the con of the art

by Toni McGee Causey


If we do it right, from the very beginning, it should be seduction. Luring the reader in, making them forget about the fact that we’re telling them lies. All lies. Lies that hold a truth somewhere, the promise of something rich and memorable. A rush, the suggestion of satisfaction, of bliss. Being sated, while making them forget it’s all based on deception.

 Making the experience personal, unique, something the reader believes they won’t find anywhere else. Something meant just for them. Theirs.


The opening to a novel is all about seducing, capturing the reader with just the right tone, the right shift of the body, so that they lean in a little. Tell me more.

The beginning of a story used to be difficult for me, until I realized what it was all about. It’s not about the set up, or the backstory. It’s not about the world or the place or the weather. It’s about titillation. Potential. It does not have to be about understanding, yet. The whole "they have to know this thing happened back then in order to know what that event means" scenario. You don’t start off a seduction of a partner by delving into what your parents did when you were seven or the unforgivable thing you’re ashamed of or exactly who your great-uncle was and why he left you the moose in his will. None of these things matter yet to the audience, and you can’t make them matter in the first two minutes.

You can, though, make them interested enough to stick around to find out more. Understanding will come later.

There are a few components to a good seduction.

Confidence. One hell of a weapon. If someone is nervous and jumpy and suffering flop sweat, it doesn’t exactly inspire a person to think anything following is going to be exciting. Or anything above insufferable. Likewise, starting off explaining too much can come across as wimpy, lacking in confidence. Pick a path, pick a voice, hone it. Own it. Have confidence in it.

Awareness. Pay attention to your partner’s signals. In writing, this translates as know your audience. Know their expectations, and then show them that you have the potential to deliver–in unexpected ways. Sure, you can break rules of the genre, but it’s the difference between being aware that pitching a three-way from the podium of the Southern Baptist convention is not going to get the same results as pitching the same thing in a bar after work.

Invitation. Your partner has to feel wanted. Needed. There needs to be an invitation to continue. Body language, intonation, phrasing, eye contact, laughter… in seduction, all of these things can come into play. You can’t seduce someone if you’re too busy paying attention to everyone else in the room–there would be the blunt sense of not mattering, not being needed, not being unique, and the lack of invitation would turn most people off. So, too, if you don’t raise a question or two in the beginning of the story. The sense that you need to tell this story, to them, that it’s critical, that they, the reader, are important, is primary. Put another way, this is the "don’t bore them with exposition" rule. Think back to standing at a party and having someone go on and on and on about themselves. They start sounding self-important, and you wonder why you even need to be there. They’d probably be saying the same thing without you, and immediately, you wish to be elsewhere. The reader senses this same thing, when there’s tons of exposition. Instead, plunge them into the story, into the conflict, and tantalize them with and interesting angle on what happened, or an interesting voice. Tease them.

Focus. Know what you’re promising, because you’re going to have to follow through. And as you go, you’ll be showing you know this, demonstrating some expertise that will continue the seduction, keep their interest until they’re too far gone to walk away. This means finishing what you started, the way you started it. If you start off with serial killers, ending with the Marx Brothers is probably a bad idea. Consistency. No one in the middle of great sex suddenly wants to start talking about the aliens you think landed and took over your in-laws.

Subtext. Build the tension. The surest way to crash the evening (or push away the reader) is to interrupt the flirting with a sudden need to have a heart-to-heart honest discussion of some issue that is very important to you–when that wasn’t the direction the evening was going. There are things that are said, and things not said, and seduction often takes place in that subtext, in the things not said.

I’ll admit here that I want to be seduced by good openings. I want to feel that rush of expectation, the heightened sense of promise. I have a good many books on my TBR pile because of the seduction of such openings… things like Sean Chercover’s Trigger City, Lori Armstrong’s Snow Blind, Harlan Coben’s Hold Tight, Robert Crais’ The Watchman, [I know, I am the last person on earth to read this one], Tasha Alexander’s A Fatal Waltz, and Zoë Sharp’s Third Strike [an absolutely terrific opening line]… okay, I just looked at my stack and there are more than fifty books in this one stack. In one room. There are stacks in each room.

