Finding An Opening Line Is Like Seeing
The World In a Grain of Sand

“One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonances of the entire work.” — Gloria Naylor

By PJ Parrish

I just wrote the two most fearsome words in the crime writer’s lexicon:

CHAPTER ONE

There’s nothing after that. Just an empty page. Just whiteness, as desolate and lonely as a snow-covered field in the Michigan woods.

Wait, that’s not bad! Maybe I can use that. . .

No. No, no, no. This book is not set in winter, you moron! You can’t drag out another over-wrought weather opening. Stop it! Besides, you used up all your snowy field metaphors in your second book. Yeah, I know it was 2001 and you’re counting on the fact that no one will remember. But you’re not going to get away with it. You have to be fresh!

I stare at the screen. The curser pulses like a dying heartbeat. Twenty minutes pass. The field of snow is still there. I start rifling through my cerebral filing cabinet for inspiration. I give up and Google quotes about how hard writing is.

Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. Pleasure and pain. Sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled. –Dean Koontz

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. — Flannery O’Connor

Writing fiction is for me a fraught business, an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through. The work process is totally different from writing nonfiction. You have to sit down every day and make it up. — Joan Didion

Gee, thanks guys. I feel a whole lot better now. Not. Just knowing that every other writer has the same problems getting traction as I do does not make me feel any less inadequate.

Maybe if I blog about this, it will help. Okay, you can’t write your opening line until you know what your story is about, right? You have to have an idea. Or a concept. Or a note that you scribbled on that pad beside your bed. Or maybe a great title got seared into your brain after those three scotches. See James’s Sunday post here.

Wait, that happened to me once. I got an idea for a title — Island of Bones — and had no idea, concept or plot. All I saw was the title in my head, but everything flowed from there.  That book almost wrote itself.

Mostly though, whenever I start a new book, I stare at the empty white screen with a slow-burn panic building in my chest. Because usually I am one of those pathetic constipated creatures who can’t move forward on a story until I have the first line. (See Gloria Naylor quote at top).

Hey, the first sentence is important. Don’t we preach that all the time here at TKZ? A great opening line is a promise you make to your reader that they are in for something special, a hell of a ride. No pressure, right?

One of my writing heroes, Joyce Carol Oates, says “The first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence is written.” That is not some Buddha-esque mumbo-jumbo. Oates is saying that a great opening line comes from you the writer having a complete understanding of what your book is about at its soul.  And usually that is something you discover not at the first step but during the journey.

Which tells me that I shouldn’t be sweating this first line so much. I should just get something down and move on.  But the habits of this old dog die hard.

{{{Switch back to my other screen. Curser still blinking on snowy Michigan field. Switch back to blog screen.}}}

Maybe it’s helpful to try to pin down the qualities of a great opening line.

It can be vivid or surprising. It immediately sets off a spark in your reader’s imagination.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. — 1984

It can be funny.

“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” — The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

It can presage something bad to come. Which is what our good First Page Critique submission yesterday was doing, I think, by having the main character jump off a building.

Some years later, on a tug boat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were places in a tub of cement. — Live By Night by Dennis Lehane.

Was Lehane paying homage to Gabriel García Márquez?

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. — 100 Years of Solitude

It can introduce the main character, or more specifically his or her voice.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.– Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

It can be a simple statement of fact, like the iconic “Call me Ismael.” But here’s my favorite:

I had a farm in Africa. — Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen. 

Such sadness in the mere use of that past tense.

It can set a mood.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. — The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It can establish the theme.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. — Anna Karenina by Tolstoy

And it can plain beautiful writing. But that beauty has to mean something deeper in the story as it certainly did for Nabokov.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.

Sigh. Now I am really flummoxed. Or maybe just intimidated. Wait, I think something’s brewing. Be right back…

{{{Switch to other screen and type this}}}

CHAPTER ONE

Someone was following him. He had noticed it a couple miles back, but only because he was so good at tailing cars himself and had never been made.

