How to write a thriller: Great beginnings

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I’ve been working on a new thriller. But before penning a single word of prose, I’ve had to lay the foundation for my new story, much like a brick-layer lays the foundation for a new house. All kinds of groundwork has to be laid, such as decisions about:

* Which suspense category the story belongs in

* POV issues

* Character goals and motivation

Now that all of that’s done (mostly), comes the hard part: Writing Chapter One, Page One.

Which brings me to today’s topic: Great Beginnings.

I want my thriller to have a great beginning. I want it to have the best dad-blamed beginning you have ever read in a thriller, EVER.

So I’m reaching WAY back to a sort-of thriller, Rebecca, and its simple but great first line:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

When I was in the eighth grade, that story made a huge impression on me. I was spellbound by the tale of its protagonist, who is haunted by the ghost of her husband’s dead wife. I even named one of my daughters Rebecca, and have to wonder if it didn’t have something to do with my love for that book.

Here’s a link to the best 100 opening lines of novels, as chosen by the editors of American Book Review.

But those are mostly first lines of…ahem, “literary” novels. (For an explanation, see John’s recent post about “Literary snobs and commercial sellouts”.) Right now, I want to talk about the first lines of thriller novels.

You know ’em when you read ’em. They’re the ones that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck on page one and you don’t go to sleep until THE END.

So I’m wondering…what is the BEST grab-you-by-the-throat opening line (and para) you ever read in a suspense book? And what made it so good for you?

24 thoughts on “How to write a thriller: Great beginnings

  1. Kathryn, my favorite first line is from SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury. “The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.”

    That first line captured the tension and suspense that was veined throughout the novel. It set the stage for what was to come in no uncertain terms. I’ve found few opening lines that drew me into a book so completely right from the start.

  2. I just posted about this yesterday over on my blog, and listed a couple I’ve always liked. I won’t spoil it and say which ones, but each line grabbed my attention because it set something up in addition to opening the story. It either revealed character, or tension, or gave a hint of the expected pace.

    (topic thief)

    (just kidding!)


  3. Ooh, Joe, love that first line! Makes me want to run out and buy that book! Jake, what’s the old saying, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal!”? But seriously, I will go read your blog now!

  4. Yeah, I just went through that list and think they’re basing many of those first lines on the books themselves, not the first lines.

    For my money the best first line out there is probably from Elmore Leonard’s Glitz. I don’t have it handy, but it goes something like:

    The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.

  5. Dean Koontz used to do the same type of opening a lot–one line opening paragraphs with: a) a character; b) some kind of intriguing disturbance. Viz.,

    Even before the events in the supermarket, Jim Ironheart should have known that trouble was coming. (Cold Fire)

    Penny Dawson woke and heard something moving furtively in the dark bedroom. (Darkfall)

    Katharine Sellers was sure that, at any moment, the car would begin to slide along the smooth, icy pavement and she would lose control of it. (Dance With the Devil, written as “Deanna Dwyer”)

    Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch. (Dragon Tears)

    In his onyx-walled room in the occupation tower, Hulann –a naoili –had disassociated his overmind from his organic regulating brain. (Beastchild)

    In First Person POV, I still like the opening to Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:

    They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

    I also like the opening paragraph that hits you at the end. Harlan Coben does this in Promise Me:

    The missing girl – there had been unceasing news reports, always flashing to that achingly ordinary school portrait of the vanished teen, you know the one, with the rainbow–swirl background, the girl’s hair too straight, her smile to self–conscious, then a quick cut to the worried parents on the front lawn, microphones surrounding them, Mom silently tearful, Dad reading a statement with quivering lip – that girl, that missing girl, had just walked past Edna Skylar.

  6. Here’s another favorite of mine from EDGAR nominated MONEY SHOT by Christa Faust.

    “Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies.”

  7. My personal favorite is from Declan Hghes’ THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD:

    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.

    Why it hooked me? It told me enough about two of the characters and the style of writing to make me want to see what came next. I wasn’t disappointed.

  8. James, I think that’s why Dean Koontz hooked me with so many of his books. As you demonstrate, he manages to set up a killer premise with the first line and then never lets up. It’s very difficult to do!

    Mark, the thing I like about that first line you cited is the word “it.” Makes you wonder what it was that the character should have seen coming. Was it the situation or the bullet? You would have to keep reading to find out.

  9. I am working on an opening line based on a Rorshach blotch. Rather than words I am trying to make a digitally enhanced hypnotic blotch that will simple lock the readers mind into the text so that they can’t put it down no matter what.

    The story itself will of course be exceptionally good, but this will ensure that they will read it all in one sitting then rush to the store to buy the next.

    …I just haven’t figured out how to protect people who start reading while on the toilet. That could cause serious nerve damage in the legs if they get stuck there.

  10. It was the first novel of his I read and I’ve been a fan ever since.

    Ford saw the vultures from a half mile off; noticed them wheeling over the island like lives in the summer thermal, dozens of black shapes spiraling, and he thought, What in the hell has Bafe got himself into this time?

    Randy Wayne White
    Sanibel Flats

  11. Basil, if you figure out a design for that blotch, I think the publishers will want to put it on the cover too! Mark, I too am a terrific fan of the verb “wheeling.” Give me a wheeling vulture and I’ll follow the story anywhere. Dana, let’s be honest. “…put her tongue in my mouth” Was there any question you’d put down that book after a line like that (grin)?

  12. And just to show good opening lines aren’t restricted to thrillers, I just remembered this one from Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins:

    The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.

  13. Kathryn, The problem with putting the blotch on the cover is that people would be mesmerized right in the store. Two or three pick it up off the shelf and instantly freeze into the place reading it where they stand, never making it to the cashier, and finishing the book without purchasing.

    This could also cause massive book store aisle traffic jams that would be nearly impossible to unclog, since the book is nearly 300 pages long and everyone is frozen in the bookstore aisle…then the police come…there are riots in the store..

    …man…this idea is going to take some work.

  14. And of course, it had to have been stagnant water, James! That’s because it’s critical to set up atmosphere in the first line, especially when introducing underwear! Basil, I can only imagine the sudden unclogging of a blotch-cover crowd–it would start a stampede, like the running of the brides at the annual Filene’s Basement bridal sale.

  15. I’m stumped for the moment Kathryn – being in Hawaii I can’t scan the bookshelves to refresh my memory but I love everyone’s suggestions – looks like there’s some more books to add to the TBR pile!

  16. I was supposed to tell everybody that Gilstrap was traveling and couldn’t post due to an interocitar problem, or a moonbeam shifter mainspring problem.

    When I was selling lightning rods I sold more after the storms.

  17. Hey John,
    That lightening rod thing…that’s actually kind of a good opening line.

    So you bascially just killed two birds with one stone there. Good job sir.

  18. “The night John’s post went missing, the moonbeams fell.”

    Nah, that sounds like too literary a first line to me. I wanna be a commercial sellout.

  19. How ’bout

    He saw the blotch while walking across the street. The bus driver didn’t see the blotch.


    John’s new blotch book had been left on the toilet, big mistake.

  20. How about John Katzenbach’s The Analyst – “In the year he fully expected to die, he spent the majority of his fifty-third birthday as he did most other days, listening to people complain about their mothers.” This was such a great, gripping story.

  21. Kill Me If You Can, by James Paterson- “Some people are harder to kill than others. The Ghost was thinking about this as he huddled in the deep, dark shadows of Grand Central Terminal. A man named Walter Zelvas would have to die tonight. But I wouldn’t be easy. Nobody hired the Ghost for the easy jobs.” I love this one, and I thought it might help! Hope I was right πŸ˜‰

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