Sunday, July 8, 2012

More on How to Hook the Reader from the Start

It would be possible to write a whole book on how to start a book. (See previous post for more.)

Most romances begin with a scene from the point of view of either the hero or heroine. If the first scene starts with one of them, you need to give the reader reasons to like this character. It should be someone she wants to identify with and root for. If the main character is not likable, he or she had better be someone so intriguing that the reader has to keep turning the pages to find out more. If the heroine is doing something mean and petty at the beginning of the story, probably the reader’s going to be turned off. Or if the hero is acting like a jerk, there had better be a good reason why.

Of course, there is a type of romance where one of the main characters is unlikable but will change significantly throughout the course of the story. I think this kind of character development is difficult to pull off unless you are very skilled and experienced.

A wonderful example is The Hellion, by LaVyrle Spencer. At the beginning of the story, the hero, Tommy Lee, is a mess. He’s drinking beer, tossing away the cans, and raising hell. Yet he’s going to be redeemed by the love of a good woman, if he allows himself the to reach out for that love. Another great example is Lord Dane in Lord of Scoundrels.

If you’re going this route, at the very least, you need to give hints that this character will change and/or give compelling reasons for the way he/she is acting.

In a romance, you want the hero and heroine to meet as soon as possible. It's not a must that they interact in the first chapter, but in a romance you can't delay the meeting too long because the reader wants to follow the development of their relationship and see them on the page together as much as possible. In a short romance the focus will be almost entirely on them and the development of their relationship. In a longer romance you have room to develop secondary characters and plot lines.

Another way to “get them together” at the beginning of the story is to alternate scenes from each point of view. These two people are not together, but you know they will be.

I use this method in Dragon Moon. The heroine’s story begins while she is still living in an alternate universe and being prepared to come here. I have scenes from her point of view, then switch to the hero in our world. I bring them together when she comes through a portal between the worlds just as a thunderstorm strikes, and she’s pinned down by a falling tree. The hero and heroine meet as he finds and rescues her.

In a romance, the h/h are drawn to each other. But you must set up conflicts at the beginning that will keep them from working out their differences until the end of the story.

In Tempted by his Target, by Jill Sorenson, the heroine’s on the run in Mexico from mobsters who want to murder her because the mob boss thinks she murdered his son. The hero’s a federal agent with the job of bringing her back to face murder charges. He finds her and pretends to be her friend and protector while trying to turn her over to the authorities. Naturally he falls in love with her. But what’s going to happen when she finds out he’s been playing her?

In my Decorah Security novella, Chained, Isabella hides out at her father’s old ranch. And the hero’s there. Or is he?  She thinks he died five years ago. Is his ghost haunting the ranch?  Or is something else going on?  Isabella and Matt were in love with each other, but neither of them could act on the attraction. Now she’s alone with his ghost, and all the sexual longing comes bubbling to the surface. But how can she have a relationship with him?  And is there a way to “bring him back to life”?

At the beginning of your story you must give the reader some idea what these people look like. In fact, many romance writers spend a lot of time on physical description. I think it’s more important to have an interior picture of the main characters. What motivates them?  What are their values?  How do they react under stress?  Don’t tell us. Illustrate these traits through their actions and reactions.

If your first chapter has the h/h interacting with secondary characters, don’t let the secondaries take over. The primary focus should be on the main characters. Also, in a romance, you probably want the first person the heroine interacts with to be the hero.

My own beginnings tend to be action scenes where something dangerous is happening usually to the hero or heroine. If I don’t think I can have a dynamic opening using the hero and or heroine, I might turn to a secondary character.

In my Decorah Security novel, Dark Moon, I start with a scene where a woman is being kidnapped. You don’t know much about her. But you know she’s in trouble. She’s not the heroine. She’s the victim that the hero and heroine are sent to rescue. But I started with her so the reader would understand the urgency and danger of the situation.

You could also give the villain the first scene. One of the most impressive examples of this is in The Key to Rebecca, by Ken Follett. It has that famous first line, “The last camel died at noon.”  In the scene, a Nazi spy is sneaking into World War II Cairo across the desert, and he almost loses his life in the attempt. Almost, but not quite. He survives to give the hero and heroine big problems.

And, by the way, The Key to Rebecca is very much romantic suspense. When I was just getting into the field, I came across that book and read it. I loved it, and my reaction was, “that’s what I want to write.”

Let’s end with a warning. Don’t promise the reader something you’re not going to deliver. You can’t write a fantastic first scene that will have nothing to do with the rest of the book. (Like in those old James Bond movies where the opening was a set piece with no connection to the rest of the movie.)  The initial action must tie into the narrative and start the character development that continues throughout the story along with your plot.

