From the Beginning*

Book BeginningsIt can be very tricky to write the beginning lines of a book. Many readers decide within the first paragraph whether they’re interested in reading the story or not. And even for readers who wait a bit longer to decide how they feel about a story, the first few words are important ‘hooks.’ So most authors put a lot of thought into how they’ll start a story. Perhaps that’s even a bit of the reason that some writers find it challenging to begin the actual writing of a novel.

Crime novels start in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes, the first sentence tells the reader right away that things are not going to go well. One of the best examples of that (at least in my opinion) is the famous first sentence of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone:

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’

Of course Rendell goes on to explain how it all started, who the Coverdales are, who Eunice Parchman is and so on. But right from the very start we know that something terrible is going to happen.

That’s also true in Liza Marklund’s The Bomber, which begins this way:

‘The woman who was soon to die stepped cautiously out of the door and glanced around.’

Later that night, she is indeed killed, and her body discovered in the wreckage of a bomb blast. When Kvällspressen crime editor Annika Bengtzon is told about the blast, she rushes as quickly as she can to Victoria Stadium, in the Olympic Village that’s been recently constructed for the upcoming Games. The dead woman is later identified as Stockholm business/civic leader Christine Furhage, and immediately the suspicion is raised that the bombing is the work of terrorists. There are other possibilities though, and Bengtzon and her teammates work to find out who really killed the victim and why. The tension continues throughout the story, but we know from the first sentence that something is going to go very, very wrong.

Of course, not all stories start that way. Some authors choose to build suspense by contrasting what happens later in a novel with a more optimistic beginning. Here, for example, is the first bit of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile:

Linnet Ridgeway!’
‘That’s her!’ said Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the three Crowns.’

Burnaby and his friend are referring to the wealthy and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway, who’s just purchased Wode Hall. In the first few pages of the story, we learn that she seems to have it all: looks, money, brains. She’s the kind of young woman many other people envy. Christie chooses to slowly build the suspense by contrasting that bright beginning with what happens later in the novel, as Linnet marries Simon Doyle, former fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort. They take a honeymoon cruise of the Nile, and on the second night of that trip, Linnet is shot. Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are aboard the same ship and they work to find out who the killer is.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives also begins on a bright, optimistic sort of note:

‘The Welcome Wagon lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity…twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna and said, ‘You’re really going to like it here! It’s a nice town with nice people! You couldn’t have made a better choice!”

And at first, the small, pretty town of Stepford, Connecticut does seem like an idyllic place for Joanna Eberhart, her husband Walter and their two children Pete and Kim. They settle in and before long they’ve made friends and begun to become a part of community life. Slowly, though, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something is very, very wrong in Stepford and it turns out that they’re all too right…

There are also authors who choose to use the beginnings of their stories to set the scene and give the reader a sense of time and place. That can be effective too, as a sense of atmosphere and setting can add much to a novel. Here, for instance, is the beginning of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency:

‘Mma. Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill. These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter.’

McCall Smith goes on to describe the part of Botswana where Mma. Ramotswe’s agency is located. In this first novel in the series, he also introduces Mma. Ramotswe’s first cases, and gives background on her and her family. This approach gives the reader a strong sense of place and culture, and invites the reader to be drawn into the stories once the scene is set.

That’s also the case in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead, which begins this way:

‘The wall was made of big, rounded stones covered in grayish white lichen, and it was the same height as the boy…Everything was gray and misty on the other side.’

Theorin goes on to explain that this is a garden wall, and describes the boy’s first journey to the other side of that wall. Soon afterwards the boy, whose name is Jens, disappears. His family is of course devastated. In fact, his mother Julia is so distraught that she leaves Öland, where the story takes place, intending not to return. Twenty-five years later, Jens’ grandfather Gerlof Davidsson receives a strange package that contains one of the sandals Jens was wearing on the day he disappeared. Hoping he’ll at last get answers, Davidsson contacts Julia, who reluctantly returns to Öland. The two then work to find out what happened to Jens on that terrible day.

There are of course other ways to begin a novel. There isn’t a set ‘rule’ for how to start. The key is that whatever the author chooses needs to get the reader wanting to find out more. What’s your view on this? Do you prefer novels that start by letting you know something terrible is going to happen? Do you like optimistic beginnings that soon change to something quite different? What about beginnings that set the scene? Perhaps you have another preference? If you’re a writer, how do you prefer to get readers ‘hooked?’

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Greg Lake.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Johan Theorin, Liza Marklund, Ruth Rendell

30 responses to “From the Beginning*

  1. To be honest, I’m not someone who’s terribly affected by first lines either way. I’m highly unlikely to give up on a book before I’ve read a substantial chunk of it (unless it’s really offensive in some way) so I’d say it’s really the first three or four chapters that matter to me, as a minimum. I also have a shockingly bad memory, so if there’s some enigmatic hint given on page 1 that won’t become clear till the end, I’ll have forgotten about it anyway!

