Killer Year–The Class of 2007


Great Opening Lines
November 4, 2007, 3:34 pm
Filed under: Sean Chercover

Note: This post originally appeared on The Outfit blog.

-Sean Chercover

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 crime 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 in crime fiction, 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, 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 first sentences. Not the one’s you’re writing (we already did that post) but from books already published.

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6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I made some posts on great first lines in crime fiction a few months back on my blog and got some terrific responses from readers. (You can find the posts and comments at http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/07/what-are-your-favorite-crime-story.html and http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/08/more-about-first-lines.html.

Two of my own favorites are from recent Irish crime novels (though the second opening is actually two lines, not one). Both do a superb job of setting the tone for all that follows:

“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.”

— Declan Hughes, The Wrong Kind of Blood

and

“In the bar, Karen drinking vodka-tonic, Ray on brandy to calm his nerves, she told him how people react to death and a stick-up in pretty much the same way: shock, disbelief, anger, acceptance.

“`The trick being,’ Karen said, `to skip them past the anger straight into acceptance.'”

— Declan Burke, The Big O
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Comment by Peter

Sean, there’s too many openers I admire, so I’m gonna cheat and give you my favorite LAST lines ever, from a short story called “Dundun” by Denis Johnson:

“Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.”

Comment by Derek

Without a doubt, my favourite opening lines are from Stephen King’s book IT:

‘The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.’

It hooks me everytime. In fact, I now just may have to read the whole story…again!

Comment by Akasha Savage

You asked whether voice matters most to your readers or whether they prefer openings that get right to the action. That question made me realize that the openings I cited in my comment do both.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Comment by Peter

[…] noted here, Neuromancer’s opening line has seen many reincarnations. Other bloggers, such as one Mystery Fan buff, circa the Outfit Blog, noted that mystery books have been opening with a bang for some time. As […]

Pingback by Best One Liners. Got One?

“One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes.” Sarah Vowell. Genius.

Comment by Sarah Moffett




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