October 13, 2015

Opening Lines

Publisher’s Note: Dean loves getting letters from fans with favorite opening lines from his books. Now he wants you to send him YOUR favorite opening lines of all time. Surprise Dean with lines from books he has not read, and he will pick his ten favorites! Winners will receive a limited, signed, and numbered collector’s edition book of their choice.

Click here to enter.


A year ago or more, when answering letters from readers (real letters, not e-mails, as there is not enough time to answer even a fraction of reader e-mails), I started asking which opening lines in my books they thought were the most compelling. A little marketing research, if you will. And I learned a few things from their choices, including that no matter how long you have been writing, there is value in feedback from readers. These first lines received the most votes:

Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch. —Dragon Tears

Bartholomew Lampion was blinded at the age of three, when surgeons reluctantly removed his eyes to save him from a fast- spreading cancer, but although eyeless, Barty regained his sight when he was thirteen. —From the Corner of His Eye

This is a thing I’ve learned: Even with a gun to my head, I am capable of being convulsed with laughter. —Relentless

Elsewhere, night falls, but in Moonlight Bay it steals upon us with barely a whisper, like a gentle dark-sapphire surf licking a beach. —Seize the Night

The world is full of broken people. Splints, casts, miracle drugs, and time can’t mend fractured hearts, wounded minds, torn spirits. —One Door Away from Heaven

A man begins dying at the moment of his birth. —The Husband

On that Tuesday in January, when her life changed forever, Martine Rhodes woke with a headache, developed a sour stomach after washing down two aspirin with grapefruit juice, guaranteed herself an epic bad-hair day by mistakenly using Dustin’s shampoo instead of her own, broke a fingernail, burnt her toast, discovered ants swarming through the cabinet under the kitchen sink, eradicated the pests by firing a spray can of insecticide as ferociously as Sigourney Weaver wielded a flamethrower in one of those old extraterrestrial-bug movies, cleaned up the resultant carnage with paper towels, hummed Bach’s Requiem as she solemnly consigned the tiny bodies to the trash can, and took a telephone call from her mother, Sabrina, who still prayed for the collapse of Martie’s marriage three years after the wedding.  —False Memory

I don’t always——or even usually——craft a first sentence that is meant to be an immediate hook. If it doesn’t come naturally, it can seem artificial. I figure I’ve got at least a paragraph or two, more likely a page or two, with which to compel the reader to stay with the story, though not much more than that. Dickens routinely set his hooks within two pages, and there’s no better model than the one he offers.

That the line from Dragon Tears was so often chosen doesn’t surprise me. It promises threat and action soon, and it’s just tongue-in-cheek enough to make the reader smile.

Likewise, the opening to From the Corner of His Eye is an obvious choice because it promises an epic life story, strangeness, tragedy, triumph, and wonder.

The line from Relentless doesn’t surprise me, but I suspect that it would surprise a number of people in publishing. It is widely believed that mixing humor with suspense is a sales killer, though with many books I have proved that bit of common wisdom is not true.

     I also suspect some people would feel that the opening to Seize the Night is insufficiently gripping because it’s just a visual, not a promise of anything. Maybe I have a lot of language freaks in my readership, but being a guy who grew up reading Ray Bradbury, I’ve always felt that a lyrical opening, even just a description of the sky, can hook the reader if its words are carefully chosen for their resonance and if it paints a scene that suggests mystery or wonder.

The line from One Door Away from Heaven does indeed surprise me. First of all, it’s not one sentence, but two, so picking it is a bit of a cheat. And this is a story in which I purposefully took a page or two to crank up the engine. Yet not only did this have a lot of votes, but a fine film producer, who once tried to get the book produced, also told me she bought her copy of the novel on the basis of that opening paragraph and realized, from that alone, that it was probably going to make a terrific movie. (That’s another story.) Why? I’ve thought about it a lot, and I suspect it appeals to people because it expresses something that they feel is true but haven’t before put into words themselves: that most people are in one way or another broken by their experiences, that we are all the walking wounded. This suggests that, against all the common wisdom of the publishing business, it might be all right to open a book with something as potentially off-putting as a bit of humble philosophy.

That conclusion is reinforced by the opening line of The Husband. This is very humble philosophy, something everyone knows, but perhaps it strikes the reader because we never see our fate put quite so bluntly, especially when talking about birth, which is usually couched in joyful terms.

The one that most surprises me is False Memory. This is a long opening sentence——131 words!——which runs against most writing advice to keep sentences short, or at least shorter than this. People seem to like it because it conveys so much about the heroine and her character and sets her up as someone you want to know more about. Maybe I’ll open a book one day with a 500-word sentence just to see if I can get away with it. [Text message just coming in from my editor: Don’t even think about it.]

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