Monday, May 13, 2013


DEBORAH CROMBIE: Recently, when my writer friend David Corbett and I were co-keynote speakers at a writer's conference, he asked me what was my favorite opening line from my books. I looked at him blankly and said, "I have no idea. Never thought about it."

So, of course, when I got home I had to pull out all fifteen novels and read the first line. And the weird thing was that while there are perhaps more lyrical and more foreboding opening lines, I kept going back to the very first book, A Share in Death.

"Duncan Kincaid's holiday began well."

So simple. Yet it introduces the protagonist, it tells you that he is going somewhere and doing something, and that the holiday does not CONTINUE to go well. Even now, I immediately want to know what happened, and why.

Fellow REDs, what are your favorite opening lines from your novels? And why?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Fun question. "So many lies."
That's it. It's the first line from Dead Head and I guess I imagined the narrator delivering the line in an exhausted voice, wondering when she'd be able to stop telling them. I also hoped it would make the reader wonder who was lying and why.

LUCY BURDETTE: Love those lines ladies. Mine would have to be the opening from AN APPETITE FOR MURDER, which I HOPE gives an immediate taste of the narrator/protagonist. I wanted to show what she loved and how desperately she wanted it.

"Lots of people think they'd love to eat for a living. Me? I'd kill for it."

But I can't tell you how many drafts I went through before that appeared!

HALLIE EPHRON: I'm often surprised to discover that my book's opening lines really are the first ones I wrote.

It takes two lines to get There Was an Old Woman started: "Mina Yetner sat in her living room inspecting the death notices in THE DAILY NEWS. She got through two full columns before she found someone older than herself."

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  You know, I can't write my books until I have the first line, and I have to say, it never changes. (Sometimes I'll tweak just because it seems like I ought to--but then it goes back to the way it started. I--embarrassed to say--love all my first lines. I see them as the entryway to the book, you know? That one line is what the book is all about, every bit of it, all the way through.

In The Other Woman--which is about the clash between cops and reporters--the first line is  a detective talking to reporters. He's saying : "Get back behind that tape. All of you. Now."

In the new  (As yet untitled, grrr) book, the first line is Jane saying:  "I know it's legal, but it's horrible."

In THE WRONG GIRL  (out this fall!) it's   "Listen Jane, I don't think she's my real mother."

But the sentimental favorite is my third book AIR TIME, which is about a scheme to smuggle valuable items via the commercial airline system. And that first line is Charlotte saying "It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying."

(Can I just say? See? It has character, point of view, conflict, suspense and setting, all in that line. I love thinking about this!)

RHYS BOWEN: (checking in from rainy England). I have to agree that I need to have the first line in place before I can think seriously about a new book. Sometimes it comes to me instantly. Sometimes I play with it--cut out whole paragraphs or even pages. But my favorite is definitely the first Molly Murphy book, Murphy's Law. "That mouth of yours will get you into trouble one day."

DEBS:  Oh, you all are fabulous! I love every single one of these! (We hope readers will never guess how hard we work at them...) And isn't interesting that so many of us can't start a book without a first line?

So, READERS, what is your favorite, or most memorable, opening line from novels you've read? And can you tell us what makes it stand out?


  1. Oh, it’s tough to pick a “favorite” when there are so many great opening lines . . . .
    The opening line of Julia’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” is one that really grabs you and immediately pulls you right into the story. I’ve read the book several times, I know exactly what’s going to happen, and yet that line . . . “It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.” . . . still gives me the shivers . . . .

  2. "As the last note of the chant escaped the Blessed Chapel a great silence fell, and with it came an even greater disquiet," is the opening line of The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny. You know where you are. You feel the quiet, and your senses lead you to a visual of the setting, the kind of worship space where people chant in a very quiet place. It's probably old, cold, stone with monks who've taken a vow of silence. Something terrible happened, because the quiet exposed something awful, and you want to know what happened.

    Currently my other favorite first line is, "Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much," from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling. I love it, because it seems obvious they are protesting something odd about themselves. They want to be normal, but they must not be. If they were why would they be saying this? No you want to read the book and find out what is wrong with the Dursely's and what is going on in their house.

  3. Sorry about the rain, Rhys...ahem, I'm checking in from sunny Firenze!

  4. I think the important thing about first sentences is that they produce a desire to read the SECOND sentence. I know going thru Spinetingler's submissions, I can rarely tell much by the first sentence. But I expect to be drawn in -- inch by inch, line by line. Kind of like a fish. Every example from you ladies works very well.

    Example from Hound of the Baskervilles: "Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before."

    What's he doing with that stick?

  5. Whenever this question comes up, the VERY first first line that pops into my mind is "Which one of you bitches is my mother?" from Shirley Conran's "Lace." it does pack a bit of a punch.

  6. I love first lines! From Nancy Pickard's The Scent of Rain and Lightning: "Until she was twenty-six, Jody Linder felt suspicious of happiness." From Jodi Picoult's Lone Wolf: "In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have freed the tiger." From my upcoming release, Equilibrium: "The first time Laura Klein saved her husband's life, she'd found his side of the bed cold at four a.m.

