Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hook ‘Em with the First Chapter

We live in the age of sound bites, short attention spans and remote controls where you can change the channel with the push of a button.  The same is true for novels.  Your first few paragraphs are crucial for pulling the reader into the story.  If you don’t hook her right away, she’s likely to put your book down and pick up another one.  

Which means you have to make that first sentence, that first paragraph, and that first chapter count.  Polish them until they sparkle. Immediately involve the reader.  Intrigue her.  Make her wonder what will happen next.

In my experience there are two kinds of romance writers who hit the reader with too much background right at the beginning: new writers who are unsure where to start their story and big names who are so confident of their audience that they may spend a lot of time “clearing their throats” before they get to the good part.

Let’s look at some examples of great beginnings. The first line of Julie Garwood’s Honor’s Splendour is

 “They meant to kill him.”

Don’t you wonder why?  And how is he going to survive to be the hero of the story?

One of my own favorite opening lines is from my novella “Huntress Moon” in  Elemental Magic:

 “Which do you choose?  Disgrace or slavery?”  

The sentence plunges the reader directly into the action of the story.  You don’t know who the heroine is or what brought her to this moment in time.  All you know is that she’s confronting a terrible decision.

Or consider Taken to the Edge, by Karen Lennox, which begins:

If one Wild Turkey on ice didn’t make the pain go away, maybe  two would.  That’s was Ford Hyatt’s thinking when he’d ordered a second drink even though he needed to drive home.

What’s going on with this guy?  And why?

Remember in Amadeus when Salieri accuses Mozart of using “too many notes.” It was meant as a joke in the movie.  It’s not so funny in a novel.  I’ve made up a name for “too many words.”  I call it "wundeling."  And I also use the term to describe scenes when the hero or heroine is endlessly thinking the same thing over and over.

Getting a book off to a good start isn’t easy. I usually find that in the beginning of a book, I’ve slowed down the scene with too much information.  I’m constantly asking myself–does the reader need to know this now?  Is this vital here?  Can I wait and tell the reader this detail later?

In reality, the plot of your story probably begins long before the actual first chapter. But you want to start the book at the latest possible moment, at a point when everything changes for the main characters.

Later through dialogue, narrative, and perhaps flashbacks, you will let the reader know what happened before the book started. One of my favorite metaphors is--start with a dead horse in the living room; plunge the reader into the middle of a situation.  Don’t confront the reader with an information dump.   Give her just enough details so she can follow along.  There’s ample opportunity to fill in the background later.

In my own books, I’m most likely to open with the hero or the heroine, as in Chained, my Decorah Security novella.  In the first scene, the heroine arrives home from work to find two thugs hiding in the house.  They are there  to murder her, and her immediate problem is to escape.

Here’s how Chained begins.

Chapter One

Isabella Flores pulled open the kitchen door and stopped in her tracks.  The house felt wrong.  Come to that, it smelled wrong.  The familiar scents of the empanadas she’d cooked the night before and the cleaning solution she used on the floor still hung in the air.  But they were over laid by the smell of sweat and stealth.

Moments ago she’d been prepared to fall into bed and sleep for the next eight hours, after an exhausting shift on the surgical floor at Phoenix General Hospital.

Instead, she backed out the door and started running, not toward the car she’d just left in the driveway but into the alley.
A blast of noise followed her, and she felt a bullet whiz past her head.

“Christo. Don’t let her get away,” a harsh voice shouted.

Two hombres.  Waiting in the dark for her.

She’d hoped she was safe living in this quite, middle-class neighborhood, but she’d always been prepared for the worst.  She kept two bags packed, one in the trunk of her car and the other in an SUV, hidden down the block.  
She leaped the waist-high chain link fence of a neighbor’s yard on the other side of the alley, rolled into a flower bed, and lay with her heart pounding, praying that the men hadn’t seen her vanish into the shadows.

As two sets of heavy footsteps pounded toward her then sprinted past, she let out the breath she’d been holding.  But she couldn’t stay here.  When they didn’t find her, they’d double back.  Which meant she had only minutes to make her escape.

I think you know a fair amount about this woman without my “telling you” facts.  Obviously, a lot has happened before the story begins.  Some of the background is woven into the scene.  You know she’s a nurse.  You know she’s been living her life expecting trouble.  You know she’s planned her escape and is prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.  And you’ll find out more later.

