Legendary film producer Samuel Goldwyn said, “Open with an earthquake and build from there.”
Good advice given our culture’s insatiable appetite for action. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” might have resonated with Charles Dickens’ readers, but it wouldn’t work today.
So, being a student of storytelling, I’ve collected novel openings from more modern bestsellers. Here are some of my favorites—
The Footprints of God, Greg Iles (2003)
Following the murder of a colleague and fearing he’s next, a man makes a videotape to be viewed in the event of his death. While making the tape, a package is delivered. It’s from the dead colleague.
Velocity, Dean Koontz (2005)
The scene opens in the ordinary world of a bartender as he listens to people’s ramblings and complaints. At the end of his shift, he finds a note under his windshield. It tells him that someone is going to be killed. If he contacts police about the note, a pretty teacher will be killed; if he fails to contact police, an elderly woman will be killed.
The Talisman, Stephen King and Peter Straub (1984)
The economy of this opening is worth study. Within a few pages the major characters are introduced and the situation upon which the story hinges is set in place. Protagonist Jack is moving from place to place; his mother is running from danger and dying; his Uncle Morgan, the villain, is closing in; and Speedy Parker, Jack’s newfound friend, is ready to set the story in motion.
The Zero Game, Brad Meltzer (2004)
This opening breaks the rules. That’s why I like it [see blog Words/Sentences: Breaking the (Literary) Law]. The story begins with two bored Capitol Hill staffers, Matthew Mercer and Harris Sandler, playing a mysterious and illegal (but seemingly harmless) game with other staffers. It’s told from Matthew’s point of view. First person: “I don’t belong here…” Thing is, in short order, Matthew is killed. (What? Wait! Matthew’s the protagonist!) Turns out, this is Harris’s story and everything that has preceded to this point has set it up from his murdered best friend’s point of view.
My attempts at earthquake openings?
The Allies — For this World War I historical novel, I lead with an actual newspaper clipping torn from the pages of the New York Times warning people that recent U-boat activity has made trans-Atlantic travel unsafe. Then, I board my characters on the ill-fated Lusitania and torpedo them into ocean waters.
The Guardians — With a more contemporary setting, I open with my police detective protagonist being delivered to a crime scene in the back of a squad car. His house. The murder victim? His brother.
Earthquake openings. You gotta love ’em.