Friday, September 21, 2012

Opening lines

“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel is the best and simplest way.”
— Ernest Hemingway

The opening lines of a book, a mystery, thriller, humour, sf or horror in particular, often tells you whether you are going to like it or not. Now I don’t judge the merit of a novel based on how it begins. It does, however, give me a feel for the book, that, maybe, I can sit back and look forward to a pleasurable read.

I have paid scarce attention to the opening lines in the books I read in the past few years but a casual glance through a pile of secondhand mystery paperbacks I bought recently got me thinking about this challenging aspect of a writer’s narrative.

Flipping through You Live Once by John D. MacDonald, I came across this plain opening:

“I have never awakened easily. I have always had a sneaking envy for those people who seem to be able to bound out of bed, functioning perfectly. I have to use two alarm clocks on work mornings.” 

You don’t know where MacDonald is taking you and vague as the opening lines may seem you want to go with him and listen to his story.

If those lines caught my eye, so did the beginning to Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man No.89.

A friend of Ryan’s said to him one time, ‘Yeah, but at least you don’t take any shit from anybody.’ 

Ryan said to his friend, ‘I don’t know, the way things’ve been going, maybe it’s about time I started taking some.’ 

Then there is Ed McBain who tells it like it is in Jigsaw, which I read last year:

Detective Arthur Brown did not like being called black. 

This might have had something to do with his name, which was Brown. Or his colour, which was also brown. 

How easy—or difficult—is it to write the opening lines in this manner? All the openings are written in a simple, transparent, and original style. A style that entices you to pick up your pen and start writing similarly, only it doesn’t happen, not to everyone at least.

I tried my hand at it and came up with this feeble opening...

Allergic Pharyngitis leaned over the shoulder of a fellow intern and peered into the bloody hole and at the tangled mass of intestines.

“Do you think he was shot?” she asked, without looking up. 

“No, Dr. Pharyngitis, he was carved with a pen knife,” Chief Surgeon Arterio Sclerosis said sarcastically.

Pharyngitis cleared her throat…

 So, what is it going to be—mystery or humour? I don’t have a clue.


  1. Any one of those beginnings could lead nowhere in other hands. It's always the next sentence, and the one after it, that keeps you reading--or not. I was taken by this opening of John Reese's SEQUOIA SHOOTOUT: "The shriek of a bullet, and his ratty old black hat went flying."

    1. Ron, you put that very well. These writers follow up on their opening lines in the same vein and they make the whole exercise look effortless even though one can scarcely imagine the effort they put in. Lawrence Block, Ross macdonald and John Ball are some other authors whose opening lines, I'd say, are rather unconventional. I left western fiction out because it's my favourite genre and I would read them irrespective of the opening lines. I haven't read SEQUOIA SHOOTOUT but that's a terrific opening by John Reese.

  2. Yeah, what Ron says. It's build thing. one line building on another, each taking you a little further, and a little off to one side. I'm a big fan of good opening lines.

    1. Charles, thanks for the valuable tip on writing the opening. When I read some of the opening lines from the books mentioned, I instantly thought, 'I can do that.' I know it doesn't work that way. I see it more as an inspiration to wannabe writers like me.

  3. You really caught my eye with this one because literally in the last two weeks I picked up copies of both the Leonard and MacDonald books off my shelf (planning to review both soon) and read the opening for both - I don't know what the odds are but they can't be high!

    1. Sergio, there's a certain class of writers that I have come to read, enjoy, and respect apart from the ones mentioned above and in my response to Ron's comment. There's something very earthy about their writing styles, if you know what I mean. I thought of a few more such authors, like Dan Marlowe and Brain Garfield, for instance. I look forward to reading your reviews of the Leonard and MacDonald novels. Though, I hope I'll have read them myself by then so as to be able to really enjoy your reviews.