Another Opening

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


Unknown said...

Good Morning Natasha.

The examples you provided, are wonderful. I have worried about my openning scene and now I see that I am going in the right direction but need to change a couple of things.

Thank you,

Carly Carson said...

Those are great openings, Natasha. I want to second one of your comments - it was through judging contests that I learned how effective it was to judge a story with its opening. The story always continues as it starts.

I am totally enjoying "Ride of her Life". And the opening totally sets up the whole story.


Julie Robinson said...

Good morning, Natasha. Your opening scenes make me want to buy the books. Normally, though, I decide whether or not I want to buy a book is the blurb and then cracking the book open to see if it is in 3rd person. I don't care a whole lot for 1st person. But that's me. I will have to make it a point to start noticing opening scenes. Julie

aprilm said...

Your openings are hard to beat. They always pull me in. I'm working on this with Kate and WOWSER it's a tough one!!!

I'm looking at this and taking notes.


AE Rought said...

Absolutely I read the first few para, and if they don't hook me, I don't buy the book. I'm a hard sale, and only gotten worse with all the edits I've gone through.

Nicole North said...

Great openings and wonderful post, Natasha! Yes, I do often read the first few paragraphs to see if I want to buy a book. Some of the stories which have hooked me most is when I was pulled into reading the whole first chapter online as an excerpt and then I couldn't wait to buy the book.

Helen said...

Hi Natasha,

You're absolutely right about opening lines. I've heard editors say they sometimes don't get past the first page. So it's critical to hook them right away.

congrats on your win in the New England contest. Reading your openings it's easy to see why.


Anonymous said...

I read the back cover blurb and then I open the book and read the first couple of pages. If I find any misspellings, etc. then I put the book down. I will also put the book down if the first couple of pages are filled with descriptions of the location. :-P

Abby Niles said...

Awesome post. Openings are so important. I'm guilty of reading the first few paragraphs and either putting it back or buying it. I'm not big on description, horrible isn't it? I've always been one that wants to get to the meat of the story immediately and if there is too much setup I find myself skimming and if I skim in the beginning, I figure I will skim the whole book.

Your openings grab Natasha! Very well done.

Natasha Moore said...

Betti - go glad I could help :)

Carly - Thanks. I hope you enjoy The Ride of Her Life!

Julie, if the openings make you want to buy the books, then I've done my job :)

Natasha Moore said...

Hey April!! Thanks for stopping by. I'm sure Naughty Kate has great insight into writing openings too.

AE, I get pickier about books as time goes on too. I think a book has to be outstanding to make the writer in me shut up and read only as a reader.

Hi Nicole! See, that's why the first few paragraphs are so important!

Natasha Moore said...

Hi Helen! Thanks for the congrats. I got my cool bean pot award in the mail today.

Chris - I don't like tons of description of setting either. All that's needed IMHO is a line or two here and there as the action is taking place. I hate it when the story comes to a screeching halt for paragraphs of description.

Hi Esmerelda. Yeah, skimming is the death of a book to me too. Thanks, I'm glad you liked my examples.

ShawnaMoore said...

Hi, Natasha!

It's all about the storyline, characters and the author's storytelling for me. I tap into the authorial voice or not from the very beginning. This is much the same way I approach the music to which I listen. If something is discordant or unappealing, I turn it off or tune it out. With a book, I would refrain from purchasing it if the voice and/or story and characters didn't resonate with me :)


Natasha Moore said...

You're right, Shawna. The opening paragraphs also give the reader the first taste of the author's voice.

Teresa Reasor said...

I think the blurb on the back and the opening paragraph is what sells every book. If you can't capture a reader with those two things and get their attention with the cover, you're sunk.

I love cowboys. So you know I'll have to check out SEASONS.

Write on,
Teresa R.

Carol Ericson said...

Natasha, sometimes an idea for an entire book can come to me in an opening scene. While I think opening scenes are important when readers choose books, I think they're more important to agents, editors, and contest judges! I'm willing to read through a few slow-going pages if they're interesting enough without totally grabbing me by the throat!

Natasha Moore said...

Hey Teresa! Hope you love Jake as much as I did :)

Carol, I think as a reader I'm more forgiving too if the blurb and characters grab me. And lol the whole book coming from the opening scene - Taste of Honey devleoped from a writing exercize that started with one sentence.