It begins with nothing. Not a word. Just staring at a blank page. Blank computer screen. That’s how it starts. That’s how it always starts. Trying to find the right words.
I tend to obsess over the opening sentences in my thrillers, trying to figure out not only the right words in that opening sentence, but at what point the story shall begin.
Authors can be like that: obsessing. Horror maestro Stephen King famously obsesses over his opening sentences and paragraphs. Days, weeks, months apparently. He’s right of course.
“But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Stephen King, On Writing
I love great opening sentences. I love simple opening sentences. Here’s a few of my favourites. See what you think:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.
Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal
When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.
Richard Parker, The Hunter
They’ve got one thing in common: they grab you. They make you want to read on. You’re intrigued.
When I sat down to write the opening sentence for my first Jon Reznick book, Hard Road, I must have written, re-written and re-written again the opening line what seemed like a thousand times:
The call came from a man he knew only as Maddox
J.B. Turner, Hard Road
And from there, it led naturally, to the first paragraph. Here’s what it looks like:
‘The call came from a man he knew only as Maddox. Jon Reznick was sitting on his freezing deck as darkness fell over Maine, nursing a bottle of beer, staring out over the ocean. He let his cell phone ring a few times, knowing what lay ahead.’
In my mind, and hopefully in the reader’s too, they can picture the scene. I want them to read on. To find out more about Jon Reznick. More about exactly ‘what lay ahead’. And also, why did he know the man only as Maddox? When I wrote the opening sentence of that book, I was still forming the storyline, the narrative arc, whatever you want to call it. It evolved. Word by word, page by page. It took on a life of its own. The story unfolded as I thought it should as I was writing it.
It began with a broadbrush idea about an assassin who, for whatever reason, doesn’t carry out the hit. And from there, it snowballed.
So, from the opening paragraph, we have the beginning of the story, the beginning of the intrigue, and a reason to read on. And yes, it’s an invitation to go on a journey. Where it leads, no one knows. I certainly didn’t. It will unfold as slow or as fast as you want it to.
Next time you open a book, check out the opening sentence. And remember, before that there was nothing. Just a blank page. A blank computer screen. Nothing.