I’m going to talk more about beginnings next time. I’d love it if you give me some beginnings you admire in your comments.  And one commenter can win a copy of my Intrigue Sudden Attraction. (That begins with a bang, of course.)

 Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick


  1. Wow! Talk about exciting beginnings. You make your point very well in this post. I want to know more about the situation in each of the books you quoted.

    One of my all-time favorite beginnings is Linnea Sinclair's debut SFR, Finders Keepers. The first two pages were enough for me to run to my computer and order all of her other books from Amazon. Yes, I found her after she'd been published for several years. Anyway, it starts with action, dynamic word-choices, and enough information to keep you guessing.

    That much energy doesn't work for all genres, but you make the point in your examples that you can look the reader with well-chosen words no matter what you write.

  2. In reality, the plot of your story probably begins long before the actual first chapter. But you want to start the book at the latest possible moment, at a point when everything changes for the main characters.

    This! I don't know how many times I tell new writers this when I judge contests or critique their work. And yes, there are times when I need the reminder, too. Openings...I went back to three of my favorite books: THE SPY WHO LOVED ME by Ian Fleming, THE MOON SPINNERS by Mary Stewart, and NAKED IN DEATH by J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts). I won't copy the first two here but I was surprised at the long sentences, narrative, and lack of action, though each gave insight to either character or place. And both are written in first person POV. If people are unfamiliar, Amazon's "Look Inside" is helpful. I will copy the beginning of NAKED:

    She woke in the dark. Through the slats on the window shades, the first murky hint of dawn slipped, slanting shadowy bars over the bed. It was like waking up in a cell.

    For a moment she simply lay there, shuddering, imprisoned, while the dream faded. After ten years on the force, Eve still had dreams.

    Even after reading the book six(?) times--certainly so many I've lost count--I find the opening just as compelling. I need to go back through my library and find books that begin with a bang now, for contract! LOL I look forward to your next post on beginnings.

  3. Great comments. I once started reading a suspense novel where the author started by describing a vase of flowers on the table. I didn't get very far into the book.

    The example of
    She woke in the dark. Through the slats on the window shades, the first murky hint of dawn slipped, slanting shadowy bars over the bed. It was like waking up in a cell-- is really good. It's not action but it sets an immediate dark mood for the book.

  4. The opening of Chained is compelling and full of suspense. We are immediately right there, poised for trouble along with your heroine. And since you smoothly work in some details about her, we are already beginning to know and care about her. Really helpful.

  5. Beginnings of novels are where new writers feel most inspired and energized. But with that energy comes an impulse to just dash off what they're feeling and not pay attention to structure and all of the elements that are important to catching the reader's interest. You explain some of the pitfalls and fixes very well.

  6. I'm going to explain more next time!

  7. I agree we learn about this woman without you telling us overtly. Very nice!

  8. I love a book that just grabs me from the first line in a paragraph whether it be action or dialogue.

    I know some editors or authors don't like to see/use dialogue as the first line--but I have to admit some of those pieces of dialogue get me hooked, too. Sherrilyn Kenyon is one of the many great authors who can do this.

    But keeping it interesting and focused in moving the story along without a lot of back story is difficult to first time writers, I agree. Would like to hear more on your thoughts on this, Rebecca.

    Until then, many hugs!

  9. Wonderful post and thank you. I couldn't agree more. These are the books that capture my attention and leave me excited to read more-sometimes too excited as they'll often leave me up late at night chasing the answers through the read. But still, I wouldn't surrender a one. I once entered a contest where every judge said they loved the opening but were angered by the questions they were left with (It was only 5 pages). I didn't place, but I considered it a huge compliment.

  10. I don't understand the objection to dialogue as a first line. It can be very effective. (As in the example I gave.)

  11. Good post - I love it when I read great openers - it could be in the pretext as well as I did in NIght Noise - Murder can spoil a spring morning - I think was the line. Don't get why dialogue does not work - works for me - judi

  12. "Murder can spoil a spring morning." Great first line.

  13. Great first line examples. I think a lot of us are guilty of trying to tell too much too soon (often because we're the ones who need the info on the page).

    Thanks for the reminder that it's okay to open with dialogue as well. All too often, I see people saying you shouldn't start that way, but I find it often really pulls me into the world of the characters.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing it.

  14. "It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby." Julia Spencer-Fleming's debut mystery, In the Bleak Midwinter. It's impossible not to read on. And it only gets better.

