For writers, one of the most difficult parts of the book is the beginning. Not only where in the story to begin, but also how. Those first lines are especially important in captivating a reader, especially in this age of free e-reader samples.
So here I offer some first lines that have captivated me; others appeared in Mystery Scene magazine. I’ll explain what’s so good about them:
This one made me buy the book:
“In the crypt of the abbey church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling their bishop.” — The Bone-Pedlar, Sylvian Hamilton
Apparently, the publisher liked the line, too. It even appears on the cover. Read a little further and it’s not what you think, but it’s still good. It’s creepy, and something evidently has gone wrong. We want to know what.
“Sarah Durundt flinched as faded blue-checked gingham curtains rattled open to reveal the prisoner strapped to a gurney.”— Blind Faith, C.J. Lyons
I like the contrast between the gingham curtains and the prisoner in a gurney. We know Sarah isn’t used to seeing this, because she flinches. We know something has either happened or will happen – and we want to know why.
“In a relentlessly chic and tranquil tea shop on the Lower East Side, I sat sipping gunpowder green and trying to figure out what my new client was up to. That the client, Jeff Dunbar, sat across the table laying out the case he was hiring me for, helped not at all.”—Ghost Hero, S.J. Rozan
Even the choice of tea (gunpowder green) is a bit ominous, but mainly we want to know why Lydia Chin (the narrator here) doesn’t trust her client.
“The old men sat around the little plastic table in the crowded restaurant, a trio of geezers in shiny black jackets, mumbling, chuckling, shaking their heads and then blowing across the tops of their brown cardboard cups of coffee, pushing out their flabby pink old-man lips to do so.
Then sipping. Then blowing again.
Jesus, Carla thought. What a bunch of losers.”— A Killing in the Hills, Julia Keller
The last example begins a bit more slowly, but it does set up a contrast: the old men and Carla. We wonder why Carla is so antagonistic. If you are going to open with a scene, infuse some tension into it. The rest of the book is good, too, by the way.
“Beauty is my weakness, so breaking a few rules to spring a beautiful woman from being unjustly committed to a notorious psychiatric facility felt like a good deed. But it was not a good idea.”— Bolero by Joanie McDonnell
We know this narrator has a great tale to tell. He’s already told us that it won’t all turn out as he expected – but will it turn out well? We’ll have to read and see.
“Let’s get one thing straight: I was the perfect man for this case.”—Broken Harbor, Tana French
French is one of my favorite mystery authors; each of her books has a different protagonist at the center. Here, it is Det. Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, and we want to know why he feels so strongly about the case. The case really is perfect for him, but it may also be his undoing, as we find out soon enough.
Finally, a little more, from another favorite author, Peter Lovesey, who infuses his mysteries with great humor. Another way to open with a scene:
Two men lay dead on a battlefield and one said, “Hey!”
The other stayed silent.
“I’m talking to you.”
There was no response.
“You with the head wound.”
Now the other stirred. “I’m dead,” he said through his teeth like a ventriloquist. “So we’re not supposed to talk.”
“Get real. No one’s looking at us. The action is all over there.”
Both were in the royalist army commanded by Lord Hopton. The re-enactment of the Civil War battle for Bath had moved closer to the spectators, some distance from where the pikemen had first clashed, leaving the so-called dead and dying as background decorations.—Skeleton Hill, Peter Lovesey
What are your favorite opening lines?