Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Guest author Susan Oleksiw: Opening Lines

Susan Oleksiw
Susan Oleksiw is the author of the Anita Ray series and the Chief of Police Joe Silva/Mellingham series. Her most recent book is When Krishna Calls: An Anita Ray Mystery. The Anita Ray series grew out of Oleksiw's lifelong interest in India, where she lived and studied. Susan is well known for articles on crime fiction. She published A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery (G.K. Hall, 1988), and served as co-editor for The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999). 


There are as many ways to open a story as there are storytellers, but all have the same goal, to pull the reader into the tale. The opening lines establish tone also, dark or light, humorous or not. The general rule is to establish a normal world that is upset, and the results of the “upset” are the story. For example, Dashiell Hammett opens The Maltese Falcon with a description of Sam Spade.

“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. . . . He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

We get a very clear impression of Sam Spade, and we read on to find out just how much like Satan he really is. But we are warned that the story will have a light hand, a little humor, as we go.

Anthony Trollope gives us a different kind of opening in The Eustace Diamonds, but his own view of his heroine is there also.

“It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies—who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two—that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself.”

We surmise that Lizzie has risen above her station, and not everyone approves of her or how she’s achieved this. Trollope reinforces this view of her throughout the introduction, so we know exactly how he feels, along with everyone else.

By contrast, M.C. Beaton introduces her private detective in Dishing the Dirt this way.

“After a dismal grey winter, spring came to the village of Carsely in the Cotswolds, bringing blossoms, blue skies and warm breezes.
“But somewhere, in the heart of one private detective, Agatha Raisin, storms were brewing.”

This is a gentler lead-in but the promise is there. Into this bucolic world of natural beauty comes darkness, and a woman determined to combat crime. This gentle opening is the opposite of that in Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast.

“Running, running, stumbling, running.
“Arm up against the wiry branches whipping his face. He didn’t see the root. He fell, hands splayed into the moss and mud. His assault rifle dropped and bounced and rolled from sight.”

In these short lines, we feel the terror, the sense of desperation and helplessness, and the danger compounded by falling.

All the beginning lines are tight, focused, and revealing of the way the story will be told. This is what every writer hopes to achieve in his or her opening. Sometimes this means rewriting the passage a dozen times.

In my current work-in-progress, I struggled with the opening lines. In the end, as I neared the climax of the plot, I could see better how to link the end with the beginning. And once I had that, the opening also became clearer. The first line I settled on is this:

“On the third night Felicity lifted the shotgun from its place in the cabinet, and this time she loaded it.”

The following lines describe the previous two nights, and why this night she is loading her weapon.

I rarely begin a story or novel with a perfect opening line. Instead, I return to the first sentence again and again, as the story takes shape and the direction becomes clearer. I might rewrite the opening a dozen times, but when I finally get the perfect first line, everything else falls into place.



19 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I do love good openings!

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, Susan!

These examples were great. Some writer said he spends months on the opening and when he gets it right the rest just flows. I'm the opposite; I write the story then come back and agonize over the start.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I do the same, Liane. I work and rework the opening, and then I seem to rewrite it when I finally have the ending. No matter how much work I put into the opening when I'm writing the first draft, I feel I have to change it. Openings and endings are tough--and so important.

Thanks for hosting me here, Liane.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Charles, I so admire writers who can craft a good opening. Thanks for commenting.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Great post!
I love a juicy opening line.
good luck and God's blessings
PamT

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Pam.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Openings are also the most difficult part for me as well. I write and rewrite them many times before I'm satisfied. Drawing the reader into the story needs to be immediate, now more than ever before due to short attention spans.

Amy Reade said...

I love that you've given examples of great opening lines and explained the reasons they work so well. I just joined a Facebook group called First Line Monday and readers simply post the first line of the book they're currently reading. It's fascinating to see the variety that authors come up with. Thanks for a great post!!

Jan Christensen said...

Great post, Susan. Interesting choices you made. I pictured you grabbing books from you shelves and reading first lines. Could be a really fun thing for an author to do. Excuse me while I peruse my shelves.

Earl Staggs said...


Susan, something you said reminded me of a quote I saw long ago. I sounded silly at first, but it really isn't. "You can't finish the first line until you finish the last one."

Susan Oleksiw said...

Amy, I love the idea of your FB group. I'll look for it.

Jan, I blush but you're correct. I did look at my shelves and pull off books that I enjoyed reading. Some first lines were paragraphs, but all worked to hold me in the story.

Earl, yes, I've heard that comment, and the more I write, the better I understand it. I feel, even now, that I'm still learning a lot about how to make a story work, and right now it's first and last lines.

Thank you all for commenting.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, I've been thinking about your comment on openings and the challenge of short attention spans. I'd love to do a post on how writing has changed to accommodate a change in reading habits or practices. Something to think about. Thanks for adding that point.

Victoria Weisfeld said...

What an interesting post! Thank you, Susan. I too collect opening lines, and often go back to read the opening once I reach the end of a book. Only then can I really judge how much was packed in there. Possibly when Liane said "some author" talks about agonizing over first lines, she was referring to Stephen King, whose views on first lines are explored here: www.vweisfeld.com/?p=3985. Once I realized how important these were to him, I copied out the openers from dozens of his books and analyzed what he does. An interesting exercise, results of which are in that blog post.

James R. Callan said...

Welcome, Susan. Glad to have you on board. And I enjoyed your post today. Thanks. Look forward to more good posts from you.

Linda Thorne said...

Loved this post. I just finished a book called, Hooked, by Les Edgerton. It's about openings. Some of the ways books used to open (like Sam Spade's description of himself), are not recommended these days. I like your referring back to your start of your book and connecting it throughout and to the ending. If I am struggling with the ending, I usually go back to the beginning because I think a powerful book returns there in the end. Nice to have you in the Novel Spaces group.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks for welcoming me, James and Linda.

Linda, t's taken me a while to learn the wisdom of linking the opening with the ending. I enjoy seeing how writers tackle the challenge. Thanks for commenting.

Maggie King said...

Like Amy, I've joined First Line Monday. I enjoy it and find it quite educational.

My dream is to come up with a first line that will become a part of popular culture, like the one from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." and the one from Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Liane Spicer said...

@Victoria Weisfeld: I just read the post where you analyzed Steven King's opening lines. What a terrific exercise! Made me look at first lines with fresh eyes.

Edith Maxwell said...

I just came across this post, Susan. That's one perfect first line you wrote!