    Genuinely I’m always stunned when I hear readers say that they gave up on a book after a few pages because they weren’t ‘hooked’ – just goes to show we’re all different…

    • FictionFan – It does indeed. And I agree with you about giving a book at least a few chapters before I give up. The only times I’ve been less patient than that are when I’ve read books that were so brutally violent at the beginning, and with no real purpose to it, that I couldn’t go on. Otherwise I do try to give a book a genuine go. As you say though, there are people do stop reading after a page or so if they’re not engaged. I think that may be part of the reason for which many people think that first lines – first paragraphs – matter so much.

  2. I have to say the first lines from A Judgement In Stone is one of my favourites and made me want to read it again. As long as the first few pages are interesting I’m not too bothered how it starts, I rarely give up on a book unless it ‘s badly written or full of factual inaccuracies.

    • Cleo – Oh, I don’t like factual inaccuracies either. I don’t expect perfection, but I do like writers to ‘do their homework.’ I’ll also stop reading if I find a book horribly offensive for some reason, but that mercifully hasn’t happened often. I think you probably have a lot of company in not being particular about the way a novel starts, given that it’s interesting. That’s the main thing I think readers want – something to make them want to turn or swipe pages..

  3. I too think the opening of Judgement in Stone is one of the best. My current favourite first line (not a crime novel!) is from the 2nd book of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. ‘His children are falling from the sky’ – beautiful, mysterious, intriguing: how could you not want to read on?

    • Oh, Moira, you’re right. That is a great beginning. Lovely phrasing, intriguing and as you say, mysterious. Elegant beginning, I think. And I agree with you and Cleo about A Judgement in Stone. Such a powerful opening line!

  4. I do admire a good opening line, and one that comes to mind (an example of your first case scenario, Margot) is from John Burdett’s Bangkok Eight:
    ‘The African-American marine in the grey Mercedes will soon die of bites from Naja siamensis, but we don’t know that, Pichai and I (the future is impenetrable, says the Buddha).’
    It instantly gives us a sense of foreboding, but also a sense of location and of the characters involved.

    This is slightly tangential, but I have to admit that I struggle a bit with prologues in crime fiction. So often I feel they are put in there to tell you that: hang on in there, something interesting will be coming up, but first I want to tell you all sorts of other things… I know that would-be novelists are regularly told to leave out the prologue, and yet there seems to be no shortage of them in published crime fiction.

    • Marina Sofia – You make an interesting point about prologues. Authors are often told to leave them out; yet, there are definitely agents, publishers and editors who want them. I’ve heard both points of view from readers, too. I understand what you mean about a prologue, and it’s interesting to me to see how people feel about it. I don’t think it’s particularly tangential at all.
      And as to the beginning of Bangkok 8, you’re right; that is a most compelling beginning. It’s got solid foreshadowing, and what’s more, it tells us something of the culture in which the novel takes place.

  5. Crafting a memorable opening line must be a curse but it is certainly a joy if you get a real grabber (Harlan Ellison did more great ones that anybody I can think of this second) – some great choices there Margot, thanks.

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. You’re right that it’s very difficult to write a good opening line, but it’s worth all the effort just to have a reader tell you, ‘I was drawn in right from the start!’ Nothing quite like that. And thanks for mentioning Harlan Ellision; I can’t say I’m deeply familiar with his work, but he’s a good example of some powerful openers. I like the opening line of Angry Candy (Great title too!): ‘We went to the funeral on a pleasantly cool but very sunny Saturday afternoon in February.’ Now that’s the kind of opener that makes you want to know more.

  6. What kind of beginning do I like? Actually, it doesn’t really matter too much. When I pick up a book, I reserve my judgement till I have read at least the first chapter. If the first chapter doesn’t grip, I might be tempted to abandon/ delay the book, but as long as the first chapter works, I am good to go.

    That said, I love an intriguing opening line, because if the first line tickles my imagination, the rest of the book has to be really, really bad for me to not finish it.

    There is this new trend of Prologues that I have seen in a lot of crime fiction books. Camilia Lackberg’s The Preacher, is one that immediately comes to mind. The prologue is sufficiently horrific, but what makes it worse is that it is much later into the novel that you find out exactly what it is all about.

    Great post.

    • Natasha – Thanks for the kind words. You’re in good company when it comes to openings to novels. A lot of readers wait for at least a chapter or two before they make a final decision about whether to keep reading. As you say though, a strong first line can be a real motivator to read more.
      You make an interesting point about prologues. They’re very common in crime fiction; some people are glad of that and some not. I’m not too keen on really brutal and violent prologues, but it seems to me that prologues are most effective when we learn their meaning shortly after the book begins. Then it’s easier for the reader to put it all together.

