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.
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