I was on a panel the other day where my friend J.A. Konrath told the audience, a group of frightened-looking Columbia College students, about his experience judging a short story competition. Over the course of reading something like 2,000 of the suckers, he learned that there were certain trends, certain clues, that told him very early on whether a story had potential or not. The biggest, of course, being the first sentence.
Not news to any of us who write, but it got me thinking, sent me to my bookshelf, pulling favorites both litfic and genre.
Here are a few of genre selections:
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Neuromancer, William Gibson
“My earliest memories involve fire.”
A Drink Before The War, Dennis Lehane
“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner.”
Killing Floor, Lee Child
Yowzer. Talk about humbling: graceful, taut, and intriguing as hell. Gibson shatters the old axiom of not starting with weather; Lehane introduces a thematic thread that runs throughout the book; Child throws you in the action. All three make it near impossible to put the book down.
Or try this one, from Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys. Besides being grabby as hell, it’s a litmus test—if you don’t like this sentence, stop reading, son, because it’s only going to get rougher:
“Three men at McAlester State Penitentiary had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s own figuring, hardly human at all.”
The litfic sentences tended to be less shocking, less action-oriented, but no less effective:
“A screaming comes across the sky.”
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
“In the later years, holding forth to an interviewer or an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.”
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, Michael Chabon
“At this point in the story, Packard had never fallen in love, and didn’t trust what he’d heard of the lingo (forever, my darling, with all my heart, till the end of time, more than life itself, with every fiber of my being, oh my darling Clementine, etc.).”
Train, Pete Dexter
Fewer guns, fewer penises, but I wasn’t able to put any of them down either.
So what is it that makes a first line work? Well, obviously, they grab your attention. That’s a good idea whether you’re writing the Great American Novel or an email to your boss. Whether you do it with the histrionics of a screaming four-year-old or the subtlety of a glance across a dim-lit room depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. This isn’t a genre distinction, either; plenty of crime novels go subtle, while plenty of litfic hits with a heavy hand.
But I think that the best first lines do more than grab attention. Working at their highest level, a first line encapsulates the whole feel of a book. It’s like a trailer for a movie. A good trailer teases; it flirts, giving you touches and hope, flashing stolen glimpses of a world worth losing yourself in.
The best first lines are the same.
Not easily accomplished, certainly, and done wrong more often than it’s done right. But when it works, man, it’s magic.
One more example, of one of my all-time, top-five, desert-island faves:
"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."
The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley
Gives me shivers.
Which ones give you shivers?