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Thriller first lines

by bdietrich on March 14, 2013

“The last camel collapsed at noon.” This first line, in Ken Follett’s classic The Key to Rebecca, made me want to read more. I try for the same in my own fiction: a sailor beheaded by a cannonball in the opening of the upcoming “The Barbed Crown.”

Here’s some openers I’ve collected from others, for a blog I also posted at Thillercentral.org.

“‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” No wonder I loved E..B. White’s Charlotte’s Web when my teacher read it in the third grade. It’s a thriller!

“It was a pleasure to burn,” is how Ray Bradbury started Fahrenheit 451.

“The screams had finally ceased.” James Rollins, The Judas Strain.

“I am a coward,” begins the narrator of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.

Not every beginning has to be a zinger. While mystery writer Elmore Leonard advises never to start with the weather, legions of good bestsellers have done just that.

Grabbing the reader by the throat sure doesn’t hurt, though. Here’s Leonard in Freaky Deaky: “Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”

Or Dean Koontz, Dragon Tears: “Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.”

In contrast, Dan Brown’s terrific The Da Vinci Code has a surprisingly sleepy first line: “Robert Langdon awoke slowly.”

Compare to Franz Kafka: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.” Metamorphosis.

Another classic is George Orwell’s 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Thriller writers love to tap our greatest dread, death. The first line of my own Ice Reich was, “The flying was bad. The corpse made it worse.”

Here’s Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

“You never meant to kill him.”Harlan Coben, The Innocent.

It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by a firing squad.” Frederick Forsyth, Day of the Jackal.

“Death is my beat,” starts Michael Connelly in The Poet.

“Coming back from the dead is not as easy as they make it seem in the movies.” Christa Faust, Money Shot.

Less dramatic, but utterly effective, is William Goldman’s Marathon Man: “Every time he drove through Yorkville, Rosenbaum got angry, just on general principles.”

There is elegance in the straight-forward. The most quoted Stephen King first line is from The Dark Tower: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Wonderfully simple and evocative.

Or you can be more wordy: “Steever stood on the southbound local platform of the Lexington Avenue line at Fifty-ninth Street and chewed his gum with a gentle motion of his heavy jaws, like a soft-mouthed retriever schooled to hold game firmly but without bruising it.” John Godey, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.” You just don’t top the classics, like War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Stephenie Meyer hit the jackpot with Twilight by, hey, telling a good story. First line: “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – even though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”

Peter Benchley, in Jaws: “The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.”

The most derided first line in literature, thanks to Snoopy, is “It was a dark and stormy night,” by Victorian bestseller Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in Paul Clifford. I actually think the sentence works fine, and in fact the same line begins Madeleine L’Engle’s bestselling children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time.

I’ve got a soft spot for  Bulwer-Lytton, since I got an idea from his (admittedly) almost unreadable novel Vril for my own Blood of the Reich. His problem, I think, was not stopping with the part Snoopy kept typing in Peanuts. Here’s the rest of his opening: “…night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Whew. Not exactly “Call me Ishmael,” the opening of Moby Dick. But we all know aspiring writers who start exactly Bulwer-Lytton’s way.

The best opening lines don’t just grab, they set the tone of the entire story. Here’s Deadwood, from Pete Dexter: “The boy shot Wild Bill’s horse at dusk, while Bill was off in the bushes to relieve himself.”

And as a journalist, I’d be remiss in not recounting one of the best first lines in journalism. It’s Miami crime writer Edna Buchanan’s account of a man shot by a security guard after pushing to the front of the line of a chicken stand: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”

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