I’m a sucker for a good first line—one that grabs me by the throat and pulls me kicking and screaming into a story. It not only sells the novel—or short story—but it sets the mood, tone, theme, and damn near everything else that makes a story a story. And how I love a good story.
In this fourth edition of Zingers there are, as usual, three opening lines, or paragraphs as the case may be, that were especially appealing when I picked these books up. I’ve been in a thriller mood of late, and two of them show my mood, but the third is straight mystery.
That’s what they called themselves, and that would make a good story, Balenger thought, which explained why he met them in this godforsaken New Jersey motel in a ghost town of 17,000 people. Months later, he still would not be able to tolerate being in rooms with closed doors. The nostril-widening smell of must would continue to trigger the memory of screams. The beam from a flashlight wouldn’t fail to make him sweat.
This is the opening paragraph to David Morrell’s Bram Stoker winning Creepers. It perfectly sets the stage for the story that quickly develops on the pages, and if you can put it down after an opening like that, you’re a braver man than I.
He woke up scared.
Worse than that: he was terrified. His heart was pounding, his breath came in gasps, and his body was taut. It was like a nightmare, except that waking brought no relief. He felt that something dreadful had happened, but he did not know what it was.
He opened his eyes. A faint light from another room dimly illuminated his surroundings, and he made out vague shapes, familiar but sinister. Somewhere nearby, water ran in a cistern.
This is how Code to Zero by Ken Follett opens; the paragraphs create a terrific image of change. The character is off-balance, unsure, and scared. The character's feelings of unease permeate the prose, and very much make me want to read on. And I’m just glad someone else wakes up that way too.
When ranch owner Opal Scarlett vanished, no one mourned except her three grown sons, Arlen, Hank, and Wyatt, who expressed their loss by getting into a fight with shovels.
This is one of the best opening lines I’ve read. It has everything. Bite. Mystery. Appeal. Humor—dark as it is. And it’s just damn intriguing. This line is how C.J. Box’s In Plain Sight begins, and oh how it makes me want to read on and on.