{{{Switch back to blog screen}}}

My protagonist is skip tracer who’s great at finding people who don’t want to be found. But now he’s now trying to find his wife, who is dead — or is she? And everyone thinks he did it.

Okay, it’s not perfect. But it’s a start.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

32 thoughts on “Finding An Opening Line Is Like Seeing
The World In a Grain of Sand

  1. I feel your pain. I’m starting a new book, and it’s not part of any of my series where at least I have a “family” to rely on. This one (full disclaimer here–I took a major trip to the British Isles for our 50th anniversary, and want to be able to write a portion of it of for taxes, so it should be set there. I’m not a plotter, so I’m more in Joyce Carol Oates territory–I need to get more down before I can stick the opening. I’ve learned to accept that it’s going to undergo many revisions. I saw a quote from Roald Dahl where he said “By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentiallly rewriting. I am positive of this.”
    But you need something on the page, even if it’s destined to end up the victim of the “Unduki.” For me, right now the new manuscript starts with something that gets me writing and may or may not survive the second pass.

    “Chase Nolan sat across a huge cherry desk from Gerald Brennan, Junior and accepted the large clasped envelope the man dropped onto the shining surface.”

    I also noticed that most of the opening lines you quoted were from “literary” fiction, and that’s not what we write.

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    • Yeah, I did quote lit mainly. Here’s what happened: I went to my shelf and opened to the first page of the mysteries and thrillers I have on hand and only Lehane’s book jumped out at me. So I had to rely on my memory. Not casting aspersions on our genre just saying that my bookshelf is sort of bare right now of quality reads. (I recently gave away three boxes of books to our Goodwill second-hand bookstore).

      Just pulled Val McDermid’s “A Place of Execution” off my shelf. (I keep this book because I love it and think it should have won the Edgar for best novel…it’s great). Here’s the opening line:

      “Like Alison Carter, I was born in Derbyshire in 1950.” Not exactly a wow line, right? It’s a simple statement of fact like in Moby Dick. The rest of the first graph is more info about the narrator. But the SECOND graph begins:

      “So when Alison Carter went missing in December 1963, it meant more to me than it can have done to most other people.”

      Which tells me a slower build can often work, and in fact can have more power than a single killer opening line. Which is a point I should have made in my post. 🙂 Thanks for bringing it up.

      If anyone can contribute some good lines from our own, please do! The couple I had weren’t very instructive. Which is not to say there aren’t mediocre opening lines in “literature.”

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      • I just checked the shelf in the guest bedroom and found one more, Terry. It’s from Steve Hamilton’s “Ice Run.”

        “In a land of hard winters, the hardest of all is the winter that fills you with false hope.”

        Love that because it really captures the mood, setting and voice of Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series.

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  2. Hey PJ/Kristee. The protagonist for my current WIP is also a skip tracer. It’s the second book in a series. Agreeing with Terry Odell here. First lines for me simply need to get me in the mood to continue. They don’t need to be perfect right from the get-go (in all fairness, we all know “perfect” a subjective term), but they do need to enable me as a novelist to get the party started.
    Current Chapter One opener: “Counsel Fungo owned enough guns. Enough to do her job, plus a few extra for home protection and insurance. Did she need to buy an assault rifle? Sure, for the zombie apocalypse.”
    First draft is closing in on 60K words, should com in no more than 75K in total. Yeah, it’ll change. It ALL could change. But the opener put me in the mood, gave me the tone I was after. It will stay that way until it doesn’t, if/when I rewrite it.

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    • Ha! I like your opening. And your observation that an opening line is something to “get you in the mood” is spot on. I hadn’t thought of it that way but that’s true for me as well. The opening line or graph needn’t be perfect but it does have to make ME want to go on, let alone a reader. Thanks.

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  3. The curser pulses like a dying heartbeat.

    A great opening line! For a novel about a mystery writer who is blocked, and murders a writing student to steal his manuscript….

    Ahem.

