Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Good first lines — and what makes them that way

Here's another good beginning:

"This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses."
It's from Mick Herron's Slow Horses. It's about a kind of grunt squad where British spies go when they screw up. I don't know yet if I'm going to like the book, but with an opening like that, I stand a better chance of reading long enough to find out.

Here are some openings from the other book I have immediately at hand:

"It was a wandering daughter job."

"`I'm Tom-Tom Carey,' he said, drawling the words."

"`I haven't anything very exciting to offer you this time,' Vance Richmond said as we shook hands. I want you to find a man for me—a man who is not a criminal."
Each of those three openings — and Mick Herron's as well — does what an opening sentence needs to do. It's surprising, it tells a little story in a tiny bit of space, and it leaves the reader wondering what happens next. That's important for impatient readers, such as your humble blog keeper.

I've discussed first lines several times (scroll down), occasionally asking you to pick your favorites. This time I'll ask you to get theoretical. What must the opening line of a piece of fiction do to make you keep reading?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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36 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Well, really nothing. I would read a bit further than that before I decided. A good one, though, will prejudice me in a favorable direction.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I don't suppose a bad line would stop me from reading further, but it would put a hell of an onus on the second line. I have made quite a lot of decisions on not much more than a book's opening.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Opening lines need to be arresting, something that immediately makes you go, oh. Of course you're going to read on further than the opening line, or lines, but they set the tone, give an indication whether this is going to be one of 'those' books for you.

I picked up a couple of books close to hand and looked at the opening lines, and they both got my attention:

'I first made the newspapers when I was nine years old.'

Opening line from Blood Men by Paul Cleave.

and

'Kenny wrote the list because he was dying.'

from Captured, by Neil Cross.

Actually, these are also both very short opening lines.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

A bad first line would turn me off, but a neutral first line wouldn't be a deal breaker. I sometimes think that with books as with movies and plays, the beginning gets a bit lost in my attempt to settle into the thing and orient myself.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vanda: Very short, and both by New Zealanders, at least by residence, I think, so a nice boost for your country's crime fiction. Thanks.

Now, I will play the game and look at the openings of a couple of books I can reach without so much as shifting in my chair.

Oh, this is a good one:

"January cold came in from two rivers, formed four walls around Hart and closed in on him."

Black Friday by David Goodis
================

"Like a cat she was quick and her hand slapped and the mosquito spread red on her thigh."

Now, that's interesting. It's from The Song Dog by James McClure, my favorite novel by South African's seminal crime writer. I say interesting because the line is good, but not great. It almost seems too obvious a foreshadowing of violence. The unusual rhythm makes it work. Other writers (or editors) might have put a period after "quick" and begun a new sentence with "her hand." The succession of "ands" lends a droning rhythm to the sentence, perhaps intended to echo the mosquito's monotonous buzzing. An ordinary sentence is redeemed.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, a neutral first line probably has been a deal breaker for me if the book was an unfamiliar one by an unfamiliar author encountered while browsing.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Of course, I have heard it said that the best way to judge a novel is by its middle, because most authors will try hard to make the beginning and the end tours de force. But an author who can write strongly in the middle is really something, the thinking goes.

December 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I am grabbed and pulled in if the first line is interesting. But more so, if the first paragraph grabs me.

One--according to reading etiquette--is supposed to give a book 50 pages to decide whether to finish it or not. Sometimes it takes 80 pages for me. (This happened with one of Fred Vargas' books, as it took 80 pages for the set-up to happen, but then I finished and liked the book.)

But if I read 5 or 6 pages and the book is really annoying, I'll close it and take it back to the library.

Too many good books, too little time is my motto. With a humongous TBR list, what else can one do?

Speaking of good first lines, can anyone suggest which of Dashiell Hammett's books to read this winter? I've read "The Maltese Falcon," and like humor.

Should it be "The Thin Man"?

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

The first sentence can establish my attitude for the rest of the book. A good one will make me want to like it, and I'll look for things to like, and forgive--up to a point--things that don't work so well.

A bad one will plant the seed in the back of my mind that I mat want to bail. Not 100% accurate, but close.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

"Bad Things Happen" by Harry Dolan, comes to mind for the simple reason that I read it, and enjoyed it, based on much hoopla about what a great first sentence it had:

"The shovel has to meet certian requirements."

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Solea said...