    Great first lines set the tone, make the reader ask a question, and contain the protagonist's motivation.

  7. Oh those are great first lines from all of you! I have to agree with Joan, though, Julia's is absolutely killer.

    And Jack you are so right. You can have an amazing first line, but it has to lead you in and the rest of the book has to work just as hard too...

  8. All great first lines! Totally agree about In the Bleak Midwinter.

    So far I've tweaked all the first lines I've ever written. But I'm pretty happy with what I ended up with for Speaking of Murder:

    "I watched Jamal Carter stretch his dark silken body like a tiger in my bed and wondered just exactly how I was going to get myself out of this mess."

  9. Kaye - is that really the first line of _Lace_? Wow, I always thought it came much later in the story (as it did in the mini-series).

    I say my favorite comes from Anna Karenina:

    "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

    You just have to continue reading after that.

  10. Oops. The Anna Karenina line was from me. Forgot to fill out the identity form. ;-)

  11. I don't think anyone reads Sabatini anymore but the first line of "Scaramouche" remains in my brain. "He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." Or there's the first of "Rebecca", "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
    Love all of your first lines too.

  12. So many superb choices! Here are a few more of my all-time favorites... ones I wish I'd written:

    When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. (No Second Chance, Harlan Coben)

    Gordon Michaels stood in the fountain with all his clothes on. (Banker, Dick Francis)

    The house in Silverlake was dark, its windows as empty as a dead man’s eyes. (The Concrete Blonde, Michael Connelly)

    I was fifteen years old when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him. (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Laurie R. King)

  13. This is a good one, and the reason why I subsequently read all of Chaim Potok's other books. From his My Name is Asher Lev:

    "My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion."

    How could you not keep reading from there?

  14. "The last camel collapsed at noon." from Ken Follett's "The Key To Rebecca" is SO perfect.

    ANd from 1984-- "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13."

    And yes, how can you not love that perfect line from Laurie King?

  15. Wonderful beginnings!!

    Hallie, I absolutely love the first line from Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice! And I'm wondering if Dick Francis ever wrote a BAD opening line.

    One of my all time favorites is not from a novel, but from Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa. "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills."

    Again, so simple, but who is speaking, and what happened to the farm? Your just know there is a great story there.

  16. My brother-in-law is a military historian who has written several books in his field. The last one was called "Looking for a Hero", about the most highly decorated hero of the Vietnam war. He said he had the first line of the book in mind for years, as he gathered research and wrote: "His hero was Audie Murphy."

    Enjoying all these first lines.

  17. I love Red Julia's first line from IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER also. Perfect! And Ken follett's "The last camel died at noon." How can you not want to read on and find out what's going on?

    In the book I'm writing now (3rd Skeet Bannion novel), my first lines are: "I had dead leaves and cobwebs in my hair and stuck to my face. I'd had better afternoons chasing down murderers."

    And who could ever forget "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again"?

  18. My favorite first line was Dick Francis' from IN THE FRAME: "I stood on the outside of disaster looking in." The sheer potential in that sentence is what got me hooked on him.

  19. I'll play. Two of the classics are "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents" and "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

    Here are a few (somewhat) more recent ones I like:
    Moon Spinners by Mary Stewart"It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it."
    Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley "Take my camel, dear", said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."
    The Iron Hand of Mars by Lindsey Davis "One things is definite, " I told Helena Justina. "I am NOT going to Germany!" Immediately I could see her planning what to pack
    Household Saints by Francine Prose ''It happened by the grace of God that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a card game.''
    Troubled Waters by Carolyn Wheat "I thought she was dead. I hoped she was dead.But she was vrey much alive, too damned much alive, and her thin, nervous face stared at me from the front page of every newspaper..."

  20. "I'll bet you fifty dollars,even money," said the American who was sitting nearest the door in the opulent lounge of the homeward-bound Elephantine, "that that man over there is murdered within a fortnight."

    Mystery Mile by Margerie Allingham. Love me some Campion!

  21. Oh, Triss, Moonspinners! I wish I had time to reread every Mary Stewart book.

    And every Dick Francis book...

  22. Marianne in MaineMay 13, 2013 at 7:14 PM

    Authors are fantastic! I am continually in awe of your talent. Your first lines are awesome.

    Favorite first lines... I have to look to Dickens. Of course, A TALE OF TWO CITIES is classic but I really like A CHRISTMAS CAROL's beginning: "Marley was dead, to begin with."

  23. Oh, all of this reminds me why I love reading so much, why I could eat books! The lines that are familiar light me up with delight, and the ones that aren't have me wanting to discover the stories behind them.

    The opener that's most memorable to me is a chapter heading rather than an opening line. It chilled me when I first read it, and still has the power to do so today.

  24. And Moonspinners isn't even my favorite of her books. My Brother Michael and This Rough Magic ( I reread it every so often) top my list, but that picture of an egret and a lemon grove is so beautiful and so unfamiliar, you'd have to keep reading. So I did.

  25. Triss, those are my favorites, too!!!

  26. Oh, this is so much fun. (No, that's not the line.)

    There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

    Jane Eyre, of course. You know up front that from today, everything changes.