Thursday, May 13, 2010

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

I love beginnings, and boy, that’s a classic. I love the promise that beginnings offer—from the first day of class with a room full of new students to a new book with a story full of new characters. I especially love writing the beginning to my next book, and watching the story unfold right under my fingertips.

While beginnings are exciting to write, they’re also a little terrifying. I know that if my first string of words on page one doesn’t catch an agent, editor, reviewer, or reader’s attention, it doesn’t much matter what follows. By then I’ve already lost the opportunity to take someone on my story ride.

They say you should face your fears, so following that advice, I studied the craft of creating a compelling opening line by reading the beginnings of my favorite books. Over the years I’ve learned what really grabs me from that first line, and keeps me reading until that last line.

Here are some examples of my favorite beginnings and clues to why they’re so compelling.

#1. The mystery is puzzling and the reader wonders what’s going to happen next.
“Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.” - Bill Crider, SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT
Okay, Crider, I’m hooked. You’ve got me wondering where that arm came from, why Bert Ramsey laid it on Sheriff Rhodes’ desk, and what’s going to happen next. And I’m not going to stop reading until I find out.

#2. The clock is already ticking.
“Arriving at my office in New Haven that sunny morning, I at once discovered three unwelcome facts: There was a dead man in my swivel chair. There was blood on my new green desk blotter. And my telephone was ringing.”- Mary Kittredge, POISON PEN
This opening line sounds so warm and cozy at first, but by the time we’re finished reading it, we’ve got a dead man in a swivel chair, blood on a blotter, and most importantly, someone on the other side of a ringing phone. Could it be the killer? The cops? Or just her mother calling to see how her date went last night? Inquiring minds won’t rest until that clock stops ticking.

#3. The reader can immediately relate to the character or situation.
“Smiling serenely in the September sun, Rose Bell strolled along Regent Street; mentally she was miles away, having her husband neutered like the cat.” - Peter Lovesey, ON THE EDGE
Any book that makes me LOL on the first line has got to be a winner. Especially if I can relate to the day-dreaming protagonist. (Or is she the antagonist?) I’m going to have to read the whole book to find out what’s up. I just hope the cat isn’t harmed any more than he…er, it… already has been…
#4. The beginning implies a crime has been or is about to be committed.
“The sexual tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Unfortunately, all I had was a pair of chopsticks.” - Alison Gordon, SAFE AT HOME.
Been there. Know that feeling. Where’s a knife when you need one? I want to know a lot more about all that sexual tension, not to mention the chopsticks, and where it’s going to lead.

#5. The story begins in the middle of the action.
“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.”- Earl Emerson, FAT TUESDAY
When I find myself in the middle of the story—at the beginning—I’m quickly caught up in those little complications that make me want to speed-read through the rest of the book. With a beginning like the one above, involving a lawyer, a half-naked woman, and a dead man, my appetite is immediately whetted. The snake in the sack is the frosting on the cake.

#6. The characters, setting, or plot are vivid and real.
“They were trying to kill me and I had to pee.” - Frank McConnell, THE FROG KING.
Wish I’d written that. I can totally relate. Not about the part where someone is trying to kill me, but I do know what it’s like to have to pee. Especially when I’m hooked on a book and can’t put it down, not even for a trip to the bathroom.

#7. The book begins with conflict, action, or a question.
“Thursday, March 17, I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy, and the evening unconscious.” - Dick Francis, RISK
To me, the master of the opening line is Dick Francis. In one opening line, he’s included all three elements—conflict, action, and a question. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about horse-racing. In fact, I avoid books with sports in them. But Dick Francis could hook me on his books even if he were writing about lint. He knows how to start a story with an opening line will have me leaping through the pages like a jockey on a winning horse.

If you have some favorite beginnings you especially love, feel free to share them. Unless, of course, you’re busy dealing with a rattlesnake, your telephone is ringing, or you have to pee.


Blogger mybillcrider said...

That's one of my favorite opening lines, too, Penny. Glad you liked it!

May 13, 2010 at 6:29 PM  
Blogger Penny said...

Hi Bill!
I hope you're referring to the one you wrote! It's one of my all time favorites! Thanks for stopping by!

May 13, 2010 at 8:10 PM  

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