Showing posts with label opening sentences. Show all posts
Showing posts with label opening sentences. 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 May 2016

Shoot the Sheriff on the First Page


by John M. Floyd


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.