Sunday, January 31, 2016

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night … Redux: Opening Lines

It’s no secret that I am fascinated by the whole business of opening lines for novels. The opening line or two carries so much of the weight of expectation from the reader. To my mind it has not only to accurately portray the tone of the story, but also to encapsulate the voice of the writer.

Time is so short for most of us that, if we are not very quickly lured into a book, it tends to be put down and lost in the flow of Other Stuff that clutters up our lives. If the writer is familiar to the reader, they want to be quickly reassured that, yes, they can confidently snuggle down with another journey into a well-loved world of characters they know will satisfy and enthral.

If the writer is unknown to them, they may have tiptoed into the work by way of a personal recommendation, good reviews, glowing tributes from other authors they admire, and a jacket précis that seems intriguing.

None of this will matter a jot, however, if the opening line does not intrigue them and the prose does not slip smoothly down the throat. Either that or grab them by it and refuse to let go.

I’ve been thinking about this a good deal lately because I have finally finished edits on my latest standalone and have now jumped back into the next in the Charlie Fox series. I already had a rough idea for the opening, but as it shaped up it has become:

‘The dead man had not gone quietly. If what had been done to him was any indication, he probably died screaming, begging, cursing, or a mix of all three. There was a time when I would have given everything I owned to be the one responsible for that.’

Which, I hope, serves a number of purposes. It was intended to fling open the door to the story and yank you inside. A man is dead. Nastily dead. And Charlie – who spends her time as a professional bodyguard trying to preserve the lives of her clients – sounds almost … disappointed that she wasn’t the one to finish him off.

So, who is he? What did he do? What has been done to him? And why?

I’ve always felt that a good opening line – and opening chapter – is half the battle. Of course, deciding exactly where in your overall storyline is the right place to invite the reader to step inside, is quite another problem.

I was intrigued to see the openings of the works of my fellow Murder Is Everywhere authors, and I’ve had a lot of fun delving into their different styles and jumping-in points.

Take this opening from Annamaria Alfieri in her book, STRANGE GODS:

‘They never went out in the dark because of the animals. But if she was ever to escape the boredom of life confined to the mission compound, tonight determination had to win out over terror.’

I really like this. It opening in close-third-person from the viewpoint of a female character we know is timid and possibly not very worldly. What is so important that she must brave the terrors of the dark? And will she survive the experience?

Likewise, Cara Black’s opening to MURDER ON THE CHAMP DE MARS:

‘Aimée Leduc clipped the French military GPS tracker to the wheel well, straightened up and gasped, seeing the Peugeot’s owner standing in the shadowy Marais courtyard. So much for being très discrete. She’d blown the surveillance – now what?’

This too, drops the reader straight into the action alongside the heroine of book fifteen in Cara’s series. You would almost not be human if you weren’t compelled to read on in order to find out how Aimée extracts herself from this faux pas.

Jørn Lier Horst goes for a description of the dead in the opening to his latest William Wisting series novel, THE CAVEMAN:

‘The dead man was completely desiccated, leaning back in a chair, his lips lacerated and blackened, yellow teeth exposed. Wisps of dusty, wizened hair were still attached to his skull and pale, glossy bones visible through the skin on his face.’

By majoring on the state of the body, Jørn hooks the reader by making them stare a little too long for comfort at the shrivelled remains. All kinds of questions immediately arise not only about the identity of the dead man, but how he came to sit undiscovered for long enough to mummify.

INDIA GRAY by Sujata Massey is different from the others on this list because it is a book of four shorter works, including the title story. The first tale, however, is called OUTNUMBERED AT OXFORD:

‘Perveen and Alice had made excellent progress with a bottle of Madeira by the time Maude opened the door. They hadn’t done as well with Perveen’s Roman law essay or Alice’s geometry proof. It had been a lark, breaking the rules with a few tiny drinks as they studied by the fire on a cold February evening in Perveen’s third-floor room. But the thrill was gone.’

The style suits the period in which the story is set – immediately after the Great War – and implies a Golden Age domesticity which is just about to be very rudely interrupted by far more than the unexpected arrival of the college scout, Maude!

For the latest in Caro Ramsay’s Anderson and Costello Scottish police procedural series, THE TEARS OF ANGELS, Caro lulls you into a false sense of peace and security with the opening to the prologue:

‘Looking across the loch the old man thought back to summers past. Golden memories of tartan rugs and sticky fingered picnics, of skinned knees and savage midges. A day spent hauling haversacks on to trams, running for trains, pullin on his mum’s hand, desperate to get to the farm.’

Contrast this idyllic memory with the start of chapter one:

‘He was lying on his back, snuggled into a blanket of short grass on the hillside as if in a deep sleep. His head was twisted slightly towards the rising sun, showing the ripped and broken skin and the rivulets of dried blood that had coursed from his nostrils to follow the contour of his upper lip before dropping on to the grass below.’

