The idea behind “Five First Lines”
I thought it would be fun to compare and analyze the first lines of five books. Many experts claim that those lines can make or break a book. They are a hook to grab the reader’s attention. Last week, visitors agreed that the opening paragraph can influence a reader, but they aren’t the only factor readers consider. Still, I want to continue this feature because I think it’s interesting to see how different writers approach starting a book.
“Five First Lines” #2
For this edition of “Five First Lines,” I’m examining the first lines of some books in the genre of cozy mystery. I picked the books randomly, basically by convenience of what was near my desk. In future editions of this feature, I plan to include more authors and genres.
Note: all the cover images link to Amazon for you to learn more about the books if you want.
Selection 1: A Deadly Cliche by Ellery Adams
“Storm’s comin’,” the fisherman said, stroking the pewter whiskers of his beard. He glanced at the small television mounted above the espresso machine, squinting at the green radar image of circulating clouds.
Olivia Limoges followed his gaze. She looked at the irregular shape of the low-pressure system forming in the Caribbean, listening closely as the meteorologist showed the storm’s projected path should it gather strength and become more than a tropical disturbance. The slick-haired weatherman assured his viewing audience that although the storm was likely to organize and grow in force, it would remain out at sea, allowing for a perfect Labor Day weekend for those heading to the beach.
I liked how Ellery Adams established the main character, the location, and the time of year all in this small excerpt. It makes it easier to get involved in the story when you know all the important stuff at the beginning. The only bad thing, in my opinion, is that it reminds me of those old stories that started with “it was a dark and rainy night.” Unless the storm plays a significant part in the book, I’m not sure that it is necessary to open with that. Based on the synopsis, I don’t think the storm is that important, but I can’t say for certain because I haven’t read the book yet.
Selection 2: Fatal fixer-upper by Jennie Bentley
The letter from Aunt Inga arrived, as the saying goes, a day late and a dollar short. Or not a whole dollar, exactly, but Aunt Inga must have missed a few of the recent postal increases, because the stamp was short by several cents, and that was probably why it had taken the letter almost two weeks to get to Maine to New York City.
The Mailman arrived just as I was putting the finishing touches on the hand-printed and hand-sewn upholstery I had created for a reproduction Gustavian love seat I was getting ready to put in the display window of Aubert Designs on Madison Avenue in New York City. (Gustavian furniture is a sort of simplified, Scandanavian rococo, FYI.) I’m the resident textile designer for Aubert Designs. Phillipe Aubert designs furniture –high-end, handcrafted, reproduction furniture. My job is to enhance Phillipe’s creations with my own custom-designed fabrics. He’s been on something of a Gustavian kick lately, and the piece I was working on had the distinctive arched and scrolled backrest and carved giltwood frame. My fabric, by contrast, was hip and modern, with a pattern of overlapping lipstick kisses in three shades of pink. Gustav was probably rotating in his grave, and Phillipe hadn’t been too positive about the idea either, when I’d first pitched it to him. But I was happy to see that the lipstick kisses looked just as good with the curved gilt wood as I had hoped.
That second paragraph is too long. Also, I don’t think any of the information in that paragraph is relevant to the plot (based on what I know from the synopsis). All the reader really needs to know is that she’s a textile designer in New York City (which, by the way, she tells us twice). The rest is just filler. I want to know about the letter, not about the piece she’s working on.
Selection 3: Tarnished and Torn by Juliet Blackwell
“Let me get this straight: This is a palace…for cows?” I asked, staring in disbelief at the hulking Cow Palace, which sported a colossal banner that read: GEM FAIRE THIS WEEKEND!
Where I’m from in West Texas, a royal bovine showplace wouldn’t have been entirely out of the realm of possibility. Here in the urban outskirts of San Francisco, it seemed rather…anomalous. In fact, downright preposterous.
My thoughts: Juliet Blackwell grabbed my attention. She also established the setting right away, like the previous selections’ authors did. So far, it’s a tie in my mind between Ellery Adams and Juliet Blackwell. I can’t decide yet, until I see the next two selections.
Selection 4: Magic and Macaroons by Bailey Cates
“Abracadabra,” Mimsey snorted. “Lord love a duck. No one who can so much as cast a circle would use that word in an actual spell.” She tossed her head, causing her white pageboy haircut to whip against her round cheeks. The sky blue bow affixed to the left side of her hair didn’t budge.
Aunt Lucy nodded. “It does create a certain, er, doubt about the author’s experience.”
It’s interesting that the first person narrator isn’t present in the first two paragraphs. I mean: she’s there, but she doesn’t include any introspection or personal actions. She’s merely an observer at this point. I can’t decide if I like that better or worse than, say, the excerpt from Juliet Blackwell that starts with the narrator speaking. I can see benefits and drawbacks of both approaches.
Compared to Juliet Blackwell, I think I like this one better because it makes it clear right at the beginning that there is something supernatural or occult in this book. Although I know the Juliet Blackwell book has magic in it as well, she doesn’t establish the subgenre right away like Bailey Cates.
Selection 5: Fundraising the Dead by Sheila Connnolly
The sight of Marty Terwillger charging into my office with fire in her eyes was never a good thing, but it was particularly unwelcoming right now, as I was trying to put the finishing touches on the grand gala planned for this evening. Tonight was a big event, a really big event, and I was in charge of making it happen. The venerable Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society in Philadelphia was celebrating its 125th anniversary as the guardian of the historic treasures of Philadelphia and the surrounding counties. We were expecting nearly two hundred people, which would set a new record for a Society event.
Our famed vaults housed at least two million books, documents, and ephemera, ranging from manuscript letters signed by William Penn and George Washington, to advertising flyers from late nineteenth-century hatters, to financial records for several of the long-defunct companies that had put Philadelphia on the map of the commercial and industrial world. And that’s not including our fairly respectable collection of paintings, silver, clothing, and some truly weird artifacts (like a horse’s hoof made into an inkwell with silver fittings). The Society’s stately neoclassical building had been constructed to reflect the seriousness of its purpose, and loomed over a neighborhood that had seen many transitions, both good and bad, and had weathered them all.
Snooze… I think this is a very boring opening to a book. Other than the person coming into the office, there is no action. There isn’t even any dialogue. It felt like an info-dump to me, and I don’t know how much of this is necessary for the reader to know.
Today’s Winner of “Five First Lines”
I pick Bailey Cates’ Magic and Macaroons because every sentence has action, whether it be speaking or moving. Ellery Adams did that too, but my doubt about the relevance of the storm made me rank it lower. In the Bailey Cates book, the spellbook club meeting is relevant. It says so on the back of the book.
What about you? Who do you think had the most appealing or intriguing opening lines?
If it’s a weak start, would you read further?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Also, if you want me to continue this feature, it would be helpful if you let me know by liking or sharing the post. Thank you!