There’s so much to say on beginnings that I’ll continue the subject next time. And I’ll give a book, Solid as Steele, to one commenter. Some of you gave us examples of great beginning last time. We’d love to hear some more. Or tell us about a book where the hero or heroine starts off as unlikable but changes significantly as the story progresses.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick


  1. Rebecca,
    This was a great piece to read this morning! I really enjoyed reading about the opening, getting the characters together, especially since I am starting my revisions of an older novel (again) this morning. I'm a pantser but taking time to note simple things you've been talking about these past few posts have really helped to set the stage.

    Thanks, have a great day and can't wait to keep following your terrific guidance.

  2. Rebecca,
    Invaluable advice, both for someone just getting started and for the already published as a refresher. It's so easy to get up to one's ears in details that we forget or miss the basics. You're a dynamite teacher. Can't wait for the next installment.

  3. Thanks Loni and Chassie. Yes, I'm hoping this is useful for beginners and old hands. Writing the posts reminds ME of what I'm supposed to be thinking about, too.

  4. Hey Rebecca,
    Great posts! And a good reminder for me as I'm about to dig into my next story. I too LOVED Garwood's Honor's Splendor -- one of my all time favorites of hers and of course that opener was fantastic. Another one:

    "She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen." --The Spymaster's Lady, by Joanna Bourne

    And this one:

    "Ten years ago, on my sixth birthday, my father disappeared." --The Iron King by Julie Kagawa

  5. Both great examples. Yes, you definitely want to know what comes next.

  6. Loved the line about delivering what you promise--you actually need to deliver more, or the reader may feel cheated and let down. And this won't help toward building a following, what writers have to do if they want to make a career of it.

  7. Another great bit of advice, Rebecca, for writers in all stages of their career. I have another opening line to add. I happen to be rereading Jennifer Lyon's NIGHT MAGIC (from her paranormal Wing Slayer series. First line of chapter one reads: Ailish Dononvan was home for the family reunion from hell. That line could work for so many different genres/sub-genres!

  8. Loved this, Rebecca. Two questions: how do you feel about beginning a book with dialogue--perhaps the heroine talking? Also: You mention alternating points of view. I'm assuming that's third person. Can a ssuccessful romance be written in alternating FIRST person POV? Or is that a recipe for disaster?

  9. Silver--thanks for the great first line. Yes, it would work in a lot of different genres.

    I think beginning a book w/ dialogue is fine. I do it when I think it's the right way to go.

    I usually write in first person. DARK MOON begins from the pov of a kidnap victim. We see her kidnapped, then the h/h get the assignment of rescuing her. I think if a writer knows what she's doing, alternating first person pov will work. If I were doing it, I'd put the person's name at the top of each section.
    So you don't have to wonder whose head you are in.

    BTW, I wrote my first novel, INVASION OF THE BLUE LIGHTS, (repub as an e-book) in first person--from the pov of a 12-yo boy. (It was fun getting to be a kid again.) Interestingly, a lot of YA and juvenile fiction is written in first person.

    1. Hum. I see i said I usually write in first person. Arg. Meant 3rd person. Sigh.

    2. What do you think about alternating first and third person POV (that's the way I'm writing my current novel)? Do I still need to head it with the name of the character since it's obvious in first line just from POV as to who's in the spotlight?

    3. I do see books where it alternates first and third--w/ no intro to whose talking. I'm thinking of Michael Connley's books which feature Mickey Hauler and Harry Bosch. Mickey is in first person and Harry is in third, and they alternate.

  10. I love that you are giving new writers practical advice they can use to make their own stories really emotional, and will help them create a strong bond between reader and central character. Openings are so very important--can make or break a book. Regardless of whether you're writing paranormal romance,as you do, or sweet romance, inspirational, or even historical thrillers (as I do), you need to start strong. Best of luck with your own career and with this insightful blog. Mary Hart Perry

  11. All really, really good information and something I've learned the hard way. Now, 10 years later, I'd like to think I'm finally beginning to understand how to truly write well. My early works... well, let's just say no one wants to wait 73 pages before the h/h finally meet! And that book was not an urban fantasy, it was billed a romance. No wonder it never sold! LOL... all great advice, Rebecca! Thanks for this.

    1. Mary, thanks. Love your historical Thriller, THE WILD PRINCESS.

      Maria,glad the information is helpful. Yes, a romance should be plotted to get the h/h together near the beginning of the book.

    2. Rebecca, since I've read all of your "Moon" books, I could really relate to your examples, remembering how the stories would develop. Great blog. Thanks!

  12. Very true about the not delivering part, Rebecca. You can not cheat the reader, ever.

  13. Great post and I'm thrilled to get in on the beginning of your blogging! (I'll catch up on the previous posts.) Also, love your YouTube videos and the writing tips on your website! I'm here to LEARN!

  14. Thanks Sapphire and Jess. I'm thrilled that you want to follow my posts.

  15. Debra and Mary, thanks for the kind words. I'll do the next post when I get home from Thrillerfest. Being at a conference made me realize I should have some cards printed with the name of this blog.