Posts Tagged ‘opening lines’

The sun was going down by the time they decided to hang me.

I’ve written before about the value of a great opening line, and it was one of the things that drew me into King’s The Dark Tower. A great opening line grabs your attention while getting across something of the tone of the character and book. It’s one of the things that David Tallerman absolutely nails with Giant Thief, the first of his Easie Damasco novels, with the great opening line turning into a great opening page turning into a very enjoyable story.

A thief and not a gentleman

Giant Thief is the tale of Easie Damasco, a thief living in a classic Eurpoean-influenced fantasy setting. As Tallerman made clear in the FantasyCon panel on rogues, Easie isn’t meant to be a nice character. He’s just as selfish as any real thief, constantly trying to get out of helping the book’s better intentioned characters. He could easily have been completely unlikeable, but Tallerman does a great job of balancing Easie’s realistic selfishness with a more exaggerated witty detachment. Combined with Easie’s willingness to apply his ingenuity to try to solve the problems he ends up in, that makes him great company for 360 pages of adventure.

Balancing agency

This creates a challenge that Tallerman artfully dances around. We normally like our protagonists to have a great deal of agency, to be able to make decisions about how they want to live their lives. Sure, Frodo Baggins might face insurmountable odds, but from early on it is his decision to do the right thing that keeps him on the quest to destroy the one ring.

But if Easie could do that then he would just run away as soon as the going gets tough, leaving behind any hope that he’ll ever be heroic or do the right thing for those around him. And lets face it, as readers that’s something we want from a character like Easie – we want to live in hope that, eventually, he’ll be a good guy. Or at least that he won’t screw things up for the real good guys.

So for the story to work Easie spends lots of time at the whim of the characters around him, like the heroic Mayor Estrada or the valiant guard captain Alvantes. He still gets to apply his wits and his wit, just not in the way he would like. This is where the delicate balance comes in – give Easie too much control and the story stops working, give him too little and he’s no longer the protagonist of his own story. But Tallerman gets this just right.

Keeping up the tension

The last novel I read before this was The Name of the Wind, and it’s hard to think of a more contrasting pair of books, even though they’re both set within very familiar fantasy worlds. Whereas Rothfuss’s protagonist is righteous and multi-skilled, Easie Damasco is a greedy prick who’s only just above useless in the chases and fights he finds himself flung into. Those fights and chases are the backbone of the book, in which the action is interspersed with preparations for the next challenge, as opposed to the long stretches of slow, gradual growth in The Name of the Wind.

This is not a book to sit back and soak up the atmosphere. It’s one of action, excitement and adventure, making Easie Damasco a fun character to be around despite his many flaws.

Is it me, or is this a western?

That isn’t to say that Giant Thief doesn’t have its own distinct atmosphere. Despite lacking any of the props of the genre it reminded me of a spaghetti western, with its horseback pursuits, gritty characters, craggy scenery and deadpan delivery. If there were some way to make this into a film featuring a young Clint Eastwood I’d be a happy viewer.

That shouldn’t put you off if you don’t like westerns. There are no shoot-outs, no sheriffs and very few broad brimmed hats. But with a setting that’s also reminiscent of medieval Spain, there’s a sense of a rugged land full of rugged people, some fighting for survival, some for what they believe is right.

All this and a giant

I can’t finish this post without mentioning Saltlick, the giant that Easie steals. Saltlick is a wonderful character, coming across as a classic well-intentioned simpleton, and a good foil for Easie.

I’m already onto the second Easie Damasco book, Crown Thief, and will doubtless get the third one after that. If you’re looking for a fun adventure story then you should give this one a go.

If readers don’t stick with you past your opening lines then the rest is irrelevant. Everwalker wrote a great piece about this, and I recommend that you check it out. Based on an idea from Scott Bell, her approach is to start with the character and a sense of forward motion.

American Gods

To take an example from Neil Gaiman’s extraordinary American Gods:

‘Shadow had done three years in prison.’

In those seven words we have the character, we know something about him, and we get the sense that things are changing – he ‘had done’ three years in prison, and now presumably he’s coming out. Things are changing.

American Gods

Gaiman’s opening also raises lots of questions. Why was Shadow in prison? What will he do once he gets out? What sort of person has a name like Shadow? It gets you on the hook and reels you in towards the rest of the story.

Neuromancer

‘But wait,’ I hear you cry, well-read reader that you are. ‘What about Neuromancer by William Gibson, possibly the most famous opening line in science fiction? That doesn’t have character or forward motion. You’re a fool Knighton, a fool and a fraud!’

And it sure looks like you have a point:

‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’

But even Gibson, having delivered that killer line, then cuts to character and motion:

‘ ‘It’s not like I’m using,’ Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat.’

Voila, character and motion, Case in conflict with the crowd as he tries to get somewhere. And the following lines tie character and setting together, showing what sort of place Case spends his time in and how he perceives it. That opening line might not directly introduce Case, but it does tell us something about his world and the way he sees it, and this is a story that’s a lot about exposing that world to us through Case.

More like guidelines

‘Rules are there so that you think before you break them.’ – Terry Pratchett

Any guideline needs to be treated with some flexibility. Gibson achieves the same thing as Gaiman, he just waits for the second sentence. But he also varies it – his story is about taking us into a completely different world, and it needs to sell that difference from the start. Gibson’s selling us alienation, Gaiman the brutal truth of a man looking to move on from his past.

What are your favourite opening lines, both that you’ve read and that you’ve written? What do they give the reader to keep them reading? Share them below, lets see how well this rule holds.