Ian Fleming, ‘From Russia with Love’
The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.
From Russia with Love is famous for withholding the appearance of Bond until later in the novel. While we are waiting for Bond to turn up we are treated to some of Fleming’s best writing. We have a naked man sunning himself by a pool, like a crocodile. We soon learn that he’s a Soviet assassin tasked with killing James Bond. This is a slow, low key start. We’re meeting the antagonist. He’s a mirror of Bond, a ruthless, elite assassin. It takes time for the reader to know why he is important. We’re in the backstory, gradually being fed the bigger picture.
Ian Fleming, ‘Diamonds are Forever’
With its two fighting claws held forward like a wrestler’s arms the big pandanus scorpion emerged with a dry rustle from the finger-sized hole under the rock.
This is, once again, holding back on introducing Bond to the reader. Instead we start with a close up of a scorpion. Ian Fleming is playing with the reader’s expectations, creating tension, it’s a cinematic opening, holding back on revealing where we are and why we are here. It’s a deliberate attempt to avoid the scene where Bond walks into an office and he is given a new mission.
Ian Fleming, ‘Dr No’
Punctually at six o’clock the sun set with a last yellow flash behind the Blue Mountains, a wave of violet shadow poured down Richmond Road, and the crickets and tree frogs in the fine gardens began to zing and tinkle.
This is another slow start, revealing a calm normality that will soon be overturned, foreshadowing something ominous. Something bad is going to happen and Bond will appear later to sort it out.
Stephen King, ‘The Gunslinger’
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
This almost biblically simple opening resonates with the Old American West, but it’s the start of a Fantasy novel. This feels like the opening of a chase sequence. There are no bullets being fired, just yet, but it promises that. It’s a great opening because it encapsulates the novel in a single line. Let the chase begin.
Lee Child, ‘One Shot’
Friday. Five o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through the city. Or, maybe the easiest. Because at five o’clock on a Friday nobody pays attention to anything. Except the road ahead.
Something’s going down. There are a lot of questions being posed here. Who needs to move through the city unobserved, and why?
Lee Child, ‘Nothing to Lose’
The sun was only half as hot as he had known sun to be, but it was hot enough to keep him confused and dizzy. He was very weak. He had not eaten for seventy-two hours, or taken water for forty-eight.
Lee Child often poses questions in his opening paragraph and this one is no exception. What’s going on here? Why is the man ‘very weak’, not eaten for ‘seventy-two hours’ or had even a sip of water in the last forty-eight hours? Will this man live to tell his story?
Ted Lewis, ‘Get Carter’
The rain rained.
Get Carter is a classic British crime action novel. The language is really simple there’s not much in the way of wordiness here. This is a great example of the first paragraph serving only to take the reader to the second paragraph. And yet, in three words, I know what kind of story I’m in. And from the blunt and to-the-point opening language I’m guessing that the protagonist will be equally blunt and to-the-point.
Jo Nesbo, ‘The Bat’
Something was wrong.
Jo Nesbo starts the novel with a short paragraph that immediately presents the reader with a sense of danger. But we can relax, it’s only Harry Hole going through passport control.
Jo Nesbo, ‘The Thirst’
He stared into the white nothingness.
Here’s another false threat, which we find out in a few paragraphs later is just part of Harry Hole’s dream.
James S A Corey, ‘Leviathan Wakes’
The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.
We’re straight into the action with a named character, Julie Mao. Why has the Scopuli been ‘taken’ and why is Julie Mao expecting to die? She’s lasted eight days, so she must have considerable resilience.
Norman Mailer, ‘The Naked and the Dead’
Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
‘Nobody could sleep’ is a brilliantly simple opening line. The whole paragraph provides a clear overview of what’s going to happen. It’s smart but not overly fancy. And that last line is a real hook. This is a war story that has the authorial tone of literary fiction.
Steig Larsson, ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire’
Lisbeth Salander pulled her glasses down to the tip of her nose and squinted from beneath the brim of her sun hat. She saw the woman from room 32 come out of the hotel side entrance and walk to one of the green-and-white-striped chaises-tongues.
This is a classic crime genre opening. We’re hanging with the protagonist. She’s named in the first sentence. How much do you bet that something is going to happen to the women in room 32? The question is, what and when? The suspense has already been set.
Gregg Hurwitz, ‘Orphan X’
After picking up a set of pistol suppressors from a nine-fingered armorer in Las Vegas, Even Smoak headed for home in his Ford pickup, doing his best not to let the knife wound distract him.
A busy day. If this opening paragraph doesn’t say action thriller, I don’t know what does. The reader is presented with the character’s almost casual, competence. This guy knows what he’s doing. He’s no fumbler. Like his name suggests, he probably smokes the bad guys, or appears and disappears mysteriously like smoke — and he is ‘doing his best not to let the knife wound distract him’. Enough said. We know what kind of hero this protagonist is. He’s almost superhuman.
