Thursday, October 25, 2007

Great First Lines (and a contest!)

By Sean Chercover

NOTE: At the end of this post, I’m giving away prizes. Yes, prizes!

At a recent lit conference, the conversation among writers in the bar turned to great opening lines. Not, “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” opening lines, but opening lines of novels.

Writers love to talk about opening lines. What makes a great first sentence, what grabs the reader . . . or what is likely to make the reader close the book, put it back on the shelf and reach for another.

I’ve noticed a recent trend toward such whiz-bang first lines as:

“The bullet slammed into Joe Smith’s chest and threw him against the wall.”

“The safety line snapped and Jane Brown fell away from the rock-face and plunged toward the canyon floor.”

“Just as the man entered the bank, his head exploded.”

Okay, I made those up. But I’ve seen many that are just as bad. Full of action and danger, but ultimately boring as hell. I don’t care about Joe Smith or Jane Brown or the man with the exploding head. I haven’t even met them yet.

Here are some great first lines, pulled from the nearest bookshelf:

“Nothing is so sad as an empty amusement park.” - Soul Patch, by Reed Farrel Coleman.

“What do you do with an old madam when she’s peddled her last pound of flesh?” - Retro, by Loren Estleman

“Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake.” - Drive, by James Sallis

“It surprised him, how light she was.” - In This Rain, by S.J. Rozan

“When I was a kid, my favorite book was Horton Hears A Who, and, like most kids, I wanted to hear it over and over and over again.” - No Good Deeds, by Laura Lippman

“Gold was up 2 percent the morning that Benjamin Raab’s life began to fall apart.” - The Blue Zone, by Andrew Gross

“Calderon figured that, on this night, he had to be the only chauffeur at Los Angeles International Airport who was picking up a dying boy.” - Stigma, by Philip Hawley, Jr.

“It’s hard to get lost when you’re coming home from work.” - Blonde Faith, by Walter Mosley

And finally, one that always gets me, no matter how many times I've read it:

“Because Lydia didn’t have arms or legs, she shelled out three thousand bucks to a washed up middleweight named Cap to give her ex-husband the beating of his life.” - Psychosomantic, by Anthony Neil Smith

These are all fantastic opening lines, I think, because they are written in a distinctive and authentic voice. And nothing hooks me as strongly as voice. These lines convey a mood, but more than that, they convey an attitude, they hint at a world-view. And they make me want to know more about the characters.

The bad examples I wrote above are written without any distinctive voice. They convey no distinctive attitude, and they fail to breathe life into the characters. They seem gimmicky, a cheap (and even a little desperate) attempt to try and grab the reader by the collar. The only mood they covey is, “Look Out!”

And a distinctive voice does more than just hook me. It also assures me that I’m in good hands, that the writer is confident in his or her ability to take me into a fictional world for a few hundred pages and keep me there. That the characters I’m going to meet along the way will be fleshed out and three dimensional.

So what do you look for in an opening line? Does voice matter to you, or do you want to get straight to the action?

Share with us, some of your favorite opening lines. Not the one's you're writing (we already did that post) but from books already published.

BONUS: The first person who posts the opening line from James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, wins a prize. I don’t have my copy handy, and I don’t want to misquote it. I’m not telling what the prize is, but you’ll like it. And another prize to the person who posts the best opening line (other than Crumley’s), as determined by, well, me.


cj said...

The line you were looking for....

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackel joint just outside of Sonoma, CA, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.


Brian said...

Well you hit two of my absolute favorites ever with Drive and The Last Good Kiss. So that leaves me with the opening line from a book that more people should read, Red Baker by Robert Ward.

"The story I am about to tell you is how I, Red Baker, lost my job, my pride, my family and came damned close to losing my home and life, but through an act of ingenuity got them all (for the time being) back again."

spyscribbler said...

The alley wasn't as dark as Danny would have liked, and Evan was driving him crazy, spinning the snub-nose like a cowboy in some Sunday matinee.

(Is that against the rules, quoting a fellow Outfitter? I love that opening. It says so much about the mood and the characters, even inserting some suspense, too.)

spyscribbler said...

Oh -- sorry! Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself, if anyone doesn't recognize it. :-)

Sean Chercover said...

Spy - Yes, Marcus did write a great opening line...

...but no, it doesn't count toward a prize. Collective modesty prevents me from selecting a line by a fellow Outfit member (even if he deserves it) so if you want a chance at the secret prize, feel free to submit another.

CJ - Thanks for the Crumley line. I love it, and I didn't want to misquote. Go to my website ( and use the email link to contact me with your mailing address, and I'll get your prize right out to you.

Brian - Good one!

Keep 'em coming...

Jude Hardin said...

On a day when the February sun is indiscriminately painting all shades, from cherry red to tobacco-spit brown, on the shapes draped across our beaches...

On a morning when the tanned young things are striding down the beach foam line with a hip-roll strut, and a broker from Chicago cackles, points, and nudges a banker from Seattle with his elbow, finally daring a meek whistle when the tanned young things are well out of earshot...

