Ever have an idea for a new crime novel or short story but don’t know how to start? Here’s an idea that I often use to help me generate the right opening for a particular story idea. I go to my personal library and open 10 or 20 random books and read the first sentence. For this exercise, I focused on suspense/thrillers published within the past year and from familiar voices in the genre.
Note: These are all Chapter 1 openings, meaning I skipped the prologues. Why? That’s what I do – skip prologues. Cruel, I know, not to mention hypocritical as I often find myself writing them! But just this week I read two more scathing blog rants from literary agents about how prologues are passé and show that an author is too lazy to properly weave these details into the fabric of their story. So, here we go.
Jeffrey Deaver, from The Kill Room
“The flash of light troubled him.”
Tom Clancy, Command Authority
“The black Bronco shot through the storm, its tires kicking up mud and water and grit as it raced along the gravel road, and rain pelted the windshield faster than the wipers could clear it.”
David Baldacci, King and Maxwell
“Forty eight hundred pounds. That was roughly how much the cargo in the crate weighed.
Michael Connelly, The Gods of Guilt
“I approached the witness stand with a warm and welcoming smile. This of course belied my true intent, which was to destroy the woman who sat there with her eyes fixed on me.”
John Grisham, Sycamore Row
“They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he had promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind.”
Patricia Cornwell, Dust
“The clangor of the phone violates the relentless roll of rain beating the roof like drumsticks.”
James Patterson, Cross My Heart
“I trudged aimlessly through the dark, empty streets of Washington, haunted by the memory of my son Ali telling me that the only way to kill a zombie was to destroy its brain.”
Clive Cussler, Mirage
“It was the landscape of another world.”
John Sandford, Storm Front
“His bags were packed and sitting by the door.”
Lee Child, Never Go Back
“Eventually they put Reacher in a car and drove him to a motel a mile away, where the night clerk gave him a room, which had all the features Reacher expected, because he had seen such rooms a thousand times before.”
Scott Turow, Identical
“Many years from now, whenever he thinks back to Dita Kronon’s murder, Paul Gianis’s memories will always return to the start of the day.”
Lisa Scottoline, Accused
“Congratulations! read the banner, but Mary DiNunzio still couldn’t believe she’d made partner, even at her own party.”
Nelson DeMille, The Quest
“The elderly Italian priest crouched in the corner of his cell and covered himself with his straw pallet.”
Dan Brown, Inferno
“The memories materialized slowly…like bubbles surfacing from the darkness of a bottomless well.”
Iris Johansen, Eve
“Dead. Eve was dead. The words kept drumming in Catherine Ling’s mind as she walked up the gateway to the terminal.”
Harlan Coben, Six Years
“I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man.”
Walter Mosely, Parishoner
“There is a stone chapel on the outskirts of Seabreeze City, a small town that is situated between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.”
What do you notice about most of these beginnings? They thrust you into the middle of a story, or place you somewhere that you don’t recognize leaving you with a hundred questions. Deaver: What flash? A gun? Baldacci: 4800 pounds…what’s IN that crate? And questions are good! They create tension and will keep you turning the pages to find the answer you want.
What else do you notice? They’re the complete opposite of the image at the top of this page. “Once upon a time” is a classic, timeless story opening that sets the stage for a linear execution – starting properly at the very beginning and progressing step by step to the ultimate conclusion. Why wouldn’t this opening work now? Because linear is not what we are anymore, as a civilization, as writers, readers, learners. Some generalizations: people are more capable of technological sophistication than we were before. We are smart, quick-thinking, quick-judging, impatient, and no longer willing to complete 10 (or 2) preliminary steps to perform a task. We skip right to step 10 and do our best with it. The world moves faster than it used to, as do our brain processes. As such, so does our patience for details.
Check this out: “When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance from his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”
What’s wrong with this opening passage from Thomas Hardy’s awesome classic, Far From the Madding Crowd? Nothing, when you consider it was originally written around 1847. (And how I love that word countenance!) But for modern standards, the passage wouldn’t work because it’s an entire paragraph about the features on a man’s face. It’s not about either correct or incorrect – it’s about what people want to read and what they will buy. This must, at least in some small way, influence how and what we write.
Another variation is to pick 10 books from all different genres (SyFy, romance, biography) and compare those opening sentences. You can get a much wider sampling that way, and it can generate even more ideas that lead you to your perfect first sentence.