Monday, August 31, 2009

The First Line: "Who's there?"

By Steve Weddle

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

You really don’t have any choice but to keep reading, do you?
In this space on Saturday, Scott wrote about using normalcy to bring the reader into the writing. The idea of having the reader identify with the main character in the book is crucial. “That could be me” is a powerful way to pull folks in. But they have to want to keep reading. They have to want to find out what happens next. And that’s part of what sells books, too. The first line.

Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS pulls you in and won’t let you go until you’re a trembling heap of shakes and day-old vomit 200 pages later.

Gobs of stuff goes into getting you to buy a book. From ads on the sides of buses to blurbs to appearances on radio shows, the machine works to sell the book. But if someone picks up the book in the store and the first line is “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym,” then folks might just pick up their lattes and move along to another book.

“Blood. It was everywhere.” That’s how J.T. Ellison’s JUDAS KISS opens. Gonna keep reading? Damn straight. Whose blood? Why? All those questions in your head. You need them answered. And that’s what the book is – an answer to questions not asked on the first page.

Here’s another opener famous in the crime fiction circles: “I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should’ve put some plastic down.” You pick that up in your local bookstore, slap down $7, and you’re walking right out with the book with your thumb still holding your spot so you can read the rest when you get to your car. That’s Victor Gischler’s GUN MONKEYS, by the way.

How about this one? “I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me.” Now, Mr. Hammett’s opening to THE THIN MAN has much in common with the openings I’ve mentioned (or the other way around, if you prefer). Like the Gischler opener, this one uses a proper name and a piece of geography to ground you. Like the Ellison, this one leaves you asking questions. What does the girl want? Who are the other people at the table? Did Nora get me anything for Christmas and, if so, how big is the bottle?

Remember how scary ALIEN was when you didn’t know what the monster looked like? The old “There’s something out there” that makes movies scary? That’s the kind of uncertainty that makes all of this work, I think. The monster we don’t know, the one out there that wants to get in here. And that’s what reading is, after all: a search for certainty, for answers we haven’t even learned to ask yet.

As Scott wrote on Saturday, we need to identify with the main character—we need the details from that life to be able to match them up with our lives. The main character is a salesman at Sears? I’ve been to Sears. She went to college at Vassar? My wife’s uncle taught at Vassar after the operation. Whatever the character, Scott argued, having the details helps readers connect.

Agreed. So what do you do with that connection, that string between main character and the reader? You know that thing where you tie one end of the string to your tooth and the other to the doorknob and then slam the door? Yeah, don’t do that. It frickin hurts like a mofo and it never works. I just thought I’d mention that.

As for the connection between character and reader? When a writer makes that connection, readers follow. But that connection has to be made on the first page, sometimes in the first line. And once connected, the reader has to have a reason to follow. You want to find out why something happened or what is going to happen next. I just finished TRUST NO ONE by Gregg Hurwitz, a book that keeps moving because the reader wants to find out what’s going on, why these things are happening and what it all means.

We read because we want answers, because we want to know what happens to these characters. Some of the best books have answers that lead to more questions.

You’re 10 chapters in and, even though you know who the bad guy is, you have no idea why he’s doing what he’s doing. It doesn’t make sense. So you keep reading. But you wouldn’t have started if the first line hadn’t been: “Nathan Morris was already late for his dental appointment in Hicksville when he decided to strangle the waitress.”


Dave White said...

I'm a big fan of first lines. I work really hard on mine ("I've killed three men" in WOMD)... but a good first line always draws me in. And of course, one of my favorites and most quoted was Crumley's opening to The Last Good Kiss.

Anonymous said...

They need a book of first lines. I'd read that -- cause now I have some books from your post that I gotta pick up now and read.

And maybe next week you could do Introductions. That's another edited anthology we need.....

Rob Kitchin said...

A friend once told me that a first line should jump down your throat and grab you. I thought, 'yeah, there's an idea', and so the first line of The Rule Book was written a couple of minutes later.

"His eyes fixed on the sword and started to travel its length, down from the black handle, over the plain hilt and along the two inch wide shaft to where it penetrated the young woman’s mouth."

FiBe said...

I love, 'I'm sitting on the porch of a bungalow on the Yucatan Peninsula with lit cigarettes sticking out of both my ears.' SIXBADTHINGS by Charlie Huston..and thanks for introducing me to it...still trying to mop up the blood...

JT Ellison said...

I don't think I've ever been more honored - to be mentioned in the same post with luminaries like Thompson and Hammett? Made my day.

Openings are crucial. I've always said you have exactly two minutes to hook a reader (or editor, or agent, for that matter.) Finding that perfect combination of information and fishing lure is hard, but oh so worth it.

Thanks for the shout out!