The Thin Man is my favorite Hammett book so I think you would enjoy it, especially if you want something fun. Also, It takes place during the Christmas season.
One of my favorite first lines is by Muriel Barbery from "The Gourmet" because it is one sentence that is almost 2 pages long. It's beautifully crafted with loads of commas in all the right places. Now, I did not like the book, but that first sentence was intoxicating.

I like descriptive first lines that bring me into the mindset of whomever I'm going to be following around for the next hundred pages. I don't usually like first lines that are meant to shock you with a description of violence that you'll come to understand at the end of the book; that feels too much like a movie.
Chandler (of course) has great openings.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger michael said...

I know readers who believe you must finish every book even if you hate it from beginning to end.

The reasons I chose a book has nothing to do with the first line. Great characters, a sense of wit or humor, a good story can not be revealed in one line.

The one line or even 50 page limit would depend too, I suspect, on if you spent money for the book or used the library.

As for Hammett, I have read all his novels (even the horrible "Tulip") and "Red Harvest" remains the most unforgettable one for me.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

I'm with Dana and Seana on this. And oh by the way, I NEVER finish a book I don't like - life's just too short.

Normally I'm not crazy about dialogue openings, since lots of newbie authors seem to do this and it normally just looks and sounds forced. (Yes, I give a farthing about how sentences look and feel.)

AND YET...my favorite opening of all time (for a p.i. novel) is Parnell Hall's dialogue opening for his first Stanley Hastings book, DETECTIVE.

Go figure.

I give great attention to the first page of any book. If I get a wrong vibe - the writing already appears 'clunky' - I skim a bit to see if there's any improvement. If not, that's it.

I can be merciless.

December 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Life is too short to read books one doesn't like. No one requires us to finish a book, unless it's for school or a job or a personal commitment to someone else.

I've started books where 5-10 pages in, I can't stand them, so I don't waste my time. Occasionally, I'll just skim quickly till the end; usually, I just close the book and finish.

"The Thin Man" it will be.

I loved "Bad Things Happen," by Harry Dolan. It was hilarious and clever. There was a particular line about why authors might murder their publishers, funny.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Cullen listed a load of Goodis first lines in the Noircon programme and they were pretty tasty. Off the top of my pickled noggis, the 50 Grand Had a crackin first line.

December 22, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

This impatience is depressing. Mind you, I think poor writing is a good excuse not to go on, but you don't need a puzzle or a shock in the first line.

I think I'm one of the most impatient readers around because I have so little time. But I do my culling out via author's name, subject matter, and perhaps a review blurb or two. Then I give it about ten to 40 pages to sample the style. First lines of the sort you cite are such intentional attention getters that I figure things will probably go downhill from there. :)

December 22, 2010  
Blogger michael said...

I will admit the Amazon e-book sampler has saved me much money and time I might have wasted on a book I never would have finished.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Vargas is worth an asterisk in this discussion. There's nothing wrong with her first lines, but Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, in particular, has a slow (and highly enjoyable) build-up.

The Thin Man is the one to read if you want humor in your Hammett, but many of his stories are shot through with wonderful deadpan comedy. I like this poker-faced exchange in The Glass Key, for instance:

"Ned Beaumont nodded. He was looking at the blond man's outstretched crossed ankles. He said: `You oughtn't to wear silk socks and tweeds.'

"Madvig raised a leg straight out to look at the ankle. `No? I like the feel of silk.'

"`Then lay off tweeds."

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I'm not sure the first line will establish my attitude for the rest of the book as it will determine whether I read the rest of the book.

I have some books with humdrum descriptions of what the protagonist is doing. I should try to find one so I can write about what I don't like in an opening line.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

""The shovel has to meet certain requirements.""

Sean, that is a terrific, off-beat, unexpected first line. I'll look for the book. Thanks.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, there is something to be said for the virtue of persistence, for sticking with a book once one has started it. I've probably missed some good writing by not reading beyond a first line or page or chapter that did not do much for me. Of course, I've also set aside books that did not live up to the promise of their openings.

I have read Red Harvest recently as well. Yes, it's unforgettable. And yesterday I reread "Nightmare Town," a stunningly good story that has obvious affinities with Red Harvest. There is very much more to Hammett than his first lines.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Yvette has ...

