Monday, October 26, 2009

Do First Lines Stack Up?

As writers, we are taught that opening lines are important.

They do more than grab the reader, though. They set the tone. They let the reader know what they have gotten themselves into. They raise a question or two.

I wondered if books I read this year or fifteen-plus years ago, and count as my favorites, would follow this element of craft. So here are a few. See what you think:

Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of Louisiana, the bayou world of Catholic saints and voodoo queens. It is Labor Day, 1959, at Pecan Grove Plantation, on the day of her daddy's annual dove hunt. While the men sweat and shoot, Sidda's gorgeous mother, Vivi, and her gang of friends, the Ya-Yas, play bourree, a cut-throat Louisiana poker, inside the air conditioned house. On the kitchen blackboard is scrawled: SMOKE, DRINK, NEVER THINK–borrowed from Billie Holiday. When the ladies take a break, they feed the Petites Ya-Yas (as Ya-Ya offspring are called) sickly sweets of maraschino cherries from the fridge in the wet bar. ~ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, 1996

* * *

It had become common chatter at Brightwood Hospital—better known for three hundred miles around Detroit as Hudson's Clinic—that the chief was all but dead on his feet. The whole place buzzed with it. ~ Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas, 1929

* * *

Charlie Croker, astride his favorite Tennessee Walking Horse, pulled his shoulders back to make sure he was erect in the saddle and took a deep breath . . . Ahhh, that was the ticket . . . He loved the way his mighty chest rose and fell beneath his khaki shirt and imagined that everyone in the hunting party noticed how powerfully built he was. ~ A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, 1998

* * *

Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that happened a long while ago, and I said to you, "That afternoon when I met so-and-so . . . was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon." I expect you might put down your teacup and say, "Well, no, which is it? Was it the best of the worse? Because it can't possibly have been both!" Ordinarily I'd have to laugh at myself and agree with you. But the truth is that the afternoon when i met Mr. Tanaka Ichiro really was the best and the worse of my life. He seemed so fascinating to me, even the fish smell on his hands was a kind of perfume. If I had never known him, I'm sure I would not have become a geisha. ~ Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, 1997

* * *

A man begins dying at the moment of his birth. Most people live in denial of Death's patient courtship until, late in life and deep in sickness, they become aware of him sitting bedside. ~ THE HUSBAND by Dean Koontz, 2006

* * *

The morning of the day I lost her, my daughter asked me to scramble her some eggs. ~ FEAR THE WORST by Linwood Barclay, 2009

My friend, author Donn Taylor, offers his (and I have to say, they're awesome):

From a John D. MacDonald mystery (I forget the name, and this is from memory, so I may not have the exact words): "We were about to call it a night and go home, when someone threw the girl off the bridge."

From Jack Higgins, The Savage Day: "They were getting ready to shoot someone in the inner courtyard, which meant it was Monday because Monday was execution day."

And please pardon my vanity if I submit two of my own:

From The Lazarus File: "Mark Daniel had never been hijacked before, but the man pointing a pistol at his heart was rapidly filling that gap in his experience."

From Rhapsody in Red: "That Wednesday two weeks before Thanksgiving was a bad day to find a corpse on campus."

Huh. It looks to me like the good ones start out pretty good. The trick is, of course, staying good and ending good. Maybe I'll take a look at endings in another post.

What about your favorites? Do they make you proud they're a favorite, or muddy the waters?

CR: Green by Ted Dekker

It's all better with friends.

1 comment:

  1. This from Jan Kozlowski:

    And, just for the record, my favorite first line/first paragraph is
    one I memorized as a child and can still quote from memory today:
    Scarlet O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when
    caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. Gone With the Wind,
    Margaret Mitchell-1936

    A close second is: When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his
    arm badly broken at the elbow. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee-1960

    Jan Kozlowski