TKZ Words of Wisdom – Ladies’ Day at TKZ

Emotion, Beginnings, and Anti-heroes

Ladies’ Day at TKZ


Emotion in fiction

Why doesn’t fiction evoke the same response as film? I don’t believe it is because movies are more visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today’s crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor a while back. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hard-boiled “guy books.” And the continued strength of romantic suspense. Now, let’s not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hard-boiled stuff being written right now, books that don’t turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romantic suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really treacly about the romance part. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today’s crime fiction? – P J Parish – February, 28, 2017



Which brings us to today’s topic: Great Beginnings.
For an example of a great beginning, let’s reach WAY back to a sort-of thriller, Rebecca, and its simple but great first line:
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
That line launches the spellbinding tale of its protagonist, who is haunted by the ghost of her husband’s dead wife. And there are many other great openers we could cite.
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 Right now, let’s limit our discussion to 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? – Kathryn Lilley Cheng – February 23, 2017


Why are we drawn to anti-heroes?

For me, I see them as flawed. They’re not perfect, like classic heroes in Hollywood or in literature were portrayed. I can relate to them better because it makes me feel as if, given the right circumstances, anyone can rise to the level of hero if they have a cause worth fighting for. We also want to see if they are redeemable. Give your anti-hero a chance to grab at redemption in your book and see if he takes it. Or will he find love from a strong woman? Once we get hooked on an anti-hero, we root for them and feel their pain more when they fall. We want them to get back up, because they’re “every man.” And the fact they are not cookie-cutter, and do surprising things and are unpredictable, they make the storytelling fun.

Who would have rooted for a high school teacher turned drug dealer if we hadn’t learned of his cancer, his concern for his family in the face of his financial meltdown, and his rising medical bills. He’s bucking a broken health care system like David standing before Goliath. He’s more worried over his family than his own recovery. He’s got nothing to lose.

Anti-heroes change our way of thinking about confrontation and empowerment. The right anti-hero can give voice to our frustrations and give us an alternative reality to find justice. – Jordan Dane – March 2, 2017

Please comment. What are your thoughts on emotion, beginnings, and antiheroes?

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About Steve Hooley

Steve Hooley is the author of seven short stories published in four anthologies, a Vella serial fiction, and is currently working on the Mad River Magic series – a fantasy adventure series for advanced middle-grade to adults. More details available at:

35 thoughts on “TKZ Words of Wisdom – Ladies’ Day at TKZ

  1. Both movies and music are first-rate and fast emotional delivery systems, but fiction hits different buttons to create a more powerful punch as we invoke all of the senses in our writing. We can put the reader in that alley that smells like piss and vomit, taste the blood where we bit our tongue, hear the drones of flies on the decaying corpse, and feel our rising gorge. (Brain science for the win!)

    That ability to create that kind of experience is why some of the most successful thriller writers in the market were trained in romance. Just the facts, ma’am, doesn’t sell books, these days, like more visceral fiction. (Brain science for the win!) Plus, the biggest spenders and readers are women. Insult them at your own peril.

    • Great points, Marilynn. We are told that the connection to our readers is emotion. But some readers want action, and lots of it. Sounds like (from your comments and Kris’s – above) we need to learn to do both.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Good morning, Steve.

    I’ll confine myself to responding to Kathryn’s “Beginnings” because it’s easy:

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

    That’s the opening line from The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins.

    Thanks, Steve. Have a great, outage-free, weekend!

    • Thanks, Joe, for your nomination for best opening line, from “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” I’m going to start another list of books to check out.

      It looks like we’re going to have some nice Ohio weather for the weekend.

      Happy Father’s Day!

  3. Thank you for this roundup, Steve! I was just browsing through compelling first lines (one of my favorites, “Winter came like an anarchist with a bomb.” —The Pusher by Ed McBain. That opening gleefully breaks the “rule” against opening a story with the weather), and I realized that a great first line not only hooks a reader—it also serves as a framing device and pathway into the rest of story. Perhaps that’s why writers fret over finding the perfect first line. It always feels like there’s a lot riding on those one or two sentences.

