by James Scott Bell
There’s a great Far Side cartoon (among so many great ones from the genius Gary Larson). It shows the back of a man seated at a desk. He has a pencil in his fingers, but his hands are grabbing his head in obvious frustration. In front of him are a series of discarded pages with MOBY DICK, Chapter 1 at the top. They say:
Call me Bill
Call me Larry
Call me Roger
Call me Al
Call me Warren
Ah, we’ve all been there. We often talk about the need for a grabber opening here at TKZ. That’s why we do first-page critiques. The goal is simple: make the reader want to—need to—read on.
If you can do it in the first paragraph, so much the better.
And with the first line, better still!
Terry sparked a discussion on opening pages earlier this week. Let’s drill down to opening lines. There are three types: Action, Voice, and Wood.
When the first line drops you right into some intriguing action, you’ve got it made. (All you have to do now is hang a novel on it. Ha!)
One of my favorites is from my man John D. MacDonald’s Darker Than Amber, a Travis McGee novel:
We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.
I mean, come on! We’re going to read until we find out who that girl is and why she was tossed in the drink.
James M. Cain’s opening to The Postman Always Rings Twice is aptly famous:
They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
Dean Koontz used to revel action opening lines:
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
Remember, dialogue is action, too (waving at Terry). Koontz used to write opening lines just to see what they sparked. This one hit him:
“You ever kill anything?” Roy asked.
When he wrote that, he didn’t know who Roy was or who he was talking to. So he wrote a novel to find out—The Voice of the Night.
In my humble opinion, my best opening line is in Try Darkness, a Ty Buchanan legal thriller:
The nun hit me in the mouth and said, “Get out of my house.”
I still like it.
That’s action. There’s also..
When the voice is clear, unique, arresting, and immediately tells you the kind of story it’s going to be, you’ll want to keep reading. Mickey Spillane wastes no time in Vengeance Is Mine!:
The guy was dead as hell.
Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a peach:
When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. – High Five
Usually we’re going to be in First Person POV for voice. But not always. Here, for example, is the opening of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty:
When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.
Notice that the leather jacket is ripped off and not stolen. The latter is neutral voice. The former is hot voice, setting up the tone of the book.
There’s an old saying: Your story begins when you strike the match, not when you lay out the wood. I like that. It holds true for any genre. But with literary fiction, and epic fantasy or history, an exception is sometimes made. Presumably, fans of these genres are patient at the beginning, knowing they’re in for a long, immersive ride.
Certainly, these genres can begin with action, as in Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara:
The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent.
All well and good, as the world building weaves in with the action.
Now have a look at the opening line of The Fellowship of the Ring:
This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history.
And boy, howdy, do we get the history! Fifteen pages of it. This is laying out the wood. But fantasy readers do not seem to mind.
Similarly, David Morrell’s long thriller, The League of Night and Fog, also has a history beginning:
A phrase invented by the Nazis, the Night of the Long Knives, refers to the events on the night of June 30, 1934, in Austria and Germany.
The next eight pages tell us about Hitler’s rise to power, the advent of World War II, and the start of the death camps. It is dark yet riveting history. Morrell lays out this wood, and it stays with us, hovering over the action to come.
There you have it. Three ways to write an opening line. Try them out in your own work. I also recommend you play with all three as a creativity game and idea sparker. Who knows? One of them may jump out and grab you and say, “Now write me the novel, kid!”
And now, if I may, in the spirit of our occasional indulgence here at TKZ, a bit of SSP—Shameless Self Promotion. My latest thriller release begins:
The big, fat liar was dressed in yellow slacks, yellow golf shirt, and yellow socks.
The book is No More Lies. It’s a novel for which I got the rights back (former title: Deceived), and which got some of the best reviews of my career. Publisher’s Weekly said:
A master of the cliffhanger, creating scene after scene of mounting suspense and revelation . . . Heart-whamming.
And Romantic Times:
Bell delivers with this compelling and challenging story of greed, evil and redemption. Worthy characters bring to light situations that can be both beautiful and terrifying. This pure thriller with a roiling plot is not to be missed!
