Sunday, February 2, 2014

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night ...

I’m fascinated by opening lines. It’s a question I always ask other writers: "What’s the opening line of your last/latest book?" and it’s amazing how often they can’t quite seem to remember, or maybe they’re just a little embarrassed to be able to quote it verbatim off the top of their head.

For me, nothing is harder to write than that first sentence. I’m reminded of the famous quote—can’t remember who originally said it—that goes: ‘After three months of continuous hard labour, he thought he might just have a first draft of the opening line.’ Always gets a laugh, but the terrible thing is that it’s not far off the truth.

I just can’t go forwards until I have a start I’m happy with. Maybe it’s because when I pick up a book by a new or new-to-me author, the first thing I read is the opening paragraph. It says everything about the pace, the style, the voice. It basically tells me if I want to go on with the rest of the book, almost regardless of anything else.

So far, I’ve been lucky and I’ve rarely been asked to change the start of a book. I added a new prologue to THE BLOOD WHISPERER to tie the start of the book more firmly into both the backstory and the story to come, but chapter one is still the same. And the start of FOURTH DAY: Charlie Fox book eight was a different flash-forward in the first draft but it was suggested that the scene I’d chosen gave too much away about the antagonist’s motivations.

Generally speaking, I’m pretty easygoing about edits. If my editor says something needs altering or cutting, and I don’t have a really good reason for that scene to stay, it goes. That came from years of non-fiction writing for magazines, where you couldn’t get away with lying full length on the floor and beating your fists into the carpet, wailing, just because somebody wanted you to cut half your deathless prose to fit around the pretty pictures.

But I hate it when people mess with the rhythm of what I’ve written for no good reason. I put commas in for their original purpose—to tell the reader when to pause, where to place the emphasis within a sentence so it reads with the same cadence as it had in my head when I wrote it.

A few years ago I did a short story for a particular magazine. It had to be to a specific length and I delivered it precisely 32 words over, which I thought was pretty close to target. The story was entitled ‘The Getaway’ and my original opening went:

‘Lenny Bright sat opposite the Holland and Seagrave Building Society in a gunmetal Honda Accord with the engine running. He hadn't taken his eyes off the front door for twenty minutes, and right at that moment he would have sold his soul for a cigarette.’

But when the magazine arrived, to my surprise the editor had changed the opening to:

‘Sitting opposite the Holland and Seagrave Building Society Lenny Bright kept the engine of his gunmetal Honda Accord running. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the front door for twenty minutes, and he would have sold his soul for a cigarette.’

Not a great deal of difference, I grant you, but enough to change the whole character of the opening, the pace, the style, everything. Lenny’s a getaway driver, as the title suggests, so it’s not his Honda, for a start. And somehow the ‘right at that moment’ seemed an important point to make about Lenny’s sudden craving for nicotine. Quite apart from anything else, it just reads WRONG to me, and I wish they’d asked me before they messed with it—or even told me beforehand that they intended to—but there you go. Argh!

When I was kicking around the idea for this post, I went and looked up the opening lines for my fellow Everywhere Murderers, and when you look at them all, one after another, you really get a feel for the eclectic styles of this highly talented group of writers.

Annamaria Alfieri—BLOOD TANGO
‘Trouble was closing in on Buenos Aires—like a huge jaguar charging toward the coast from the vast interior plain of the Pampas, with blood in its eyes and mayhem in its heart.’

‘Aimée Leduc bit her lip as she scanned the indigo dusk, the shoppers teeming along rain-slicked Boulevard du Montparnasse.’

Lisa Brackmann—HOUR OF THE RAT
“Is it just me, or is this bullshit?”

‘Sunrise is a brief affair in the rainforests of Pará. No more than a hundred heartbeats divide night from day, and it is within those hundred heartbeats that a hunter must seize his chance.’

Luke Preston—OUT OF EXILE
‘The prison was quiet and Tom Bishop couldn’t sleep. He did one thousand push-ups and stopped when he heard footsteps echo down the hall.’

‘Pauline McGregor walked quickly towards the lift; the smell of petrol and exhaust fumes was making her feel nauseous. She was getting too old for this subterfuge.’

Michael Stanley—DEADLY HARVEST
‘As she walked home, Lesego’s head was full of Christmas.’

‘The man kept pressing on the doorbell. He’d come this far and was not about to leave without speaking to his friend.’

