“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Stephen King– THE DARK TOWER 1 – THE GUNSLINGER
Okay. Here’s the deal. I love a good book and I really enjoy watching a film on the big screen. Growing up in Yorkshire, going to the pictures was a treat you saved your pocket money for.
Reading was a pleasure you could do at home. But as good as some of those opening lines were there is something the movies have that no book can match. Those incredibly cool opening title themes.
Just listen to that music and watch those visuals. Can you imagine a book opening with a man making breakfast and tidying his bed? The opening credits set the scene beautifully. The main character is a working class womaniser who wears glasses, takes care over his coffee, and has a gun in his bed. All to that superb John Barry score. You’ve got to come up with some really cool phrasing to match that.
“I was arrested at Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch.”
Lee Child– KILLING FLOOR
Of course we have no shortage of great practitioners of the opening line in the book world. Authors who can set the tone with a few choice words. Whereas music has an obvious flow, I am a great believer in the rhythm of language. Some phrases just roll off the tongue. Certain authors go with the conversational approach like Stephen King, while others use more traditional language. One of the most quintessential English authors could be considered upper class, but his words described mood and location better than almost anyone else. And of course he did have James Bond to play about with.
“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”
Ian Fleming– CASINO ROYALE
“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.”
Ian Fleming– GOLDFINGER
As mood setters, those two openings are hard to beat. In the first, Fleming sets the scene for one of James Bond’s prime locations by stripping it of the glamour usually associated with it on screen. The second places Bond in an airport lounge (which at the time very few of us frequented, certainly not on my pocket money), but more importantly, delves into his state of mind. It’s hard to ignore that the Bond movies had some belting opening theme songs but they didn’t exactly set the scene. For that you have to look at something like Lalo Schifrin’s opening titles for Bullitt.
Now that is one seriously cool opening sequence for a movie that oozes class and boasts the best car chase in movie history. Not to mention having Steve McQueen at his most laid back. That man could say more with a single look than a thousand words. Words however, are what authors live by so let me remind you of a couple more of my other favourites. Elmore Leonard could tie language (especially dialogue) into a bow and the best movie adaptations have kept his dialogue intact. William Landay is another talented, if lesser known, wordsmith and I make no apologies for including him here, despite this opening line being from the book proper and not the prologue.
“Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk right up to the fence without getting shot.”
Elmore Leonard– OUT OF SIGHT
“Maurice Oulette tried to kill himself once but succeeded only in blowing off the right side of his jawbone.”
William Landay– MISSION FLATS
Ouch. Despite the lack of an atmospheric musical score or clever visuals those words stand on their own merits for their ability to send the reader on a journey of discovery. That’s what storytellers do. In books or on the silver screen. They suck you in and spit you out the other side; hopefully satisfied with the journey you’ve just been on. To that end I can’t think of a better way to sign off than with a great closing instead of an opening passage. As Red is heading for that place in Mexico I can never pronounce.
“I hope Andy is down there.
I hope I can make it across the border.
I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.
I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams
Stephen King– RITA HAYWORTH AND SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
“Once a cop always a cop. Vince McNulty thought about that as the woman massaged scented oil into his shoulders, leaning so close that her breasts teased his shoulder blades.” From Campbell’s own – NORTHERN eX