    • Thanks, Kathryn, for your great post in 2017, and for stopping by today. As I told Joe (above), I’m starting another book list today. That’s a great first line by Ed McBain.

      Your comment that a first line “also serves as a framing device and pathway into the rest of story” reminded me that I had read that idea recently in a craft of writing book. I always have a list of potential titles I keep at the top of my document as I brainstorm and begin outlining. I’ve now added potential first lines under the titles, so I’ll see them and think about them each time I return to outlining.

      Thanks for everything you do for TKZ.

    • Thanks for the wisdom, Kathryn. First lines intimidate me b/c, as you say, so much is riding on them. Will the reader say meh and close the book? That’s a lot of pressure.

  4. Granted, I’ve read less thrillers/mystery than others because it is not my first love in fiction, but I don’t see how you can write about the tense moments, the sudden events that take a character by surprise, or being exposed to the depravity of man by witnessing the results of a crime and not have emotion. Even a hard boiled detective has to be impacted at some point or he’s just a robot.

    It’s easier for film to SHOW emotion, but books are quite capable of delivering emotion in fiction, & while romance related emotion is often the go-to source, that is hardly the limit of showing emotion in a person. One of the most fun things about writing is the anticipation of how you might uniquely touch a life through your book in a way you didn’t even know. I read a book as a kid that had such a powerful impact on me emotionally–in a way I am certain the author never would have expected–that a couple decades later I moved 2500 miles away from all I had known to start a new life, & have been thankful for that book every day since.

    Different readers are impacted emotionally for different reasons in a book. This would be the source of an interesting writing exercise for a Friday post some time–provide TKZers with a short sentence that is intriguing yet open to emotional interpretation of what it does or does not mean to a viewpoint character. I believe there would be some similar responses but also some unique ones as well.

    Now I have a self-imposed deadline to revise a chapter first thing this morning and I better get to it! Thanks, as always, Steve and all at TKZ, for the great posts.

    • Thanks, BK, for your comments. I like your idea of “a short sentence that is intriguing yet open to emotional interpretation of what it does or does not mean to a viewpoint character.” Reader Fridays are hosted by JSB, Sue Coletta, and me. So, write the sentence, and send it to one of us.

      Good luck with that chapter revision.

    • If I could be so bold as to cite my WIP:
      ‘Today, death rides a bicycle. My bicycle.’

      It’s Women’s Fiction, but readers of the genre like suspense, too!

      • Good afternoon, Laura. Now that’s a great first line. Let us know when you publish the book.

        Thanks for stopping by TKZ, and thanks for commenting.

        I hope your weekend is a good one.

  5. Action requires emotion and consequences, or it’s like reading a video point and shoot. I always joke that an action scene is as hard to write as a sex scene because both the actions and the emotions have to have the right balance, and it’s hard to get right.

    • Good points, Marilynn. I’ll stay out of the argument, but facing death would have to create as much or more emotion that having sex. Having written that, I now fully expect my comment will stir great emotion in some of you. So, let me have it with both barrels.

  6. As always, PJ’s post will have me thinking long after reading it. I’ll twist in a pretzel with more angles after this posts too.

    I like a certain amount of introspection in my characters, something that makes them relatable & vulnerable. If a character is all action & perfect, that is boring & I lose interest. But when I wrote another TKZ post about “layering an onion,” it was about framing a scene with elements of structure & adding introspection sparingly, as the last element to add depth of emotion & insight into the character. As an author writes, a character’s introspection or emotion can open an author’s eyes to a character’s motive or backstory that could become new inspiration for a plot twist or two.

    I love hardboiled crime fiction but with a sparing dash of emotion please. There’s a reason why I keep a box of tissues near me when I write. If I can’t make myself cry in some of my more emotional scenes, then my readers won’t either.

    A thought provoking post, Steve. Thanks for the feature & happy weekend. Hugs from Texas to all of you TKZers.

    • Thanks, Jordan! Great to see you here. And wonderful comments on the process of “layering an onion.” Very helpful in considering that writing process. Get out the box of tissues.

      Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Jordan, wonderful to see you here today!

      I remember this post and esp. like the line: “The right anti-hero can give voice to our frustrations and give us an alternative reality to find justice.”

  7. Thanks for sharing more TKZB wisdom, Steve. All three nuggets are worth pondering.

    The first, on emotion, really resonated with me. Emotion is very much central to the human experience. Fiction brings order to that experience, takes us on a thrill ride, be it an actual thriller, a mystery, the uncertainty around falling in love, the awe and world changing tensions in science fiction, etc.

    So, I agree that there’s more than enough room for well-wrought emotion in crime fiction, in fact, I’d say it’s essential.

    Have a great Saturday!

    • Thanks, Dale, for your comments.

      “Emotion is very much central to the human experience. Fiction brings order to that experience…” Well said. Great thoughts on emotion.

      Have a great weekend!

  8. Michael Connelly said something to the effect that “It’s not about how the detective works the case, it’s how the case works the detective.” (Too lazy to look up the exact quote.”)
    As for beginnings, maybe I’m the outlier here, but the opening line of Rebecca has never done anything for me, and never enticed me to read the book. Eventually, I’ll get around to it.
    I just started a book I picked up at Left Coast Crime because the back cover copy interested me, and the hero is about as anti-hero as they get. It starts with him killing a bunch of people–brutally. I’m wondering how long it will take the author to get to the ‘story’ that the back cover copy promised.

    • Good morning, Terry

      Great comments. Good point about the back cover blurb. It better describe the story accurately. And the book better get to the promised story quickly.

      Hope you have a good weekend.

    • Terry, this quote originated from Joseph Wambaugh who said, “It’s not about how cops work on cases but about how cases work on cops.” I think Wambaugh would be pleased that some with Connelly’s chops would repeat it.

  9. Emotion is tricky. What makes one reader tear up makes another say “Oh, puhleeze.”

    Kris nailed it when she talks about well-wrought vs. overwrought. That’s a fine line but important for writers to learn how to walk that tightrope.

    Great collection, Steve. Thanks for these nuggets of wisdom from three smart, savvy authors.

    • Thanks, Debbie. And thanks for the suggestion of providing a link back to the original post. Good suggestion.

      Kris’s topic is a very important one, and I’ve read it several times. She asks “Why doesn’t fiction evoke the same response as film?” And I agree with her conclusion, but…Is it also possible that less readers reading, and readers reading less, equals less effective readers – less able to enter the printed (or digital) page, less able to emotionally get into the story, with shorter attention spans?

      A report by the National Endowment of the Arts, after the 2002 census report, stated that the percentage of adults reading literature was drastically down, and less than half of adults were reading literature.

      There certainly exists a multitude of “readers” of social media, that doesn’t read literature.

      Sorry for the rant.

  10. Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of tell-tale signs. Mostly because they’re nervous. By definition they’re all first-timers.

    Above is 1st graph of Lee Child’s Gone Tomorrow. Man, did those first pages suck me in. Beginnings are important!

    CHALLENGE: can you find the missing comma?

    • That’s a great first paragraph, Harald.

      Missing comma: Several choices. The sentences are okay the way they are. You could place a comma after the second sentence, and combine the second and third sentences. You could place a comma after “Mostly.” You could place a comma after definition. I vote for no extra comma.

      That beginning makes me want to read the book, mostly because I’m curious.

      Have a good weekend.

    • Loved those books. I was so disappointed when he died before finishing the third. His wife died and he lost any desire to finish.

  11. Thanks, Steve, for another great post from the TKZ Words of Wisdom.

    I found an opening line that seems to cover all the bases: It’s from John D. MacDonald’s book Cinnamon Skin: “There are no hundred percent heroes.”

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kay.

      I’ve read several of John D. MacDonald’s books, but I haven’t read “Cinnamon Skin.” I’ll have to check that one out. That’s a great first line, and quite an understatement for Travis McGee.

      Have a great remainder of the weekend!

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