On a morning when you are at last positive that nothing has ever happened to you and now, at the advanced age of thirty-three, it is pretty evident nothing ever will...

On a Sun-split morning when the recumbent forms seem to crackle and spit under the yellow fist of the sun and you sit on the edge of your bed and scratch the sole of one bare foot with the toes of the other and belch without pleasure and rub your grainy eyes with your knuckles...

It picks that morning to happen

Whew! 167 words before a full stop. I should get something just for typing the dang thing. ;)

It's from John D. MacDonald's The Brass Cupcake.

John P said...

"On the morning of Saturday, November 5 - opening day of deer season - a statuesque blond beauty strolled out of the trees, pulled down her khaki shorts, and peed beneath Cecil Pritchards's deer feeder." Ben Rehder, Bone Dry"

DanaKing said...

I always look for voice and atmosphere. I can forgive a lot from a book if it hooks me into its world right away, and it's a world I like.

My faves:
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, by Declan Hughes (Actually the first paragraph of Chapter One; there's a brief preface before it.)

Within five minutes, or ten minutes, no more than that, three of the others had called her on the telephone to ask her if she had heard that something had happened out there.
--The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe

When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio's on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.
--Get Shorty, Elmore Leonard

John McNally said...

"My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone." The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis

(I'm disqualifying myself from any prizes, but I love Portis and had to throw that one in, even though my favorite Portis is MASTERS OF ATLANTIS, which, sadly, doesn't have a great first line.)

Shannon said...

"Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit." Raymond Chandler, Trouble Is My Business.

That's one of my all-time favorites.

Doug Riddle said...

Great first lines....isn't it all of our secret addiction? And there are so many to choose I narrowed it down to three.

"Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon with an eight ball in the glove comparment and a hooker named Mandy in the backseat. Two minutes into the ride, the prison still hanging tilted in the rearview, Mandy tells you that she only hooks part-time. The rest of the time she does a little light secretarial for an independent video chain and tends bar two Sundays a month at the local VFW. But she feels her calling -- her true calling in life -- is to write" - Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen

And two from the Master of the Great First Line...Ross Thomas.

"When the white bedside telephone rang at 4:03 A.M. on the last Friday in June, the 36-year old mayor answered the call halfway through its fourth ring and kicked the 39-year old chief of police on the ankle to make sure he too was awake." - The Fourth Durango

"The pretender to the Emperor's throne was a fat thirty-seven-year-old Chinaman called Artie Wu who always jogged along Malibu Beach right after dawn even in summer, when dawn came round as early as 4:42. It was while jogging along the beach just east of the Paradise Cove pier that he tripped over a dead pelican, fell, and met the man with the six greyhounds. It was the sixteenth of June, a Thursday." - Chinaman's Chance

Hopefully these brought some smiles.


spyscribbler said...

I wandered around Borders tonight. Must've looked at sixty first lines. Seems to be a dying art!

My two favorites are:

"It was a nice day."

When delivered by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (Good Omens), it makes me laugh because I just know the story is going to be good. I would bet ten dollars to a doughnut that Neil Gaiman came up with that first line. It suits his voice perfectly.

My other favorite was The Fight Club, by Chuck Palahnuik.

"Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die."

Michael Dymmoch said...

They were in one of the “I” states when Zeke told Isaac he had to ride in the trunk for a little while. By a Spider’s Thread Laura Lippman

January, as usual, was meat locker cold, and the girl had already been missing for two days. Blood Hollow William Kent Krueger.

When a high-powered rifle bullet hits living flesh it makes a distinctive-pow-WHOP-sound that is unmistakable even at tremendous distance. Open Season C.J. Box

Lambert Fleming was barely fifteen years—and trying very hard to fit in—on that bright, sad afternoon in October when he suddenly became invisible. Applaud the Hollow Ghost David J. Walker

At the tender age of nine, Tara Evans was one of the youngest bank robbers in history. 47 rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers Troy Cook

On screen, a woman lounges on a rubber float, fingertips trailing in the water. Mission Flats William Landay

I could never decide whether “Mad Annie” was murdered because she was mad or because she was black. The Shape of Snakes Minette Walters

Rob in Denver said...

Death is my beat.

THE POET, Michael Connelly

Marcus Sakey said...

First off, thanks, Spy! Super cool of you.

Second, some personal faves. From NEUROMANCER:

"The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel."

Stephen Hunter's DIRTY WHITE BOYS:

"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."

Richard Price, CLOCKERS:

"Strike spotted her: baby fat, baby face, Shanelle or Shanette, fourteen years old maybe, standing there with that queasy smile, trying to work up the nerve."

Sara Paretsky said...

"By the hokies, there was a man in this place one time by the name of Ned Sulivan, and a queer thing happened to him late one night, and he coming up the Valley Road from Durlas."
Frank O'Connor (from the introduction to his complete short stories)
"Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, foreward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings." Flannery O'Conner, Good Country People
"'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,'" grumbled Jo, sitting by the hearth."

Jill said...

"He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it."

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason

Pete said...

Not sure if you're looking for one sentence or one paragraph, but here's one of my favorite examples of the latter:

The captain never drank. Yet, toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December's first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken. He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station-house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms on the query-room desk.

--Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm

Brian said...

Here are three more opening lines:

“The woman appeared with the first light, struggling across the dunes, a figure from the Revelation.” – Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn

“We were sitting in a backroom of a cantina on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, three drinks in, when Bill Wade reached into the dusty duffle bag he had tucked under our table and plunked down the Mexican General’s head.” – Head Games by Craig McDonald

"For Bennie Lee Sims' wake, Lennie Jack chose the sky-blue Fleetwood with the chromed-up bumpers and the bar-line running from the trunk to the dash, dispensing six different liquors with chaser.” – The Jones Men by Verne Smith

If we go a longer then one sentence and talk about openings in general then here are some of my favorites:

-“Dawn was breaking as the big Hog scooted through the streets. My five whores were chattering like Magpies. I smelt the stink that only a street whore has after a long and busy night. The inside of my nose was raw. It happens when you're a pig for cocaine.

My nose was on fire and the stink of those whores and the gangster they were smoking seemed like invisible knives scraping to the root of my brain. I was in an evil, dangerous mood despite that pile of scratch crammed into the glove compartment." – Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim

-"In the decade and a half since David Simon finished writing this book he has transformed himself from a T-shirt wearing, wet-behind-his-diamond-studded-ear, notebook toting journalist of questionable prowess into an award-winning author, acclaimed screenwriter and accomplished television producer. During that same 15 years, I have advanced exactly one rank." – Afterword to the recent edition of Homicide written by, I think, Terry McLarney

And finally one of my favorite openings of all time.

-"How much does a life weigh? Is it the product of our positive or worthwhile acts, divided by the bad? Or is it only the human body itself, put on a scale - a two-hundred-pound life?

I hold a gun to my son's head. He weighs about one hundred and thirty pounds, the gun no more than two. Another way of thinking about it: My son Lincoln's life weighs only so much as this pistol in my hand. Or the bullet that will kill him? And after the shot will there be no weight?

He is smiling. I am terrified. I'll pull the trigger and he will die, yet he's smiling as if this fatal metal against his head is the finger of a loved one.

Who am I? How can I do this to my own son? Listen- " – After Silence by Jonathan Carroll

WellesFan said...

A good recent opening line is from Dave White's When One Man Dies: "I’ve killed three men in my life. One the police know about, two that I’ve kept to myself."

Sean Chercover said...

Great contributions, everyone! To clarify, as far as the contest goes: I'm talking about an opening line, not an opening paragraph. Just one sentence.

I'll include the lit fic entries, even though my original post was aimed only at crime fiction. I haven't actually noticed a trend in literary fiction toward exploding heads in the opening line.

Thanks again for playing along, everybody. Keep 'em coming - I'll pick a winner on Tuesday.

Pete said...

If that's the case, Sean, then my entry "The captain never drank." probably doesn't have much of a chance, as much as I admire its understated beauty. And though it's indeed litfic, like most of Algren's work there's plenty of petty crime involved there.

Steve Z. said...

The opening of Reginald Hill's Recalled to Life:

"It was the best of crimes, it was the worst of crimes; it was born of love, it was spawned by greed; it was completely unplanned, it was coldly premeditated; it was an open-and-shut case, it was a locked-room mystery; it was the act of a guile-less girl, it was the work of a scheming scoundrel; it was the end of an era, it was the start of an era; a man with the face of a laughing boy reigned in Washington, a man with the features of a lugubrious hound ruled in Westminster; an ex-marine got a job at a Dallas book repository, an ex-Minister of War lost a job in politics; a group known as the Beatles made their first million, a group known as the Great Train Robbers made their first two million; it was the time when those who had fought to save the world began to surrender it to those they had fought to save it for; Dixon of Dock Green was giving way to Z-Cars, Bond to Smiley, the Monsignors to the Maharishis, Matt Dillon to Bob Dylan, l.s.d. to LSD, as the sunset glow of the old Golden Age imploded into the psychedelic dawn of the new Age of Glitz."

That, to me, beats the Dickens out of most openings.

Sean Chercover said...

Okay, with so many great entries, this was impossible to judge.

So here's what I did:

I cut and pasted 8 favorites into a Word doc, printed it out and stuck it to my dartboard. Then hurled a dart, eyes closed...

...and missed the board, putting a lovely hole in the drywall.

But I hit with the second dart, and the winner is...

Jill! Congratulations, Jill. To claim your prize, go to my website and use the email link to send me your mailing address.

Thanks for playing, everyone!

Sean Chercover said...

Oh, yeah, guess I should've given you the URL...

Levi Stahl said...

I smiled when you mentioned Crumley in your PS, since that was the book I was already getting out of my chair to go fetch.

So I'll offer Georges Simenon's The Man Who Watched Trains Go By instead:

"As far as Kees Popinga was personally concerned, it should be admitted that at eight in the evening there was still time: his fate, among others, had yet to be sealed."

d said...

Dan Jenkins had a scene in Fast Copy of newspaper writers remembering their favorite ledes. The consensus best was from the Bible: "Jesus wept."

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