson wrote these words on page 127, chapter eight: “I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.” He said it took him weeks to junk the book, re-plot the story,and regain the momentum of the narrative, but he was able to move those lines to page one, chapter one. Now that's a hook.

In journalism they teach that the lead (or hook) must grab a reader by the lapels, must punch him in the nose to make him read the story. Seize his attention and don't let go. The hook in a good mystery should punch the reader in the nose while at the same time seducing him. The hook shouldn't answer any questions, but ask them. A good mystery opener should seduce the reader into believing that the answers to those questions are worth the wait.

17 June 2015

Opening bottles and books


by Robert Lopresti

She was the most interesting thing that barroom had seen in a long time.

Well, I had only been there an hour, but the look on the bartender's face told me had been waiting for a woman who looked like that for  a whole lot longer.  Maybe his whole life.

Her clothes were a little skimpy for March.  Nothing to shock the church ladies, if such existed in Portland, Oregon these days, but enough to get a man's attention.  I happened to be a man.

The only thing that spoiled her appearance was the thirty degree tilt to her frame that came from the heavy vinyl sack over one bare shoulder.  Since it said LEFT COAST CRIME I deduced that it was full of new mystery novels.She shifted the bag onto the floor and climbed onto a stool a few seats away from me.  The bartender came up with an eagerness he had not shown when I ordered my white wine.

"Martini," she said.

"Gin or vodka?" asked the barman.  He had a face like a burlap sack full of grapefruits.

"Steve," she replied.

He frowned -- much shifting of citrus- - and went down the aisle, presumably to consult his drinkology manual.

After a moment she turned my direction and gave me a careful lookover.  A more thorough one than the subject deserved, really.

She smiled and batted her long eyelashes.  Then she said: "Starting on the day Charlotte Mayhew murdered her husband -- October 23, 1985 -- she became very suspicious of cats."

I don't have the equipment to bat my eyelashes but I can blink.  I did so.  "Excuse me?"

"I said, 'Starting on the day...'"

"I heard you.  But why did you say it?"

The bartender had arrived with a drink - whether it was a Steve Martini I am not prepared to say.  She gave him a smile which threatened to turn him into a puddle on the duckboards.

"It is the opening line of a story by Jane Haddam," she explained.  "Crazy Cat Ladies."

"I remember," I said.  "I read it in Ellery Queen last month.  But why say it now?"

She turned that smile on me.  "It's a great opening line, isn't it?"

I nodded.

"I had an insight when I read it.  It occurred to me that an opening line is like a pickup line."

"How do you figure?"

"They have the same purpose, don't they?  To attract someone's attention.  Pique the curiosity.  Convince someone to spend some time with you.  In other words, to seduce."

At the other end of his dog run,  the bartender dropped something. It tinkled.

"I never thought of it that way," I admitted.  "So you're a mystery fan?"


"Death is my beat."

 "Michael Connelly.  The Poet."

She shrugged.  Her shoulders, specifically.  "It's one of the great romances, isn't it?  The writer and the reader?'

"Older than that," I said.  "The storyteller and the listener."

She nodded enthusiastically.  "But it's usually a fling, right?  Even the best book doesn't keep us forever."

"I suppose not.  But just like a love affair, one can change your life, and stick in your memory all your days."

She gave me her sleepy grin.  "You're a romantic."

"I'm too much of  a realist not to be."

A frown.  "What does that mean, exactly?"

"Beats me, but it sounds good."  I did a quick drag through the shallow river of my memory.  "I saw her entrance.  It would have been hard to miss."

Her eyebrows rose.  "Why, how sweet!  Lawrence Block, isn't it?"

I nodded.  "Eight million Ways To Die."

She finished her drink.  "Wanna go somewhere and discuss literature?"

I shook my head.  "I'm meeting my wife in a few minutes."

She sighed.  "Happy families are all alike."

"Anna Karenina," I said.  "Not mystery fiction."

"When I drink I get promiscuous."  The bartender was staring at her.  "In my reading, I mean.  Stout, please."