And because money is tight right now, I’m making it available on Kindle this week for 99¢. Grab it here. Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0B836SCRY
Now back to our regularly-scheduled blog. Do you have an opening line you’re particularly proud of? Share it. Or share one from an author you like. Or both!
Mad Magazine’s parody of Moby Dick opens with “Call me fish meal.”
My WWII thriller begins: Carl Jung, tall and scholarly, faces a pair of massive brass doors gleaming in morning sunlight. Above them, an over-sized Nazi eagle spreads golden wings, clutching a globe in its talons. Jung looks up at it and scowls, thinking, God forbid that the world should fall into Hitler’s claws.
Jung enters the Löwensburg fortress via a 400 foot tunnel*. Halfway to the end the lights go out, leaving him in darkness. This prologue establishes the tone of the book, introduces the MC, and sets the stakes. It is also a metaphor for the Swiss psychiatrist’s perilous plunge deep into the evil mind of Adolf Hitler.
* This tunnel still exists, but Löwensburg is near Berchtesgaden, not Bludenz, as in the book. I chose Bludenz for its proximity to Zurich and its similarity to the German bluten, to bleed. Ultimately, the Nazi regime was all about blood. Hitler’s blood.
Interesting history there, J. Clearly a book for the Jung at heart.
Ha-ha! Yes. And for all the “Maria Banghart*” fans.
* Mary Bancroft’s nom de guerre.
I feel as though I just attended a master class in openings. Thank you.
That John D. MacDonald line has long been a favorite. I have it in my work journal. I’m putting your nun one in there too. If the military ever starts recruiting nuns we will never lose a war.
(I also bought your book).
Thanks for the support, Cynthia!
My WIP starts out:
“Digging a grave is hard work, especially when it’s about to becomes your own.”
And I, too, love that JDMacD line… and having done some night fishing under the causeways of south Florida, I can still see her plummeting into the water…
Thanks for the master class… and recollection(s)…
Good voice opening there, George!
From my novel, Confessions of a Professional Psychopath, “Of the three wingback chairs in my library, only one is upholstered in human skin. There’s a reason for that.”
Silent as a lamb, I’d keep reading Harvey.
Love it, Harvey!
“We were watching the sunset over the magic pond when a ghostly pyramid filled with moaning prisoners spun up out of the water.” – WIP tentatively titled Perfect Strand (YA fantasy adventure)
Thanks for the lessons on first lines.
I enjoyed No More Lies. Filled with a tightly woven plot, cliffhangers, and a crescendo of suspense, it kept me reading late into the night.
I like your line. Action and fantasy tone and mystery…nicely done.
“Wood” is a term I didn’t know. Great analogy for long intros. Generally, wood openings turn me off b/c I want to get into characters, not scenery.
First line from my thriller Stalking Midas:
“Cassandra Maza targeted cranky old folks, ones so ornery that only ankle-biting Chihuahuas or feral cats could tolerate them.”
Thanks for this helpful analysis, Jim. I look forward to diving into No More Lies.
Thanks, Debbie. Let the record reflect that I coined the term wood for the first time right here in this post.
Just snapped up a copy of your thriller. I love your three types of opening lines, Jim. Wood is something I’ve noticed in certain kinds of mysteries as well, perhaps not to the extent of a sprawling epic fantasy, but a page or more of laying the ground work.
I’m a fan of opening with action or a compelling voice. That said, here’s the opening line as it now stands for A Shush Before Dying:
“Meg Booker knelt and pulled open the library catalog drawer, the card for Ray Bradbury’s mystery collection, A Memory of Murder, in her left-hand, just as a voice thundered from the direction of the conference room.”
Have a wonderful Sunday!
And action is is, Dale. Love the homage to the great Ray.
After a few hiccups, I’ve finally started reading The Last Fifty Pages – looking forward to it enormously.
First line from my own Strictly Murder: “I had only been in the job for six months when my employer pulled a gun on me.”
