Thursday, March 04, 2010

Openings

“Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras, and there were other signs…”

This is the first line from Louise Gluck’s poem “Cottonmouth Country.” I haven’t read the poem in maybe four years, but I wrote it here from memory. It functions via a single startling, even shocking, first image. What does the line or the image mean? I’m not altogether sure, but it keeps me reading. How about this opening line from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”: “The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.” What is painless? When what starts? You can’t help yourself. You’ve got to read on. Or how about this Hemingway gem from “On the Quai at Smyrna”: “The strange thing was,” he said, “how they screamed every night at midnight.”

Billy Collins says that in poetry, the transition from title to first line is analogous to stepping into a canoe. Regardless of form—poetry, fiction, or drama—the opening line is crucial, perhaps never more so than in our crime-fiction genre.

What do crime writers try to accomplish in story or novel openings?

Consider Sharon McCrumb’s story “Nine Lives to Live.” She opens with “It had seemed like a good idea at the time.” This line poses numerous obvious and broad-sweeping questions that the reader trusts the author to later answer. McCrumb is waving the carrot before the reader, and the in order to continue reading, the reader must find something in the questions the opening line poses that suggests the payoff will be worth it. Similarly, Jan Burke, in “Revised Endings,” leads with “Harriet read the letter again. She wasn’t sure why; each re-reading upset her as much if not more than the first time.” Again, questions: What did the letter say? Why rereading it?

All story openings must grab the reader, but the best opening lines also pose a mystery or develop an element of the story separate onto themselves. In our genre, where readers are promised a full-length mystery anyway, the opening line to a novel or short story becomes even more crucial. It can function as a central question or establish a theme to be developed throughout the mystery.

This is what I tried to do with BAD LIE. “In an uncertain universe, my vocation offers a black-and-white world. On the PGA Tour, either your score is low enough or it is not. The ball is in the hole or it isn’t. You don’t argue strikes. Instant replay won’t overrule decisions. In pro golf, results are final. So I trust my instincts and govern myself by the rules of the game. Unfortunately, life is rarely so straightforward.” Here, I’ve tried to establish about everything you’ll need to know about Jack Austin is you continue reading. I haven’t set the story hook as firmly as McCrumb or Burke, but that’s by design. Mine is a character-driven series. The form here is a novel. I chose character over opening suspense.

My fifth novel, OUT OF BOUNDS, opens differently. Some people like this opening better. “I never really knew Ron Scott. In thirteen seasons on the PGA Tour, I’d played only one round with the guy. But there I was, on a winter morning in Chicago, with every other PGA Tour player paying my last respects.” More questions are posed here. The opening is not as internal as the opening to BAD LIE, but it’s not as intimate either.

Here’s an assignment I do with my students. Try it, if you’d like. Write ten completely different opening lines. Write some that pose questions, some that offer vivid Gluck-like images, and, if you can, some that do both. I’d love to see what you up with. Feel free to e-mail me at jcorrigan@pomfretschool.org.

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