He nodded.  "Pale or dark?"

"Rex," we said together.

"Enjoy the rest of the conference," she told me as I paid my bill.

"You too--" I frowned.  "Your name isn't Velma, by any chance?"

She shook her head.  "Call me Ishmael."

"No, I don't think I will."

Note: In searching for more openers to put in here I discovered that Fran Rizer had had the same insight as my mysterious friend. 

19 March 2012

What's My Line?

by Fran Rizer

I think there was an old television show called "What's My Line?" but I'm not sure. I'm either too old or too young to remember it. Too old if my memory is slipping; too young if I was just a toddler then.

Lines fascinate me, almost, if not more, than words. When a songwriter comes up with a great line, it usually becomes the hook in a chorus. When single folks come up with a great line, it sometimes helps them get "lucky." When I hear a great line, it goes into my little black notebook of ideas and may later appear in a story or novel.

Flipping through the notebook's pages, I found this: In response to, "How are you?" the answer line is, "I'm always good; sometimes I'm excellent!" (Ask Velma to read that to you. I'm sure she'll know exactly the right intonation!)

Some of you might be relieved if I didn't share with you the best "line" a guy ever used to get a date with me, but I'll tell you anyway. I was in my forties, had gained ten (okay, fifteen) pounds, and attended a rockin' wedding reception. This man kept talking to me, politely hittin' on me, and being overly charming. I said, "This place is full of younger, beautiful women giving you the eye. Why are you hanging here with me?"

His reply: "Women are like cars. Depends on whether a man wants to drive a Pinto or a Mercedes. You, my dear, are a Mercedes." (Yes, I did date him for several years, and if men are also like cars, he was a Jaguar.)

Since the general emphasis of SleuthSayers is writing books and short stories, let's turn our attention to what I consider the most important sentence in either: the first line.

One of my favorite books since second grade has been Huck Finn. I learned recently that Twain changed that first line three times before settling on:

"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter."
— Mark Twain - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Other favorites include:

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show."
— Charles Dickens - David Copperfield

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
— J. D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye

"Through the fence, between curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting."
— William Faulkner - The Sound and the Fury

"Mother died today."
— Albert Camus (tr. Stuart Gilbert) - The Stranger

"All this happened, more or less."
— Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-Five

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
— C. S. Lewis - The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."
— Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea

"Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eyes is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me."
— Gunter Grass (tr. Ralph Manheim)-The Tin Drum

"Call me Ishmael."
— Herman Melville - Moby Dick

I've read that many people consider the opening line of Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens as the greatest opening line of all time.

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." The problem is that those twelve words are not the opening sentence of the book. The opening line goes on for about fifty words more than that last "times," which is followed by a semi-colon, not a period.
— Charles Dickens - Tale of Two Cities

My two favorite opening sentences are both short and a bit gritty.

"The guy was dead as hell."
— Mickey Spillane - Vengeance Is Mine

… and …

"Elmer Gantry was drunk."
— Sinclair Lewis - Elmer Gantry

Closer to Home

All this thought led me to take a look at my own first sentences.

A Tisket, a Tasket, a Fancy Stolen Casket - "Eager to pump up my new underwear, I dashed into my apartment just as the phone rang."

Hey Diddle, Diddle, the Corpse & the Fiddle - "The sweat trapped in the bottom of my bra was making me crazy."

Casket Case - "Melvin Dawkins floated facedown in the steamy, bubbling water of the hot tub." No underwear in the first paragraph but she does mention she's not wearing any in the second paragraph.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, There's a Body in the Car - "A fly sat on the old geezer's nose." What? No underwear in the first paragraph? Nope, but Callie mentions fanny-padded panties on the first page.

What about you? Do you have a favorite opening line (short story or novel) from your or another author's work? Please share it with us. Meanwhile, I've got to check with Liz to see if Callie's tendency to open with statements about underwear show any deep, underlying psychosis in her creator.

Until we meet again… take care of you!