Nicely done, Lynda.
(And thanks for the book shout out)
The Last Fifty Pages is superb, Lynda. Enjoy!
I like to play around with first lines. No stories have come from these yet, but maybe someday.
– Whiskey could make you forget your troubles, but it couldn’t keep you warm on a cold night and he was freezing.
– He’d been chased, shot, stabbed, beaten, and stripped naked. And that was just his first day of vacation.
– He was a spy and his orders came from fortune cookies. He hated fortune cookies.
– They say, when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. They never said anything about nightmares.
– I regret the day I found the love of my life.
– Jenna Malone hadn’t killed anyone in a long time. Today was a good day to break the habit.
Nice, Michelle. I, too, have an expansive file of first lines. It’s such a great creative-muscle exercise. I only wish I had enough writing-life time to give them all the novels they deserve!
I forgot to say we love Gary Larson around here. I think I recall seeing that one in our daily tear-away calendar.
Thanks, Jim! This post’s a gem.
I have a file of opening lines which have, as yet, no novels following them. Here are two: Jassie touched her bloody fingertip to the thin branch overhead. and, The old man heard the screeching tires behind him, but turned a split second too late.
My favorite opening line in a forthcoming novel is The woman in the mirror tormented her.
I think my favorite opening line from your examples is The big, fat liar was dressed in yellow slacks, yellow golf shirt, and yellow socks.
Tells me all I need to know about the character, and how much I dislike him from the get-go. So much yellow . . . 🙂
Good opening lines there, Deb. Isn’t this fun?
And, BTW, I haven’t been sent an email from TKZ since July 25. Anyone know what gives?
Yep! Sometimes when we’re out orchard-walking of a morning, I think them up. 🙂
Thanks for another great lesson in beginnings, Jim. I love the description of the Gary Larson cartoon.
The first line from my novel Time After Tyme: “The branch made a creaky noise when I crawled out on it, and the ground looked really far away.”
I also have a favorite John D. MacDonald first line. It’s from Cinnamon Skin: “There are no hundred percent heroes.”
Thanks for adding to the list, Kay!
My favorite first line from modern times comes from Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN:
I’m pretty much f*cked. That’s my considered opinion. F*cked.
Who would not keep reading?
Yes…but had I been the editor, I would have cut the second F, as it dilutes the first.
My first line of my current WIP isn’t great, but functional enough to get you to the next line. “Jora saw the news on the television.”
Here’s a better line from the first chapter I scratched out for my next project:
Sunsets were supposed to pretty, but Sigyn only saw blood.
You can’t really go wrong if your first line ends with the word blood..
I love a good first line. MacDonald’s drew me right in.
The big, fat liar was dressed in yellow slacks, yellow golf shirt, and yellow socks says so much. Love it, Jim!
“Heart-whamming.” Love it!
Best review line I ever got!
In terms of my own work, my very favorite opening is one for which I’ve never found an appropriate story: “I was riding down the old high road when I came upon a ventriloquist and his dummy hanging from a tree. The dummy was still gasping, but the ventriloquist was done for.”
Love it! I have many great opening lines just waiting for a novel. Waiting…
I like this look at the 3 different possibilities for an opening line. I like them all & want to use them all well, but at heart am drawn to the action/wood combo more.
I think the danger that I see is that sometimes an author tries too hard for a clever opening line and when you as reader/critiquer see it, you’re thinking “author is trying really hard to be cutesie.” And rather than the effect they hoped for–read on–it is a turn off. I’ve had that ‘too cutesie’ reaction even when I occasionally sit down and have one of those ‘write some first lines’ exercises. But hey, that’s why we practice. 😎 Coming up with the right first line isn’t easy but very satisfying when you finally nail it.
True that, BK. But maybe we writers are tougher on “cutesy” opening lines than the readers would be. Always looking for the right balance!
Female readers of the Evanovich first line thought to themselves “Barbies don’t have underpants. That writer is an idiot.” Male readers thought “Oooooh, sexy.”