Tom Wood, ‘The Hunter’
The target looked older than in the photographs. The glow from the streetlight accentuated the deep lines in his faced pallid, almost sickly complexion. To victor the man seemed on edge, either high on nervous energy or maybe just too much caffeine. But whatever the explanation, it wasn’t going to matter thirty seconds from now.
This is serious and slightly scary. However evil the ‘target’ might be, taking him out feels darkly menacing. Part of the interest lies in knowing where the author is going to take this. There has to be a good reason behind this action.
Blake Crouch, ‘Pines’
He came to lying on his back with sunlight pouring down into his face and the murmur of running water close by. There was a brilliant ache in his optic nerve, and a steady, painless throbbing at the base of his skull — the distant thunder of an approaching migraine. He rolled onto his side and pushed up into a sitting position, tucking his head between his knees. Sensed the instability of the world long before he opened his eyes, like its axis had been cut loose to teeter. His first deep breath felt like someone driving a steel wedge between his ribs on his high side, but he groaned through the pain and forced his eyes to open. His left eye must have been badly swollen, because it seemed like he was staring through a slit.
Sounds like this character is having a bad day, and it’s probably only going to get worse. We will find out soon enough. Once again, it poses loads of questions. Who is he? What’s just happened to him? The character is just ‘he’. Does he even know who he is?
Harlan Ellison, ‘A Boy and His Dog’
I was out with Blood, my dog. It was his week for annoying me; he kept calling me Albert. He thought that was pretty damned funny. Payson Terhune: ha ha.
Right in the first paragraph, we’re introduced to a talking dog with a dry sense of humour. We don’t know where we are, or what’s going on. There’s a hint of Huckleberry Finn in the language.
Mark Greaney, ‘The Grey Man’
A flash of light in the distant morning sky captured the attention of the Land Rover’s blood-soaked driver. Polarised Oakleys shielded his eyes from the brunt of the sun’s rays; still, he squinted through his windshields glare, desperate to identity the burning aircraft that now spun and hurtled towards the earth, a smouldering comet’s tail of black smoke left hanging above.
This has all there hallmarks of a genre action adventure. The named brands, ‘blood-soaked’ being mentioned in the first line. The violence has already started. There’s a burning aircraft falling out of the sky. Sounds like a bad day at work. Sounds like an action genre story.
Alistair MacLean, ‘The Golden Rendezvous’
My shirt was no longer a shirt but just a limp and sticky rag soaked with sweat. My feet ached from the fierce heat of the steel deck plates. My forehead, under the peaked white hat, ached from the ever-increasing constriction of the leather band that made scalping only a matter of time. My eyes ached from the steely glitter of selected sunlight from the metal, water and white-washed harbour buildings. And my throat ached, from pure thirst. I was acutely unhappy.
Although somewhat dated now, Alistair MacLean was my school days go-to action adventure writer of choice. This is another bad day at work introduction. He’s doing some work on a ship, an officer judging by his ‘peaked white hat’. He’s not a shirker, that’s for sure. There are four sentences that begin with ‘my’, and ‘ached’ is used four times. (My father said that repetition is poor man’s poetry.) The last line is interesting: ‘I was acutely unhappy’. Isn’t that obvious from the rest of the paragraph? One of the traits of genre fiction is that something hasn’t happened unless you say it’s happened.
Alistair MacLean, ‘Where Eagles Dare’
The vibrating clangour from the four great piston engines set teeth on edge and made an intolerable assault on cringing ear-drums. The decibel-level, Smith calculated, must have been about that found in a boiler factory, and one, moreover, that was working on overtime rates, while the shaking cold in that cramped, instrument-crowded flight deck was positively Siberian. On balance, he reflected, he would have gone for the Siberian boiler factory any time because, whatever its drawbacks, it wasn’t liable to fall out of the sky or crash into the mountainside which, in his present circumstances, seemed a likely enough, if not imminent contingency for all that the pilot of their Lancaster bomber appeared to care to the contrary. Smith looked away from the darkly opaque world beyond the windscreen where the wipers fought a useless battle with the driving snow and looked again at the man in the left-hand captain’s seat.
There’s a kind of overblown Baroque meets Shakespearean, a bombast and monumentality to the language. ‘Clangour’? ‘Cringing ear-drums’? ‘Shaking cold’? Fighting window wipers? What? How many times did Alistair MacLean rewrite this maximalist opening paragraph?1 Quite a few, most likely. It’s completely bonkers. Alistair MacLean’s clearly having fun here. We’re being introduced to the central character, Smith, and asked some basic questions. Why are they in the plane? Where are they going?
1 Geoff Dyer’s Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: On Where Eagles Dare brilliantly explores the film of the novel.