How about you? What seduces you? And tell me something on your TBR pile (and I’ll follow up and put links to those titles). 

Edited to add links from the selections in the comments… (because links are wonky if I try to put them there):

The Given Day — Dennis Lehane
Lost Dog — Bill Cameron
Angel’s Tip — Alafair Burke
The Book of Lost Things — John Connolly
Money Shot — Christa Faust

The Confessions of Max TivoliAndrew Sean Greer


THE GIVEN DAY, Dennis Lehane
CHARM CITY, Laura Lippman

THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller
WHITE NIGHTS by Ann Cleeves
BRASS VERDICT by Michael Connelly
TURNAROUND by George Pelecanos

The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski

oops, I missed a couple from earlier… and there are a few more!

SILENCE OF THE GRAVEArnaldur Indridason


ISABELLA MOONby Laura Benedict




Voodoo DollLeah Giarratano

ShatterMichael Robotham

13 thoughts on “the con of the art

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Hmmm. What seduces me? A nice dark room, some music a…oh, you meant books. I’m going to have to go with an opening that REALLY makes me say “Wow, what happened there? I HAVE to find out.”

    My TBR pile is rather extensive, but here are a few titles that are close to the top:

    The Given Day — Dennis LehaneLost Dog — Bill CameronAngel’s Tip — Alafair BurkeThe Book of Lost Things — John ConnollyMoney Shot — Christa Faust

    Those titles don’t even begin to scratch the surface of my TBR pile.

    And sorry I never got the chance to meet you at Bouchercon this year, Toni.

  2. billie

    Right now I’m reading Andrew Sean Greer’s The Adventures of Max Tivoli. Someone recommended it and when I picked it up in the bookstore, the first line completely drew me in:

    We are each the love of someone’s life.

    I couldn’t resist that one. You’re right though – I will often pick up a book based on a combination of other factors, but if, when I open it and read the first line, even the first page, and the author has done what you describe, all else can be not exciting or even just “wrong” and I’ll still buy that book.

  3. Dana King

    A good opening is important, but I like to be drawn into the story, not snacked over the head with it. The opening to TRIGGER CITY is excellent; the first line is a classic. (Facts are not truth. Listen carefully, this is important.) He had me there. Declan Hughes’ THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD has what might be the best opening I’ve ever read. (On the night of my mother’s funeral, Pam Dawson cried on my shoulder, stuck her tongue in my mouth, and asked me to find her husband.) The opening scene of my current Read In Progress, John McFetridge’s EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, has as good an opening scene as I have ever read. All three of those books had me in on the first page-and-a-half, then let things build from there. Perfect for my tastes.

    My current TBR pile:EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, Declan BurkeTHE GIVEN DAY, Dennis LehaneNOTHING TO LOSE, Lee ChildTHE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN, James Lee BurkeCHARM CITY, Laura Lippman

  4. woodstock

    The one opening sentence which still sends a chill down my spine when I remember it is from Arnaldur Indridason’s SILENCE OF THE GRAVE. “He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who wassitting on the floor chewing it.” At that point there was absolutely NO WAY I was not going to read that book.

    My TBR pile was once the subject of an online contest – it’s really obscene. But closest to the top:

    THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur MillerWHITE NIGHTS by Ann CleevesBRASS VERDICT by Michael ConnellyTURNAROUND by George PelecanosSORROWS OF AN AMERICAN by Siri Hustvedt

  5. Fran

    I still maintain Dick Francis had one of the best opening lines in “In The Frame” with “I stood on the outside of disaster, looking in.” I just had to know.

    And read the opening three lines of Duane Swierzynscki’s (sp? I’m SO bad with this one!) “The Blonde”.

    So many of us read the first paragraphs of a book to get a feel for it, to hear the voice, and if the hook isn’t there, the book doesn’t go.