My romances tended to have a more leisurely opening, as romances do, but my romantic suspense novels started with action or snappy/weird dialogue.
“Your father has been swallowed by the god of this place.” THE LAUGHING GOD’S KISS.
Hideous creatures crouched in the darkness. Faith Cody, her mind seeking consciousness, struggled against the clinging tentacles of that drugged darkness. THE GAME WE PLAY.
“I always wondered what your virtuous soul would cost, and now I know.” Lauton O’Brien smiled at the wince Gabriel Gardner hadn’t been able to hide, picked up the freshly signed contract from his mahogany desk, and admired it. GUARDIAN ANGEL.
Not sexy. Funny, esp as the passage ends. (I believe third parties sell doll underpants.)
Like that “god” line.
When I read it, I didn’t think it was funny or sexy or stupid.
I thought here’s a little girl who’s been abused. Don’t know if that’s what the story’s about, but it’s where my mind went.
Waving back, and thanks for the shout out, JSB. I commented first thing this morning, but apparently my brilliant words were eaten. I prefer action openings, don’t care much for wood, but I’m one person. Something for everyone.
Back a few years, I’d asked my doctor a few research questions, and as a thank you, I gave him a copy of the finished book. My next appointment, he said he loved the opening line: “No matter what Jinx’s Klingon-spouting nephew said, today was not a good day to die.”
But he never read the rest of the book. Not his genre.
Ack! That’s called damning with faint praise!
FWIW, my dentist, who touts my work to his patients, asked if I ever had any Armenians in my books, so I used his name in one of my Mapletons. He also never reads any of them.
However, the ‘real’ Gordon Hepler, who’d asked to be in one of my books is the recurring protagonist in my Mapleton books, and he DOES read them. One out of three?
As a Star Trek fan, that’s a great first line.
An interesting post, as always, Mr. Bell. However, to be frank, the type of opening you ascribe to fantasy and historical fiction is pretty old-fashioned. While world-building, which is what ‘wood’ refers to, of course, is essential to those genres, it is no longer expected to be done in the first dozen pages.
I agree it is somewhat out of fashion. On the other hand, tie-dye shirts are in again….hmm…
I recollect a story I read in my writing class, can’t remember the author, on this very subject. It went like this: “The prison door slammed shut behind (character’s name).” It seems like it covers every conceivable point in seven words.
It’s something I aspire to whenever I pick up a pen. In my current WIP it starts with “It would have been an average day in southwestern Kansas, except that (name removed) was shot dead in Room 137 of the Flamingo Motel on Buffalo Jones Road in Garden City.
Nothing’s supposed to happen in Kansas.”
Edna Buchanan did it even better in her famous crime story about a shooting in a fast food joint which begins with:
“Gary Robinson died hungry.” Four words. It just doesn’t get better.
There’s much to admire in journalism and crime reporting.
There’s a wonderful article by Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker that describes Edna Buchanan’s work for the Herald and her editor, Gene Miller.
I commend it to your kind attention.
Thanks for those lines, and the link.
I, KARENNA ELIZABETH Ashe, being of sound mind, do… But that’s it, isn’t it? Being here proves I am not of sound mind. She wished, for the nth time, she had not agreed to tonight’s interview…
Pride’s Children: PURGATORY
The voice of the main character, front and center. If the italics work. I took a chance.
Italics, fine. Voice comes through for sure.
Thanks. I like italics for direct interior monologue. It has come to seem natural for a thought the character has, in exactly those words. I keep them short.
Great first line!
I like that it expresses both mortality and provides the character’s name, the latter something everyone says you should get in there soon, an anchor for the reader.
“She only stopped screaming when she died.” – Jeffrey Archer
One of the best opening lines I’ve ever read.
From his novel Cain and Abel
Chilling. I’d keep reading, too.
Oh, I love all of these first lines, all the comments included. I’ve always tried to write a punchy first line or paragraph to each of my books. My young adult paranormal starts out, “I met Mal the day he tried to kill my boyfriend.”