"Normally I'm not crazy about dialogue openings, since lots of newbie authors seem to do this and it normally just looks and sounds forced. (Yes, I give a farthing about how sentences look and feel.)
"

I should about the qualities that grab me in opening lines. I'm tempted to say that I don't care for long, leisurely openings that narrow their focus gradually down to the protagonist, expecting me to attach great significance to portentous details of the environment so described. But some great openings have fit that pattern. So, what's the secret to a great opening? Write the damn thing well.

"I give great attention to the first page of any book. If I get a wrong vibe - the writing already appears 'clunky' - I skim a bit to see if there's any improvement. If not, that's it."

That's my approach exactly.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Harry Dolan is now on my list. You had recommended him before, I think, and Sean's citation of the first line pushed me over the edge.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cullen listed a load of Goodis first lines in the Noircon programme and they were pretty tasty. Off the top of my pickled noggis, the 50 Grand Had a crackin first line.

Paul, I also had the Noircon program at hand, but I can't find it at the moment.

Fifty Grand has one of the great prologues in all my experience of crime fiction.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

" ... you don't need a puzzle or a shock in the first line."

Absolutely, I.J. I hope no one thinks I am campaigning for blood, thunder, and in media res shocks. This is of help to no one but me, but a great opening needs to generate a kind of electricity, to create anticipation, one might say. Nothing is easier than an obvious attention getter. Nothing is harder than to follow it up. I don't know how Herron's book will turn out, but Hammett's stories more than live up to their openings. If pressed, and even if not pressed, I would argue that he is the greatest author who has ever committed crime writing.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"I will admit the Amazon e-book sampler has saved me much money and time I might have wasted on a book I never would have finished."

Michael, the Amazon sampler has more often decided me in favor of a book than against it. It is arguably Amazon's sole positive contribution to reading.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solea, I'm tempted to throw myself up against a sentence two pages long to see whether I outlast the sentence, or it gets the better of me.

December 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

"The Thin Man It Is," and a look at the library's catalogue for Hammett's works.

Harry Dolan's book is so clever and witty, but there are twists a minute. Be prepared for a roller coaster ride.

Fred Vargas--yes, she has good opening lines and paragraphs. The one book I read which took 80 pages for the set-up dealt with the bubonic page. I liked it very much, and am willing to go wherever the brilliant medieval historian/writer wants to go.

She's in my top ten authors' list.

Anyway, cheers to all for the holidays and best wishes for a new year filled with new, good books and revival of older ones and classics.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter, since you mentioned prologues:

How about a superb prologue that outshines the rest of the book? Has that ever happened to you? THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt was just such a book for me. I tried, I really did try to find what I found in the prologue within the rest of the book - but it just wasn't there.

What to make of this?
This is one rare instance where, because of the prologue, I kept reading and skimming long after I realized the book wasn't for me.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, the Library of America publishes two volumes of Hammett. One includes all five novels, the other crime stories and other writings. The novels are widely available in a number of editions, but the "crime stories and other writings" volume may be the only one that collects all Hammett's crime fiction in one place. One interesting feature of the collection is the differences between the stories that first appeared in Black Mask, and those few originally published elsewhere.

The Vargas you're talking about is Have Mercy on Us All. Its set-up may be slow, but the opening chapter works because of its very oddity: the Breton sailor making a life as a town crier in the heart of modern Paris. A compelling opening need not be a shock or a killing.

And Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, as well. Happy reading!

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I know I've put down books that wound up falling short of their opening chapters. Whether any of those chapters were, in fact, prologues I don't remember.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

I second (third? fourth?) the comments on Dolan's BAD THINGS HAPPEN. It took me a chapter or two to fall into it, but once I got with the flow, I loved it all the way.

December 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Man, I don't even know Bad Things Happen. Well, I know bad things happen, but...

Have to put this on my list.


v word: restores

December 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, what can I tell you? You're the third to recommend Bad Things Happen here. I will look for it the next time I visit a bookstore or a library, which I hope will be tomorrow.

December 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, your v-word restores, a nice thing for v-words to do. But that the heck is your v-word?

I had not heard of Bad Things Happen until readers started recommending it here, but it has a fine first line, assuming Sean quotes it accurately, with just the slightest risk that it might be a bit precious. But it makes me want to look for the book, and what else can one ask of a first line?

December 23, 2010  
Blogger Clemens P. Suter said...

The opening line of my new crime novel CELETERRA is:
"Eugene, the one-eyed dog, barked disapprovingly at the sound of the doorbell."
http://celeterra.blogspot.com/

December 29, 2010  

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