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.