  7. Margot: I could care less about opening lines. For me authors should waste no time on crafting a brilliant first sentence. I looked through my reviews for the last 15 years and do not think I quoted a single opening line. Better they should focus on an interesting opening chapter, without prologue, to get my interest. Most important have a strong ending. When considering whether to read an author again I think about the ending not the beginning of the book or books I have read by the author.

    • Bill – Oh, that’s really interesting that you’ve looked back over your own reviews to see what has affected your views of books. You make a strong point that excellent books draw readers in with strong first chapters. That’s what invites the reader to go along for the ride, so to speak. And I agree with you that a solid ending matters. Perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post (for which thanks!). I know exactly what you mean, too. If a book’s ending is disappointing, it can leave a sour taste in the reader’s mouth.

      • I recently had a book rage over the James Bond novel “Solo” by William Boyd. It was in most respects a very solid Bond story but the ending was completely dissatisfying and un-Bond, and probably means I won’t ever read anything by Boyd again even though the rest of the book was good. I am unforgiving. 🙂

        • Chacha1 – I’ve had ‘book rages’ like that too. Some things one can forgive; after all, authors are not perfect. Besides, everyone’s taste is different. But there are definitely some things that make us angry enough to decide not to finish a novel, or not to ready anything by that author again. Maybe I won’t try that Boyd…

  8. Some great first lines there Margot. As cheesy as it is, I still love “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice.

  9. ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.’ That’s how the late Iain Banks opened The Crow Road. He later explains that granny had been put into the furnace without her pacemaker being removed first.
    I like to start my murder mysteries with a murder, simply and briefly described. I think it works pretty well, but my opening lines are a long way short of The Crow Road, or most of the excellent examples you quoted.

    • Ian – Oh, that is a truly memorable opening! Very original and attention-getting. And there’s definitely something to be said for opening a novel with the murder. It gets readers wondering right away who the victim is (unless you identify that person) and certainly wondering who the killer is.

  10. Ms. Kinberg, these are great examples of first lines and paragraphs. As I reader I like shoot-from-the-hip beginnings, the kind that you’d normally find in a Kurt Vonnegut or John D. MacDonald novel. There is usually an air of expectation about them. For example, JDM begins his short fiction titled “Find the Woman” with the line “I sat in my brand-new office with the odor of paint in my nostrils and waited for something to happen.” The question is: what next? Well, someone like JDM would have thought it all out before writing down that seemingly banal opening. I’m not sure you can base an entire novel, or even the initial part of it, because you took fancy to an ingenious opening line. I mean, you have to pull it off.

    • Prashant – Oh, there’s no doubt about that. An excellent opening first lane or first page or two does not in itself make for an excellent book. It’s a start, but as you say, not nearly enough. And I know what you mean about plain-spoken authors. There’s a real appeal to the way they write. They get to the point and they ‘tell it like it is,’ as the saying goes. John D. MacDonald definitely counts in that category and so does Vonnegut.

  11. A great post on a perenially fascinating subject. The opening of A Judgment in Stone is probably my all time favourite start to a crime novel. Among older books, Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact also begin (and continue) brilliantly..

    • Martin – Thank you. Honestly, it’d be hard to beat that opening line of A Judgement in Stone, I think. It’s a classic. Also thanks for the mention of Iles’ work – a writer who definitely deserves wider modern attention.

  12. I like good beginning lines, Margot, but I would not depend on the first lines to make a decision on a book.

    I was here a few days ago and did not comment because I remembered a great first line … but wanted to get it right. It is: “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.” From The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox. The book is 700 pages…so I have not read it yet, but I will someday.

    • Tracy – Oh, I’m so glad you took the time to find that line! Thanks very much for sharing it. It’s most definitely intriguing. If you do get to the novel I’ll be interested in what you think. But at 700 pages….I’d hesitate too.

  13. “I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”

    That’s the opening line of Hake Talbot’s brilliant and atmospheric “impossible crime” mystery, “Rim of the Pit,” and I think it’s one of the best opening lines in any mystery. Talbot delivers on that promise, too…for the speaker means it quite literally…

  14. Col

    I can’t recall any memorable books with opening lines that stayed with me. I do like looking at them from time to time…..a bit of humour, or a touch of absurdity catches my attention. A flowery description of the wind blowing in the trees as the hero looks out over the horizon from his verandah less so.

    • Col – I know what you mean. A first line really needs to get the reader interested and wanting more. And for a lot of people, a lengthy, narrative kind of description just doesn’t do it.

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