Monday, October 16, 2006

Shivers and Hope

by Marcus Sakey

I was on a panel the other day where my friend J.A. Konrath told the audience, a group of frightened-looking Columbia College students, about his experience judging a short story competition. Over the course of reading something like 2,000 of the suckers, he learned that there were certain trends, certain clues, that told him very early on whether a story had potential or not. The biggest, of course, being the first sentence.

Not news to any of us who write, but it got me thinking, sent me to my bookshelf, pulling favorites both litfic and genre.

Here are a few of genre selections:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Neuromancer, William Gibson

“My earliest memories involve fire.”
A Drink Before The War, Dennis Lehane

“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner.”
Killing Floor, Lee Child

Yowzer. Talk about humbling: graceful, taut, and intriguing as hell. Gibson shatters the old axiom of not starting with weather; Lehane introduces a thematic thread that runs throughout the book; Child throws you in the action. All three make it near impossible to put the book down.

Or try this one, from Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys. Besides being grabby as hell, it’s a litmus test—if you don’t like this sentence, stop reading, son, because it’s only going to get rougher:

“Three men at McAlester State Penitentiary had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s own figuring, hardly human at all.”

The litfic sentences tended to be less shocking, less action-oriented, but no less effective:

“A screaming comes across the sky.”
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

“In the later years, holding forth to an interviewer or an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.”
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, Michael Chabon

“At this point in the story, Packard had never fallen in love, and didn’t trust what he’d heard of the lingo (forever, my darling, with all my heart, till the end of time, more than life itself, with every fiber of my being, oh my darling Clementine, etc.).”
Train, Pete Dexter

Fewer guns, fewer penises, but I wasn’t able to put any of them down either.

So what is it that makes a first line work? Well, obviously, they grab your attention. That’s a good idea whether you’re writing the Great American Novel or an email to your boss. Whether you do it with the histrionics of a screaming four-year-old or the subtlety of a glance across a dim-lit room depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. This isn’t a genre distinction, either; plenty of crime novels go subtle, while plenty of litfic hits with a heavy hand.

But I think that the best first lines do more than grab attention. Working at their highest level, a first line encapsulates the whole feel of a book. It’s like a trailer for a movie. A good trailer teases; it flirts, giving you touches and hope, flashing stolen glimpses of a world worth losing yourself in.

The best first lines are the same.

Not easily accomplished, certainly, and done wrong more often than it’s done right. But when it works, man, it’s magic.

One more example, of one of my all-time, top-five, desert-island faves:

"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."
The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley

Gives me shivers.

Which ones give you shivers?


Libby Hellmann said...

Well said, Marcus. And you're absolutely right. Here are a few more first lines that give me shivers... most from our own crime fiction community...

“The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.”
The Fist of God' by Frederick Forsyth

“The small boys came early to the hanging.”
Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

“Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them.”
Before The Fact, by Francis Iles (basis for Hitchcock’s Suspicion)

“It’s not every man whose father was both a pope and a murderer.”
Let’s Talk of Graves, Of Worms, And Epitaphs, by Robert Player

“I was fourteen years old when I watched my Mama die.”
Necessary Women, Karin Slaughter in Tart Noir

“For a week, the feeling had been with him, and all week long young Paul LeBaeau had been afraid.”
Iron Lake, William Kent Krueger

“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.”
Fat Tuesday, by Earl Emerson

Libby Hellmann said...

I forgot to mention the Ross Thomas Award. It's given for the best first line of a mystery. It was awarded last year for the first time, but the organizers of the award (including me) just dont have time to pursue it in 2006. If anyone out in the blogosphere is interested in taking it on, please let me know. It would be a shame, after such a wonderful post from Marcus, to let it peter out.

Chris said...

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

Stephen King
(from memory, and with apologies if I botched it.)

Maryann Mercer said...

The first line of Margaret Atwood's 'The Blind Assassin' hooked me and wouldn't let go.

"Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge."

James Lavish said...

Works for the classics too:

"They're out there."

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

John Gooley said...

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."
Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess.

"I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped."
The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks.

JD Rhoades said...

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." -1984 by George Orwell.

That line does so much...sets the mood and tells you that you're not in your own reality at the same time.

JD Rhoades said...

"I get the willies when I see closed doors."-Something Happened, Joseph Heller

You know this won't end well.

Sean Chercover said...

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

Brett Battles said...

"After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat; he had said,'I'll be with you at the latest by ten,' and when midnight struck I couldn't stay quiet any longer and went down into the street."

- Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I gave a workshop recently on this very subject and while preparing for it I asked a literary agent how many manuscripts that come into his office are read all the way to the end. By an agent. By an assistant. Anybody.

He said "five out of a thousand."

So don't wait to get their attention.

One of my favorite opening lines for the shiver factor also violates the weather rule. It's from Kevin Brockmeier's short story The Ceiling, which I think won the O Henry Award a few years back:

"There was a sky that day, sun-rich and open and blue."

Holy crap. You mean at some point in this story there isn't going to be any sky? And what's brilliant about it is that it's one word away ("The sky that day was sun-rich and open and blue") from being hack.

Another rule, often violated. Never open with a character getting out of bed. If I read about a guy waking up in the first line I better find out in the next one that he's turned into a cockroach.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Great post. Some of the best crime opening lines come courtesy of Donald Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, in the Parker series. Nearly every one of them has a compelling, suck-you-in opener.

"When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away." --THE MOURNER

As a writer, I'm always looking for those great opening lines. In fact, I have a hard time starting until I've found that line.

Chapter endings are important as well, I think. A kind of trigger to propel you into the next chapter -- which should also have a great opening line.

Bob Liter said...

Jail is not be as bad as you might imagine.
The above is the opening line of Anna Quindlen's novel, One True Thing.
It grabbed my attention.

The Home Office said...

The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband.

--The Wrong Kind of Blood
Declan Hughes

I was willing to go wherever the rest of that story wanted to take me.

Bob Liter said...

Sorry Anna Quindlen. Somehow, in an earlier post, I botched up your first sentence from the novel,ONE TRUE THING.
It should have read "Jail is not as bad as you might imagine."
As I said before, it was one of those opening sentences that grabbed me.