This is a weekly blog which charts my progress, or lack thereof, as I write the fourth book in my Eddie Flynn series.
The first line is important. For a lot of readers it will be the first time they get to read your work. In a way, the reader is meeting the writer for the first time. First impressions count.
In real life I want to make a good impression when I meet someone for the first time. Everyone does. Well, apart from Donald Trump. Donald likes to kiss women and grab them by the pussy. For legal reasons I have to say that Donald maintains he never did this to any woman, and at the time he made that comment he was an immature fifty-nine-year-old father of four. With any luck he’ll be sharing a cell with Bill Cosby soon. Now there’s an idea for a sitcom…
Anyway, where was I?
I’m not saying the first line should be an introduction, or even friendly. It’s more of a calling card. You are letting the reader know, right away, what they might expect from the book.
The moment immediately before you write that first line is a moment to be savoured. You’ve opened a new Word document on the laptop, you might even have inserted a title page, or told Word to number your pages, maybe even a header denoting your name as the author. What you have before you is a perfect white screen, a blinking cursor and an idea. Right then, that’s as good as it gets. That is my favourite moment in any project; that moment before I begin. The reason I love it is I have a perfect idea in my head. And it’s perfect because I haven’t written it down and begun to make mistakes yet.
Soon as words appear on screen, it’s already not as good as I thought it would be. These are all good signs. If I wrote an opening paragraph and thought, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever written – Jesus I’m good,” I would know a nano-second later that the reverse is probably true. It’s probably shit. To quote Harlan Coben, “Only bad writers think they are good.”
I love my self-doubt. I cling to it. I try to preserve it as best I can (usually this isn’t too difficult). Why? Because if I doubt the quality of what I’ve written (and I doubt the quality of every single sentence) then I’ll go back and revise it, read it again, rewrite it, analyse it, leave it a week and then go back and tinker with it again. I want that first sentence to be the best that it can be, but I’ll never be 100% satisfied and I take comfort in that.
So what should your first line do? Does it have a function?
This is up to the writer. I don’t aspire to any set of writing rules. Elmore Leonard was very much against opening a book with weather, or too much description. I can see the logic in that. However, that argument falls to pieces when you read James Lee Burke who often opens his novels with breath-taking descriptions of landscape and weather. By the time you’ve finished reading the first sentence you know you are in the hands of a master.
I can’t tell anyone to do anything that will guarantee a great opening line or paragraph, I can only tell you which first-lines grab me by the pussy and why.
I can give you the standard list of novels with great openings like The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, or The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley. Incidentally, if you ever wanted to know how to write a fully-formed, living and breathing character, read the first chapter of The Last Good Kiss. The dog in that chapter is a more fully realised character than some main protagonists in entire published novels. Also, if there’s a writer that consistently delivered brilliant opening lines then look no further than P. D. James. Almost every single one is quirky, funny and unsettling.
Anyway, I was trying to think of great opening lines in modern crime novels. It would be remiss of me not to mention Viral by Helen Fitzgerald and Ways To Die In Glasgow by Jay Stringer. They are so good I don’t want to say anything about them – just click on the book title and go discover them for yourself.
Opening lines should play to your strengths – plotters and poets will do different things.
When it comes to style in a modern crime novel, one opening line stands out for me. It’s from Slaughter’s Hound by Declan Burke. Lee Child said the book is
”Everything you could want – action, suspense, character and setting, all floating on the easy lyricism of a fine writer at the top of his game.” Here’s the opening –
“It was a rare fine night for a stroll down by the docks, the moon plump as a pillow in an old-fashioned hotel and the undertow in the turning tide swushing its ripples silvery-green and a bird you’ve never heard before chirring its homesick tale of a place you might once have known and most likely now will never see, mid-June and almost midnight and balmy yet, the kind of evening built for a long walk with a woman who likes to take long walks and not say very much, and that little in a murmur you have to strain to catch, her laughter low and throaty, her humour dry and favouring lewd, eyes like smoky mirrors of the vast night sky and in them twinkles that might be stars reflecting or the first sparks of intentions that you’d better fan with soft words and a gentle touch in just the right place or spend the rest of your life and maybe forever wondering what might have been, all for the want of a soft word and a touch gentle and true.
It was that kind of evening, alright.”
Hear that? That’s the sound of John Banville chewing off his own thumbs in a fit of envy. And the next two paragraphs of that opening page will put you on the floor with laughter.
The next example is probably perfect. It’s got style and depth in spades and it does what openings should – it puts a meathook in the reader. Read this opening and you are hooked for the rest of the book. It’s from the amazing Mark Billingham and it’s the opening lines from the prologue to Rush Of Blood.
“It’s all wrong.
The light winking on the blue mirror of the pool, the sunhats and the sweating beer bottles clutched in their fists. The drone of insects. The smell of warm skin slick with suntan lotion.
All of it.”
We’ve all been there on holiday. Feeling relaxed and happy. Having a beer. It’s all too familiar. But the first, three-word sentence makes that familiar scene incredibly unsettling. Why is it all wrong? I’ve got to know.
Here’s why I think it’s so clever – I am immediately at one with the narrator. Half the battle of the thriller writer is making the characters and scenes seem real – so when terrible things do go wrong we believe that these horrific events could easily happen to us. In Rush Of Blood that particular battle has been well and truly won in the second paragraph of page one. Job done.
When you are writing your opening line these two examples are the kind of quality you should be aiming for. It’s what I aim for. Usually I miss. I’ve got bad eyes, that’s my excuse.
I’ve got my opening line for book four. It needs work. It might not make it into the final book. We’ll see. For now, I’ll leave you with it.
“At ten after five on a raw December afternoon, Joshua Kane lay down on a cardboard bed outside the Criminal Courts Building in Manhattan and thought about killing a man.”
See you next week, folks. Thanks for reading this and if you liked it, why not share it.
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