Just when you think this first chapter is going to follow the gentler, more melancholy tone of the prologue, Caro gently head-butts you with that ‘as if’ and from then on you’re glued to the page.

I must ask Michael and Stan of the Michael Stanley team which of them comes up with the openings for their novels, or is it a truly joint effort. I know they often write scene or chapter turn and turn about, but at some point there has to be a decision on who takes that initial dive into the murky waters. Here’s the start to their latest Detective Kubu novel, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY:

‘Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu was enjoying his dream. He was at an all-you-can-eat buffet at The Palms hotel. His table was on the patio away from the noisy bar, and Joy, his wife, was visiting her sister, so she couldn’t limit how much he had to eat.’

This gives you a wonderful insight into the character of Kubu, his appetites and his relationship with his wife. Ever so slightly under the thumb?

Jeffrey Siger had a very intriguing opening for the seventh title in his Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series, DEVIL OF DELPHI:

‘He was born precisely one year after his mother’s death. At least that’s what the birth certificate read. His father wasn’t around to notice the mistake, having vanished immediately after his fateful one-night stand. Nor did the orphanage pick up on the error; they simply treated him as the child of an unidentified itinerant mother, born on the day she died giving birth in one of Athens’ worst public clinics.’

Somehow you know – even before you reach the end of this short opening scene – that this unusual child is not destined for glory.

The opening for Susan Spann’s latest Shinobi mystery, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, throws you into the story with a jolt:

‘ “Halt!” The armored samurai stepped forward to block the bridge. “No one crosses the Kamo River without identification. State your names and your business in Kyoto.”
            Hattori Hiro gestured to the Jesuit at his side. “Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, a priest of the foreign god, from Portugal. I am Matsui Hiro, his interpreter and scribe.” ’

This has the effect of introducing the two main characters for the benefit of new readers, as well as seeming perfectly reasonable to those who know them well.

What interests me are the different styles for the openings to series and standalone novels. The start to a series book, particularly one that’s been running for a while, can have a tendency to assume the reader is familiar with the characters and the set-up, even if each individual plot will be different.

To appeal to both old and new readers with the same opening is a tricky balance to get right. It is something I bear in mind every time I begin a new Charlie Fox novel.

For the new standalone, however – DANCING ON THE GRAVE – there was almost too much choice about where to begin, and I changed my mind several times before settling on:

‘It is a bad day to die … a perfect one to kill.

The sniper lies in cover towards the upper northeastern edge of the valley. His right eye is up close behind the ten-power scope attached to the receiver of the rifle. He is watching a massacre as it unfolds below him.’

And I have to hope that fans of Charlie, and of the main protagonist in my previous standalone, THE BLOOD WHISPERER, will be intrigued enough by this to give it a try …

So, what about your favourite opening lines? Did they give you a fair idea of the book, or were they completely out of left field?

This week’s Word of the Week is palimpsest, meaning writing material, as in a parchment, tablet or scroll, which has been used more than once, the earlier writing having been removed or erased. It can also refer to anything which has successive layers beneath the surface, such as layers of different paint on a wall. It comes from the Latin palimpsestus, or Greek palimpsēstos scraped again, and was first used in the early 1800s.


  1. "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

  2. "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured insult, I vowed revenge."

  3. This is interesting - and important to think about for a writer. One of the biggest cultural newspapers in Norway had for many years a column called "The first sentence" where the author had to tell why he had chosen to begin his book as he did.

    Never open a book with weather is a common writing tips. My novel "The Hunting dogs" opens like this: "Rain lashed the windowpane, streaming down the glass like rivers, the wind so strong it had the only branches of the poplars clawing at the walls of the cafe." It received an award for best Nordic crime novel in 2014 and is translated into 23 languages ...

  4. You just gave me an idea for a new one, Zoë: "I never get much direction from my drunken old man; but he's the sort who announces with a flourish that he's off on a grand quest to follow the sunset, leaving ma and me sitting on the front porch as pa limps east."

    1. Jeff is sort of like the itch of a skin rash: if you scratch it, it just gets worse...

  5. Not a mystery novel but I still maintain one of the best opening lines in fiction is from George Orwell's "1984". Not a book I've ever liked but the first line has stayed with me for over 30 years now. "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."

  6. Or an epigraph "Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Ngaje Ngai', the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcas of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
    ― Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories

  7. For me, no opening lines have ever beaten -- and few have equalled -- Shirley Jackson's first paragraph in The Haunting of Hill House: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

    --Mario R.

  8. It came down to this: if I hadn't been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police.
    Eric Ambler, the Light of Day