by Zoë Sharp
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 nobody’s asked me to change the start of a book – it’ll happen, I’m sure – but generally speaking, I’m pretty easygoing about edits. If my agent or my editor says something needs altering or cutting, and I don’t have a really good reason for that scene to stay, it goes. Comes 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.
I did a short story for a particular magazine last year. 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 ’Rati, 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.
Pari Noskin Taichert – THE SOCORRO BLAST
‘If hell exists, it’s filled with old boyfriends … and a cat.’
Louise Ure – THE FAULT TREE
‘At the end, there was so much blame to spread around that we could all have taken a few shovelfuls home and rolled around in it like pigs in stink.’
Robert Gregory Browne – KISS HER GOODBYE
‘It all started when the pregnant girl went crazy.’
JD Rhoades – GOOD DAY IN HELL
‘The first blow split Stan’s lip and knocked him into a stack of re-capped tyres at the back of the repair bay.’
and THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND
"She ain’t no damn lesbian," the stocky man said.
Ken Bruen – CROSS
‘It took them a time to crucify the kid. Not that he was giving them any trouble; in fact, he’d been almost co-operative.’
Brett Battles – THE CLEANER
‘Denver was not Hawaii. There were no beaches, no palm trees, no bikinis, no mai tais sipped slowly on the deck of the Lava Shack on Maui.’
JT Ellison – ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS
"No, please don’t."
‘Would the bastard ever call?’
Alexandra Sokoloff – THE PRICE
‘Dead of winter, and snow falls like stars from a black dome of sky.’
Toni McGee Causey – BOBBY FAYE’S VERY (VERY, VERY, VERY) BAD DAY
‘Something wet and spongy plunked against Bobbie Faye’s face and she sprang awake, arms pinwheeling. "Damn it, Roy, you hit me with a catfish again and I’m gonna–"’
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?
But 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 SECOND SHOT, it was one that came to me immediately and it never changed:
‘Take it from me, getting yourself shot hurts like hell.’
The whole of that opening scene, where Charlie Fox, shot twice, lies bleeding in a freezing forest in New England, watching her principal die in front of her, arrived in one big lump, 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 little fingers could thump the keys.
But, as you can imagine, the opener for that book is very definitely not the start of the story itself. And, contrary to many expectations, it’s not the end of it either. Not by a long shot. Or, in this case, a couple of medium-range ones. One of the whole ideas behind the book was to strip away Charlie’s physical self-assurance, her capability when it comes to defending herself and those she’s been tasked to protect. So, I put her on crutches for the latter half of the book, just to see how she coped. So, I suppose you could say the real start for the story is Chapter Two, when she first meets Simone, the woman whose life she will fail to save, and Simone’s young daughter, Ella. And that was a pig to write.
Closing lines are just as bad, although when JT told me the closing line for ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, it links just beautifully with that opener: "No. Please don’t. Yes."
The closing line for SECOND SHOT arrived in the shower while we were staying at a friend’s house in Chicago, and I literally had to jump out from under the spray and write it down. It came to me long before I finished the rest of the book and when I got there, it just seemed to fit perfectly. Maybe I was subconsciously writing towards it the whole time:
‘So, still I ask myself the question: Did I kill him because I had no choice, or because I made one?’
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 in that book.
Erm, and the next one, actually …
This week’s Word of the Week, appropriately enough is persue. Not only is this an obsolete spelling of pursue, but it derives from the French percée, the act of piercing. It was used by Spenser – and I mean Edmund the English poet, rather than Robert B Parker’s detective – to mean a track of blood.