Zoë Sharp—THE BLOOD WHISPERER (a standalone novel)
‘She wakes to the smell of blood. It saturates the air to lie metallic across her tongue—so fresh-spilt it has not had time to spoil.’
And from ABSENCE OF LIGHT: a Charlie Fox novella
‘The last time I died they didn’t get a chance to put me in the ground for it.’

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir—THE SILENCE OF THE SEA
‘Brynjar hugged his jacket tighter around him, thinking longingly of his warm hut and wondering what on earth he was doing out here. It just went to show how dull his job was that he should jump at any chance of a diversion, even if it meant having to endure the biting wind.’

All very different, all fascinating. They make me want to know more about all these stories, just from the opening lines. Not only that, but I’m intrigued to know if these were the original opening lines for each book? Were there lots of ideas kicked around? Did an editor disagree with your preference and you had to make a major change?

So, what makes a good opening line? What’s your personal favourite as a reader? How do you decide on one as a writer? The openings of some of the most famous novels vary wildly, from the famous "Call me Ishmael" of MOBY DICK to the incredible opening sentence from Montgomery’s ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, which weighs in at a hefty 149 words, beating Dickens’ positively lightweight opener to A TALE OF TWO CITIES by a solid thirty. Wow, people must have had the breath control of a whale in those days.

But it’s not just the opening lines that intrigue me, it’s what they represent. They are the jumping-off point for the whole tale. Books never start at the beginning of the story, and deciding exactly where to invite your reader to join you on that journey is an enormously difficult choice, because it’s vital they arrive at the right point to engage their interest, intrigue them, make them unable to leave that bookstore without your book clutched under their arm. But you can’t cheat, either. You can’t open the book with a situation so outrageous that, when the explanation’s finally revealed, it can never live up to the set-up.

When I wrote the opening line for the last full-length series novel DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten, it was one that came to me immediately and it never changed:

‘Even on a good day I don’t enjoy being shot at. Been there, done that, and it bloody hurts.’

For me, it tells me a lot about the slightly laconic attitude to danger of the main character as well as her past experience, and it drops you straight into what feels like the centre of the story. The whole of that opening scene is a mind-game, both for Charlie and the reader. It’s a visual action piece and arrived at one sitting, like something out of a movie. I watched it unfold in front of me and I wrote down what I saw, as fast as my stumpy little fingers could thump the keys.

And for once it’s not a flash-forward opener, as was the last time I had poor Charlie shot in a book—it happens right at the start of where we join her (and Sean) before any of the rest of the action unfolds. Intrigued? Good, that was what I was aiming for.

And boy, I hope I never enter one of those bizarre alternate realities where fictional characters spring to life, because if that ever happens I swear Charlie Fox is going to seek me out and beat the crap out of me for what I put her through, book after book.

My only plea in mitigation is I have it in mind to be kinder to her (and Sean) in the next one. Of course that doesn’t mean she’s going to have things easy …

This week’s Word of the Week, is adoxography, meaning fine writing in praise of trivial or base subjects, or eruditely praising worthless things.

Finally, an apology. By the time you read this I will be carrying out arduous research halfway up a mountain in Bulgaria and out of internet reach. I’ll catch up on my return next week, though. Promise!


  1. I love this, Zoe. When next we meet, I will tell you how the copyeditor of my last nonfiction book turned my six- word sentence into 52 words of bobbledegook.
    Here is the first of my next book: "They never went out in the dark because of the animals."
    And my all-time favorite: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured insult, I vowed revenge.". Edgar Allan Poe

  2. I write lots of 'starts', then decide on which one to use once I've finished the whole book. Otherwise I'de never get on with it.
    And the only first line I know by heart is from my favourite book...Black Beauty. The first place I can well remember.....

  3. "I'm sure Bulgaria will never be the same." How's that for an opening line, Zoe?

    My opening line is generally the only part of the first few paragraphs that has a shot at surviving the final cut...assuming it still helps set the tone (be it ever so obtusely) for where the book is headed.

    FYI, here are three classic opening lines mentioned in my recent mystery writing class that I believe serve the same purpose:
    i. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” "The Postman Always Rings Twice," James M. Cain
    ii. “Hale knew before they’d been in Brighton three hours that they meant to murder him.” "Brighton Rock," Graham Greene
    iii. "None of the merry-go-rounds seem to work anymore.” "True Confessions," John Gregory Dunne.