The Opening Line Problem


I’m working on the final revision to my mystery novel, which will be available for purchase in about a month. This is supposed to more of a proofread — just double-checking for typos, misspellings, wrong words, etc. But as I keep reading, there’s a thought nagging at me: the story is starting in the wrong place.

Back story: Many revisions ago, I kidnapped a chapter from the middle and lashed it to the front of the book. Chapter 1. Why? I loved the opening line it gave me:

As best I can remember it was the first time I’d awakened naked and face down in a pool of my own blood.

See what I mean?

Chapter 1 then became about the protagonist extracting himself from a no-tell motel — an event that actually happened in the middle of the story’s timeline. Chapter 2 leaps back a few weeks to the “beginning.” From there the story is told chronologically.

This is a fairly common dramatic technique, and it worked for me as I wrote the book. But now? I’m thinking it might be better pluck what’s now Chapter 1 and replant it in its original home — Chapter 13. That means I have to write a new opening.

Which isn’t really that big of a problem. It just wasn’t what I expected to be doing at this point.

The real challenge, of course, will be crafting a new opening line. And, I admit I’m more than a little nutty about opening lines. I often wander bookstores reading opening lines to see what grabs me. I’ve read dozens (maybe hundreds) of books out of my normal reading genres based strictly on a killer opening.

Some of my favorites:

  • Call me Ishmael. — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  • The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse. — Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript
  • Maman died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure. — Albert Camus, The Stranger
  • When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through the wrinkled hood, Glock first. — Richard Start (Donald Westlake), Backflash
  • All this happened, more or less. — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
  • You better not never tell nobody but God. — Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  • He was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken. — Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. — John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meaney
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. — George Orwell, 1984
  • I am an invisible man. — Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. — J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • I was arrested in Eno’s Diner. — Lee Child, The Killing Floor
  • I sat across the table from the man who had battered and tortured and brutalized me nearly thirty years ago. — Lorenzo Carcaterra, Sleepers
  • It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. — Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse
  • When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man. — Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), Firebreak

That’s enough for now.


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