    Great post!

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Thanks for the honourable mention. Getting the right jumping-off point into the story can take me as long to figure out as writing the rest of the book …

    Opening lines? I agree that the whole of the prologue to Sean Chercover’s TRIGGER CITY is just wonderful.

    My favourite Lee Child opening is to THE HARD WAY: ‘Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever.’

    Robert B Parker’s TROUBLE IN PARADISE has my favourite opening to a second chapter (and I pick this because chapter one feels more like a prologue): ‘By the time Macklin was out of jail for a week, he had acquired a brown Mercedes sedan, which he stole from the Alewife Station parking garage, and a 9mm semiautomatic pistol that he got from a guy he’d done time with named Desmond.’

    And finally, JD Robb’s JUDGMENT IN DEATH: ‘She stood in Purgatory and studied death.’

    Great post, Toni. Weird, though, ‘cos I was planning something similar to this when I’m guesting over on Moments in Crime and now I’ll have to push that topic back further into the week! Rats ;-]

  7. Catherine

    My latest TBR, has slipped into currently being read…

    ‘Voodoo Doll’, is the second book by an Australian author Leah Giarratano. Part of her author blurb states her many years experience working with victims and psychopaths as a clinical psychologist. She has worked with corrective services, the Australian Defence Force, and in psychiatric hospitals.

    The first line or two of this book…

    ‘Face mashed into the carpet, Joss concentrated on breathing. If he kept his chin tucked into his neck, it reduced some of the pressure from the boot pressing onto his cheek…’

    After her first novel, ‘Vodka doesn’t freeze’; I really wanted to know where she was going to take her main character, Sergeant Jill Jackson. I like how she has built her character’s growth within a fast paced story,(both book 1 and 2).

    I guess it says something that even though I haven’t finished the second book I’m starting to wonder when the third novel will be published.

  8. Catherine

    Just playing around on the net (as you do) and found a book that really is in my not quite sitting beside me yet TBR pile…

    This book, ‘Shatter’ by Michael Robotham, won the 2008 Ned Kelly Award…was granted by the Crime Writers’ Association of Australia for outstanding works in the field of crime, both fiction and non-fiction, by Australian authors.

    First line or two,

    ‘Wipers thrash and a siren wails. From inside the car it sounds strangely muted and I keep looking over my shoulder expecting to see an approaching police car. It takes me a moment to realise that the siren is coming from our vehicle.’

    Although I’ve read some of the books that made it on the awards list over the years…the awards list makes a pretty good TBR list.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    R.J. — thank you — I am equally bummed at not getting to meet you as well. I hope we’ll catch up at the next one.

    billie — always great to see you. I always end up wanting to read whatever you’re reading–you have such a great way of describing things.

    Dana, excellent suggestions (you have officially cost me money, now). I’d so raid your bookcases.

    woodstock, that SILENCE OF THE GRAVE example gave me shivers–a great, evocative beginning to a story. Wow. (Sorry to have missed putting a link up earlier, but got it up, now.)

    Louise, as always, you crack me up.

    Fran! Great call on The Blonde–and yeah, I think Duane should be forced to officially give us some sort of short-hand nickname because I don’t think I’ve ever spelled his name correctly the first try. (oops, just realized I missed linking to your other example–will go correct in a sec.)

    Thanks, Pari. I’m a sucker for wry humor as well.

    JT, Isabella Moon is beautifully done. Laura’s truly talented.

    Zoë–oops. We keep doing that hive mind thing… I’ll bet you’ll have a really cool angle on the idea, though–hope you send a link when it’s up.

    Catherine, I’m so glad you posted with examples from down under. I don’t know that I would have heard of either of these and now I am officially curious and will track them down. Great suggestions.

  10. Allison Brennan

    Great post, Toni! The opening is still the hardest part for me (after the transition into the second act!) I rewrite the opening chapter at least four or five times before I can move on . . . the endings? I never seem to have the same problem.


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