This week we’ll be talking about different facets of writing here at Fierce Romance. Today I’m talking about openings. You know, those first few lines or first few paragraphs that, if you can believe the talk, make or break your book.
I struggle with the beginning of every single book/short story/novella that I write. Openings carry so much weight. They not only have to set the tone for the story and introduce character and setting, they have to hook the reader with a story question and make them want to keep reading. It’s enough to give you writer’s block.
I used to get so discouraged when I heard that many editors and agents only read a few pages, and maybe only the first few paragraphs of a submission before deciding if they wanted to request the full manuscript. How could that be possible? They can’t really tell anything that quickly, right? Then I began judging contests and I can honestly say that I can tell in the first couple paragraphs how the rest of the entry will read. If the first few lines are choppy, if there are grammar and spelling errors, it doesn’t get any better as the manuscript goes on. If the opening flows smoothly, with interesting characters and an intriguing premise, the rest of the entry tends to be smooth, interesting and intriguing. The opening truly sets the tone for the rest of the book.
So how do we do that? Sometimes it takes me a while. I often go back and rewrite openings after I’ve gotten farther along in the writing and I know what’s necessary to set up the story. Yet some openings come to me completely the first time out and don’t change that much at all. One of those was the opening to my award-winning (I love being able to say that!) contemporary romance from Samhain The Ride of Her Life. It starts like this:
The day Dean Bastian walked into the bank was the day Sarah decided she was no longer going to be sensible.
But, to be honest, when it came to Dean, she’d never had a bit of sense. Seeing him again after all these years sent her right back to that gawky teenager who’d had a major crush on the bad boy next door.
Dean looked the same as she remembered, tall and dark in his black T-shirt and faded jeans. He crossed the lobby, his long legs covering the distance quickly. When she saw he was headed for her window, an unwanted thrill rippled across her skin. Her heart started beating faster and annoyance fought its way to the surface. She hated not being in control of her feelings.
There was enough she didn’t have control of these days. Like doctors and hospitals and test results.
So in these first few paragraphs I’ve introduced the hero and the heroine, the bad boy and the good girl, and introduced a couple story questions. I hope I’ve made the reader want to read on.
The Ride of Her Life starts with narrative, a good way to set the stage as long as it doesn’t get too boring. Another way to start is with dialogue. This is from the opening of Taste of Honey, my contribution to Ellora's Cave's Seasons of Seduction IV:
“How about a dance, cowboy?”
The come-on in that silky voice would tempt a saint, and God knew Jake Manning wasn’t hittin’ the Pearly Gates anytime soon. When the scent of expensive perfume drifted over the stink of beer, whiskey and stale smoke, his body stirred against his will. He’d ducked in here to nurse a draft and a heart that had been stomped into a million pieces. The last thing he needed was a sweet-smellin’ woman.
But he couldn’t stop from lifting his gaze off the condensation on his mug, and glancing over his shoulder. Sleek blonde hair. An even sleeker body molded by a tight fitting tank top and painted-on jeans. The damn high-heeled boots she wore probably cost more than he made in a month. He turned away and chugged his beer, hoping to rinse away the bitter taste of lessons learned the hard way.
Here again we meet the hero and heroine immediately, another case of opposites which I think makes for immediate and inherent conflict. The tone is definitely different from the last example, but I hope the reader is interested enough in what happened to Jake and why the sweet-smellin’ woman wants to dance with him. And want to keep reading to find out what will happen when they do.
The opening doesn’t have to include both the hero and heroine, sometimes it’s just not possible, even in a romance. So then you have to make sure what’s happening is interesting enough for the reader to keep going until the other character takes the stage. This is the opening to my Red Sage novella, Quinn’s Curse:
Nathaniel Quinn had lived his life at sea, it was only fitting that he die at sea as well. Quinn swallowed another mouthful of icy seawater and coughed as he scrambled to keep his purchase on the small piece of hull he’d managed to snag from the waves churning around him.
The storm had come out of nowhere, tossing the Tempest as if it were a child’s plaything. The churning waves dashed the ship and its crew against the rocks that hid beneath the surface of the water along this rugged Maine coastline. Cries of drowning men surrounded him. Men he’d lived with and worked beside for many years. Good men. Well, as good as a pirate could be.
We only meet Quinn at the opening of this story, but I hope by throwing him into this life or death situation, the reader will want to keep reading to find out what happens to him.
Another thing an opening must do is start in the middle of the action. No heroines staring out of the window reflecting on everything in her life that brought her to this moment. No information dumping allowed. You have to have the teenage crush walking to the teller window or the tempting woman asking for a dance or a ship-wrecked pirate floundering in the frigid ocean. Only give your readers the information they have to have at that moment and then dole rest out on a need-to-know basis. After all, you want them to keep reading, don’t you? If you give them everything they need to know in the first couple paragraphs, why would they bother to keep reading?
Then you finally have to write the rest of the story. Sometimes I can get so caught up in making the opening perfect that I find it’s turned into a procrastination tool. Sooner or later you have to finish chapter one and go on to chapter two and all the way to the end.
I could go on and on about openings. I have tons of favorite openings from favorite books. I used examples from my own stories because I know what I was thinking as I was writing and what I hoped to accomplish with them. Only the readers can say if I did what I set out to do.
So how about it? Do you pick a book off the shelf and read the first few paragraphs before you decide to buy? What makes you buy that book? And what would make you put it back on the shelf and walk away?
I’m just finishing up edits so I’ll be starting a new story in the next week or so. So I really want to know!
Romance with more…sizzle