Sunday, August 30, 2009

First Impressions

by Libby Hellmann

Over the summer The Outfit (Michael, Marcus, Kevin, and I) conducted crime writing workshops for teenagers and adults in a program sponsored by the Chicago Public Library. I think we were all blown away by the talent of the kids: their imagination, fearlessness, and an innate understanding of suspense.

One of my favorite parts of those writing workshops – in fact, of any writing workshop -- is first lines. As writers, we know the first line should hook the reader. We also know it’s better to start “in media res,” in the middle of things. I often can’t start writing a new book until I have the first line. I may change it later, when a better line materializes, but that first line is critical – if it’s good, it gives the reader -- and me -- an indication of the pace... setting… and mood of the story.

In the workshops Michael and I did, we handed out examples, then asked the kids to write their own. I don’t have the kids’ lines (I wish I did), but below are some of the first lines we handed out. I’ve collected them from a variety of places – other authors’ lists as well as my own, so thanks to people who contributed. And a big hat’s off to the authors who wrote them in the first place.

“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)

“For a week, the feeling had been with him, and all week long young Paul LeBeau 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

“My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky.”
Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris

“I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should have put some plastic down.”
Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Btw, Michael and I had a lively discussion on last lines and whether they need to refer back to the first. (In fact, Marcus did a post on last lines a while back.) Michael believes they should – perhaps not word for word, but thematically. I don’t. Maybe it’s because I wrote too many corporate speeches in another life, speeches in which the intro and conclusion had to be linked.

What do you think?

And in case you were wondering about the first line in DOUBLEBACK, it’s

“Panic has a way of defining an individual.”

So, let us know what your favorite first lines are. Short Stories count...

In fact, let's do a contest. The best 3 opening lines (judged in a totally subjective way by me) get a prize. Which I will tell you about later.


Shannon said...

Below is the first sentence that caused me to start keeping track of first sentences in books and eventually led to my own blog about books read, and of course, their first sentences.
It comes from Dean Koontz's FALSE MEMORY:

On that Tuesday in January, when her life changed forever, Martine Rhodes woke with a headache, developed a sour stomach after washing down two aspirin with grapefruit juice, guaranteed herself an epic bad-hair day by mistakenly using Dustin's shampoo instead of her own, broke a fingernail, burnt her toast, discovered ants swarming through the cabinet under the kitchen sink, eradicated the pests by firing a spray can of insecticide as ferociously as Sigourney Weaver wielded a flamethrower in one of those old extraterrestrial-bug movies, cleaned up the resultant carnage with paper towels, hummed Bach's Requiem as she solemnly consigned the tiny bodies to the trash can, and took a telephone call from her mother, Sabrina, who still prayed for the collapse of Martie's marriage three years after the wedding.

♥Jen♥ said...

O.k., I've not kept track of this in the past, but I'm completely hooked now on checking the first lines. Here are some I really appreciate:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument in my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

"Beakman and Trenchard could smell the fire -- it was still a mile away, but a sick desert wind carried the promise of Hell."
--CHASING DARKNESS by Robert Crais

"Frank Temple III walked out of the county jail at ten in the morning with a headache, a citation for public intox, and a notion that it was time to leave town."
--ENVY THE NIGHT by Michael Koryta

"The man behind the desk is a dim shape framed in blinding light, a god emerging from the brilliance of infinity."
--BREATHING WATER by Tim Hallinan

I'm sure I'll be back with some more. This is fun!

Libby Hellmann said...

Shannon... that one is remarkable! Truly. But then would we expect anything else from Koontz? Jen... I love yours too... all of them! Oh boy, this is going to be harder than I thought.

Patty said...

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Daphne Du Maurier, REBECCA

plastic.santa said...

I’m not sure where one should expect to find the bereaved daughter of a wealthy Malibu suicide in need of a trauma cleaner long after midnight, but safe to say a trucker motel down the 405 industrial corridor in Carson was not on my list of likely locales. – Charlie Huston, the Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

Kate Gallison said...

"In March a damp wind blows in Trenton, and it smells of cats."
--UNBALANCED ACCOUNTS, Kate Gallison. Yes, I know, it's mine. But what can you do. If I didn't like my own writing better than anybody else's I wouldn't write.

♥Jen♥ said...

I'm having far too much fun with this Libby. I've decided that from this point forward, every review I post will also include the first line of the book! Here's two more I really like:

"My car occupied slot 221 in the impound lot." --The Crime Writer (Gregg Hurwitz)

"He didn't have the stomach for it.

The man who'd seen death and had touched and smelled human wreckage; the man who'd stared into the bloody maw as it devoured the youthful promise of his generation; that man didn't have the stomach for what he had to do now." --K.I.A. (Thomas Holland)

O.k., technically the second one is two sentences, but still that's a heck of a hook! And the end of that book was smashing as well. Guess that's why it made my top 10 reads of 2008! LOL

Adam Bourgoin said...

I wrote a short story about a guy who is about to be shot execution style due to his failure to pay a bad debt to an Irish Mob bookie. The first line is:
"It's funny. When you have the business end of a .45 caliber pistol pressed to the back of your skull it's hard to think about anything else. Bat as I sit here in that very predicament, all I can think of is the bangers and mash that are not 20 feet away from me."

Kit Sloane said...

Here is one of my all-time favorites. It is from Graham Green’s suspense novel, Brighton Rock, written in 1938:
“Hale knew they meant to murder him before he had been in Brighton three hours. With his inky fingers and bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong—belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd.”

Deni Dietz said...

"At first, everyone thought the retrieving trial judge had been killed by a blind man shooting blanks at a dead pigeon."

Dining With Devils - a Tasmanian Thriller- by Gordon Aalborg

Barb Goffman said...

When I read the following line, I was hooked, and I remain hooked six books later:

"It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby."

From Julia Spencer-Fleming's IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER.

Marcia Burrows said...

Pace... Setting... Mood...
Here's a winner.

From True Grit by Charles Portis:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.

Dana King said...

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


Sue T. said...

I think the best opening line is by Hunter S. Thompson: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas)

"Call me Ishmael" isn't bad either ;)

Doug Riddle said...

Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.

-- The Friends of Eddie Coyle

♥Jen♥ said...

Well, since no one else mentioned it, I guess I feel the need for it to exist here:

"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." (James Crumley - THE LAST GOOD KISS)

Libby Hellmann said...

So I’m listening to NPR yesterday, and there’s an interview with E.L. Doctorow and he’s talking about his new book, HOMER & LANGLEY. He specifically mentioned his first line, and how critical he thinks it is. How it adds “texture” to the work, both for him and the reader. His first line:
“I’m Homer, the blind brother.”

Annie C said...

I collect openings lines that I love. Here are a few:

"It all happened because John Rebus was in his favourite massage parlour reading the Bible."

Dan Fesperman -LIE IN THE DARK
"He began the day as always, counting the gravediggers out his window. There were nine this morning, moving through the snow a hundred yards away in the middle of what used to be a children's soccer field..."

Victor Gischler- GUN MONKEYS
"I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should have
put some plastic down."

Cool post, Libby...

Annie C

Adam Bourgoin said...

How about Michael Connelly, THE POET:
"Death is my beat."

Anonymous said...

It is now Oct. 1 and I'm just catching up with your blogs. Yesterday I read that Charlaine Harris book with that spectacular first line. I plan on reading many more of hers consequently. I happened on to your blogs through my childhood friend, Barb D'Amato, and enjoy them, their ideas, and suggestions greatly.

Nathanael said...

Very nice blog Dear. Thanks for sharing.

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