Opening lines: What they teach us

bonepedlarFor 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?


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9 thoughts on “Opening lines: What they teach us

  1. Loved these. So fun and so hard to write. I have a few favorites which are mysteries but remind me to think about how I approach the beginning of any story.

    I liked the start of The Graveyard Book , Neil Gaiman– “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

    I also liked The Book Thief, Markus Zusak: “First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. Here is a small fact. You are going to die.”

    And Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card: “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

    Each one very suspenseful and full of promise of a great story. Each a little surprising with the way the story is introduced. Beginnings are a struggle but looking at this list and remembering others – good ones can and have been done. Inspires me to go back and work a bit harder on mine.

  2. Great post. It makes me want to go back and write first lines all over again. I too found the beginning of The Book Thief a great beginning. It captured me from the beginning. Although I haven’t read the first lines of the other books given as examples, it makes me want to read the books.

  3. My all-time favorite comes from HOT MONEY by Dick Francis.

    I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder.

    For me it raised urgent questions: Five wives? How had that come about? And obviously wife #5 had been murdered. Who dunnit? And why had the narrator disliked her so intensely?

    I simply had to read the whole thing, then and there.

  4. I’m late in posting one of my favorites here. It’s from “Thy Client’s Wife,” a Jake Lassiter novel by Paul Levine. Lassiter always has a bit of an attitude and the beginning of this book reflects it perfectly.

    “On a stifling August day of becalmed wind and sweltering humidity, the Coast Guard plucked seven Haitians from a sinking raft in the Gulf Stream, the grand jury indicted three judges for extorting kickbacks from court-appointed lawyers, and the Miami City Commission renamed Twenty-second Avenue General Maximo Gomez Boulevard.

    And Peter Tupton froze to death.”

    Such fun.

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