    I’d also like to mention using a line of dialogue as a first line. One of the strengths is that it is action. E.g., Connelly’s The Last Coyote:

    “Any thoughts that you’d like to start with?”
    “Thoughts on what?”
    “Well, on anything. On the incident.”
    “On the incident? Yes, I have some thoughts.”

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    • You know me well enough that I usually say I dislike dialogue openings but never say never right? That’s a good one.

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    • I remember those lines. Read Coyote a year and a half ago, but they bring the novel right back to me.

      The “rules” are a safety net. If you perform w/o the net, you’ve a virtuoso or dead. These four lines do so much, suggesting backstory (what incident?), character/attitude, and a conflict in process. And make you wonder who’s who? One of the speakers has to be Bosch, but which one?

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  4. Love this! Exactly what I needed today, too. Like you, I’m staring at a blank screen. I’d written a few chapters of the next book in one of my series before I delved into my true crime project. Now that I’ve put my fiction hat back on, I don’t like where I was going. Trashed it. Started over. That damn cursor is taunting me now. Calgon, take me away!

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    • One trick that works for me on occasion is to forget the first chapter and try to write chapter 2. Something about backing into things helps. As my sister keeps tell me:

      Just. Put. Something. On. The. Page.

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  5. The other side of the coin is the opening line that comes with no idea of what will follow–like the perfect title that comes and demands a book (Sunday).

    For no reason I can ID, the ff jumped into my head as I read today’s col:

    “And here I thought smoke-filled backrooms were a thing of the past. At least the smoke-filled part was a thing of the past.” (Maybe a story about a naive young woman in her first run for office?)

    The first line(s) for my novel and my novella WIPs are still lurking somewhere other than in Scrivener. They’ve all been reworked dozens of times.

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    • I like that! But as you say, where do you go from there?

      Am trying to remember if I ever had that happen to me, where I thought of a great opening zinger but nothing came of it. Ah…just thought of one.

      I am a failed humor novelist. I’ve completed two manuscripts that are supposed to be funny. They are not. Which is why they are still in my hard drive and not on someone’s shelf. Here’s one opening:

      It was a dark and stormy night. At least I think it was. But then again, it’s hard to tell when you’ve spent the last four hours in a casino where there are no windows and no clocks.

      Yuck. This died after four pages.

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    • This happened to me, too. An opening line popped into my head but in spite of several tries, no story has ever emerged for it to hook on to. So long ago I declared it free game to anyone who wanted to take a stab at it:

      “I was riding down the old high road when I saw a ventriloquist and his dummy dangling from a tree. The dummy was still gasping, but the ventriloquist was done for.”

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  6. Can I use all caps, please? I LOVE THIS POST! I’m not shouting in anger, I promise. I’m jumping up and down because I just found out I’m in such good company. The white page under Chapter One is like arriving in a foreign country and finding out you can’t communicate with anyone. (Reminds me of arriving in the hallway of my son’s middle school as students were pouring out of doors. Frightening.) Sorry. Bunny trail.

    I submitted a First Page Critique called No Tomorrows some time back. The first line was “Sally Lee’s sandals squished on the wet pavement.” Bleh. And that’s pretty much what the critiquers said, or, rather, how I perceived their comments. That first line didn’t pass the test: “One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonances of the entire work.” — Gloria Naylor
    Unless my novel is about walking in the rain and getting your feet wet. Which it isn’t.

    I revised the first line. “Fear crept in on stealthy feet.” Okay, still not perfect, and the feet are still there. I’ll probably tweak it again. But I think it can at least pass Naylor’s test with a B+. The MC is afraid. And her fear, shown throughout the novel, slipped through the front door at dinner time. (Ooh…maybe I could use that…!)

    I really enjoyed this post, PJ. Thank you. Reading through it again just for the pure joy of those first lines. 🙂

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    • It’s weird how you can get one image in your writer-head — shoes on wet pavement — and you can’t get rid of it. You turn it upside down, inside out, trying to make it work. But it doesn’t, because it’s not what your book is about. Just move forward — sometimes your opening line doesn’t reveal itself until later, just like a great title.