    In a very different way, I also love the (much longer) opening sentence from Jennifer Crusie's Faking It: "Matilda Goodnight stepped back from her latest mural and realized that of all the crimes she'd committed in her thirty-four years, painting the floor to ceiling reproduction of Van Gogh's Sunflowers on Clarissa Donnolly's dining room wall was the one that was going to send her to hell."

  15. From my indie thriller SKIN:

    HER SCREAMS gave him a hard on that ached so bad he could hardly move. But if he didn’t run, the hunt would be over; his prey would get away.

    I love starting thrillers from the villain's POV.

  16. Great post and examples. I've been dithering about this issue, because I just read another post that said make sure you give enough of the present situation so readers will care about the characters before plunging them into the crucible. It's a very fine line, it seems to me.
    My first line example is from Linda Howard's VEIL OF NIGHT:
    "Six weddings in five days. Holy Sh..!" You know there are going to be issues for this heroine. LOL Thanks for sheding more light on this topic.

  17. Patricia, great first line. Yes, villain's pov always a good start. The famous example is from Ken Follet's Key to Rebecca. "The last camel died at noon."

    Marsha, I agree, it's a fine line. You need to know something, but too much detail can bog down the action. However, you can slip in the details, as in the CHAINED example above.

  18. Hi Rebecca,

    My favorite of my Intrigue first lines is: "By the time the woman struggled out of the taxi, Dawson knew the color of her panties. They were pink." It's the first line of PRIVATE SECURITY, my May, 2012 Intrigue. Okay, oops. I gave you 2 lines. But you needed to know the color--right?

    One of my favorite lines of all time is from C.S. Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy, Book 3, CROWN OF SHADOWS. "There was lipstick on his cheek." I don't know if I can fully explain it, but picking up a Fantasy novel with a young warrior brandishing a long sword, then reading that first line, hooked me immediately!

    Great topic!

  19. You should have named this blog "What Would Rebecca York Do?" Because this is how I'm going to think of it, and use it all the time!

  20. Rebecca, This is a great blog and I love your subject matter. It's one that's near and dear to my heart. I call it writing "precise and concise." Not nearly as inventive as "wunderling" but perhaps easier to remember.
    Great job and 20 comments -- well, I make 21 -- that's not bad for a Thursday blog.

  21. Mallory, great lines!
    Stephanie, you are a scream. You know I'm flattered by your alternate name for the blog.

  22. Thanks, Connie. Yes, i do love the concept of "wundeling." I wanted to start off w/ two a week, but I will probably go down to one. Also, I'd like to have several under my belt, so to speak, before RWA.

  23. Rebecca, you're so right about strong openings and I loved the opening for Chained. Good openings are so difficult to get right. Here's the opening for Embrace the Highland Warrior, the second in my paranormal Scottish series.

    "It wasn’t that twenty-seven was too young to die; she just had too many loose ends in her life, things she needed to fix."

  24. I love first lines, they're my favorite. The problem is the other gazillion-extra lines afterwards that keep tripping me up. Still I have high hopes for my current WIP that begins: "Right off the bat, Nicole knew her inheritance needed fifty grand in repairs. Or a stick of dynamite and a blasting permit."

  25. I enjoyed the blog and the comments.You do know how to grab a reader by her throat!

  26. As a longtime reader of yours and now a writer, I really appreciate this blog, Rebecca. Just wanted to say thanks for posting such great info. :-)

    1. Thanks. I'm having a lot of fun w/ the blog. More on beginnings early next week.

  27. Great insight Rebecca. Marsha Canham is one that tends to suck you in from the first line or sentence. In fact ironically I had just started reading her latest novel, "The Following Sea", when I stumbled across this wonderful post and thought this described it perfectly.

    "You WILL tell me what I want to know, little puta."
    The words vibrated against her ear and sent cold shivers scratching down her spine.

    Great beginning.

    I so look forward to reading more of you blog Rebecca. I've had a novel in my head for nearly 10 years and have struggled with getting it on paper. I believe you will be your blog will be a wonderful aide to removing the block.

    1. Wow, Tara, thanks! You gave a great example. And I hope my blog is what gets you moving on your book.

    2. Thank you Rebecca!! And I'm so excited that I won the copy of "Sudden Attraction". I can't wait to read it. I've been loving the insight you are providing. So gracious of you to help struggling writers like myself. I'm learning so much.

    3. One problem I'm having is figuring out who the people are who are commenting. Any thoughts about a better way to do it? Like maybe people who want to be able to win a book need to e-mail me so I know who they are?