Thursday, February 11, 2010

Do You Like It Fast or Slow?

KD, we were talking about openings. That first sentence or first few sentences that draw us into the story. There are fast openings (I think it was a John MacDonald book that began with the line “We were about to call it a night when someone dropped the girl off the bridge.”) And slow openings. I went to my book shelf to see what I could find. Seems I favor writers who take their time to get into things!

“Have you noticed, Joanna said as they sped along the M4 towards London, “how the self-drive hire business has been completely taken over by that Dutch firm?”
“What Dutch firm,” Slider asked unwarily.
“Van Rentals.”
“How long have you been thinking that one out?”
”I resent the implication that my wit isn’t spontaneous.”
Cynthia Harrod Eagles “Blood Sinister”

To my mind, this opening gives us a peek at two of the book’s main characters and their personalities. Soon enough we’ll find out who was murdered and how.

K D. You have more faith than I do, Peg. I would have stopped reading. I mean, talk about a LAME joke!

Peg: Okay, well maybe I liked it because I’m currently living in Grand Rapids where the saying is “if you’re not Dutch, you’re not much!”

Well then, what about this one:

This is from Ruth Rendall’s “Shake Hands Forever”:

The woman standing under the departure board at Victoria station had a flat rectangular body and an iron-hard rectangular face. A hat of fawn-colored corrugated felt rather like a walnut shell encased her head, her hands were gloved in fawn-colored cotton, and at her feet was the durable but scarcely used brown leather suitcase she had taken on her honeymoon forty-five years before.

It’s a slow opening by today’s standards, but knowing what a master Rendall is, I’m willing to bide my time and wait for the action.

K D I'd keep reading this one, even if I didn't know it was Ruth Rendall. Nothing like "an iron-hard rectangular face" and a scarcely used suitcase. I already know I am somewhere special.

Peg: This is not only the entire first sentence, but the entire first chapter of Gregory McDonald’s “Fletch, Too.”

“What astounded Fletch was that the letter written to him was signed Fletch.” (This is from my husband’s side of the bookcase. His name is Fletcher and he has the complete set of “Fletch” books!)

K D The whole first chapter? Really? That takes a certain kind of style. I admire it.

Now, how about these openings from P.D. James “The Murder Room” and Dick Francis “Under Orders”. Are they cheating? The first lines are almost like a mini-prologue—full of foreboding but followed by more prosaic action. And many, many pages before we’re into the full swing of things.

“On Friday 25 October, exactly one week before the first body was discovered at the Dupayne Museum, Adam Dalgliesh visited that museum for the first time.”

And from Francis:

“Sadly, death at the races is not uncommon. However, three in a single afternoon was sufficiently unusual to raise more than an eyebrow. That only one of the deaths was of a horse was more than enough to bring the local constabulary hotfoot to the track.” He goes on…”Cheltenham Gold Cup day had dawned bright and sunny…”

Is that cheating, do you think?

K D When they do it, it's not cheating. Since I am not published yet, if I did it, it would be cheating. I wouldn't get published. Same with the one-sentence first chapter. I'm not saying it is wrong. You have to pay your dues, and show you can follow forms before you break them.

How about this one, though? Michele Martinez, a former federal prosecutor, give us these first sentences in The Finishing School.

"Even the most dedicated prosecutor hates the sound of the pager shrieking at two in the morning. Melanie Vargas hardly slept these days anyway. In the middle of a divorce, with a baby daughter who was spending the winter sick with one thing or another..."

We get the fact that something is up (you don't call the prosecutor at 2 a.m. if all is well) and much sympathetic information about the protagonist. I think it is a great beginning. What do you think, Peg?

Peg: I like it. I feel I already know Melanie’s character, and we’re only a couple of sentences into the book.

Peg & KD: What are your favorite types of openings? Want to share? Comment below!


  1. I'm astounded at the Fletch first chapter. And I agree with Peg, we'd better study the zingers, the whiz-bangs, to get ourselves noticed.

    Thanks for this discussion!

  2. Great dialog! We're in the Twitter Age, when books have to open with a bang -- unless you're a best-selling author.