      Nothing is written in stone. You can change it.

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      • Love your foreign country metaphor by the way. The kids in the hallway…horrifying.

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    • Her fear slipped through the front door at dinner time. Deb I love that for a first line. 🙂
      And it’s not just the first page that the blinking cursor taunts you. Sometimes is just starting a new chapter…

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  7. Here’s an alternate thought. The first line isn’t that important, the first pages are. If you haven’t grabbed the reader by the first 3-5 pages, or, at the most, the first chapter, the book will be put back on the shelf or you will close the Look Inside feature on Amazon and not buy the book.

    The only time I ever recall putting a book down because of the first sentence was a library book in German that the librarians accidentally shelved with the regular books, and, even then, I glanced through the first chapter to make sure that the German continued.

    So, don’t write that first sentence in a foreign language, gibberish, or with so many grammatical and spelling errors that most of us would run screaming away, and you will be okay.

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    • I’m with you, Marilyn. I want a zinger first page. I don’t mind slow entries if the payoff is there soon. That’s why Val McDermid’s opening works for me. Here’s an opening line of one of my Louis books, An Unquiet Grave:

      The Christmas lights were already up.

      Bleh, right. I knew it was weak but I couldn’t shake this image and I let it stay. Turns out, around chapter 5 it was a metaphor — that Christmas lights in a beach town in Southeast Florida felt WRONG. Everything is wrong for Louis when the book opens and he feels off balance, out of place, like something was way off in his life. The book turned out to be about him going back to his home in Michigan to reconnect with his foster father where he solves a case about a woman who is equally lost. I think of it as one of my favorite books (it also won the International Thriller Award).

      As I said in a comment above, sometimes a slower opening can work if you give it enough air.

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      • “The Christmas lights were already up.”

        I think that line would resonate with half the population–once we know it’s not December. The other half would say, “Of course. It’s after Hallowe’en.”

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  8. I started a novel called Skip Tracer that didn’t work out. Here’s the first two paragraphs.

    John Lee Wells sat behind the wheel of his Chevy Suburban, watching a rundown house in Seguin, Texas. He’d been parked there since sundown. The house belonged to the girlfriend of a third-rate felon who, like all worthless sewer rats, could be dangerous when cornered.
    John Lee poured a short coffee from his Thermos. He drank it in three gulps.
    The alarm on his smart phone went off. Time to move the Suburban again just to keep neighbors from getting antsy.

    Please steal any or all parts if it will help you.

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    • It’s too good to steal. But I had a similar scene in my last book “She’s Not There” where my skip tracer was sitting in his car outside a house, also worrying about neighbors. This new book is his sequel. Skip tracers are an interesting breed.

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  9. “One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonances of the entire work.” — Gloria Naylor

    I love that quote. After scanning my current novel, I see I did just that, but didn’t realize I it while writing. I love writing the first sentence/scene in a novel. My opening sentences aren’t always brilliant, but I think the first pages hook my readers, at least they tell me they do. This is the first paragraph of my current work, I’m still in the editing phase….

    Chapter One

    Olevia Naquin clasped hands with the two acolytes beside her. Candles burned along the lines of the pentagram blending the smell of wax and smoke with damp earth. If she listened, she could hear rustling and slithering in the shadows. It wasn’t her imagination. Things both earthly and otherworldly congregated in the underground chamber, drawn by the chanting.

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  10. I have given up trying to make the very first page perfect. Better to go back to it after the book has started to take shape, then you can really do it justice!

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  11. “…Switch back to my other screen…”

    Do you mean you don’t write at a public café -or coffee shop- on uncomfortable chairs, using small keyboards and even smaller screens like the rest of us? 😮

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    • Ha! I should have used toggle back to other screen. Yeah, I write in cafes, coffee shops and dim watering holes. And my newest laptop is very small indeed.

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