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. It’s just as easy to put down a book as to change a channel.
Which means you have to make that first sentence count. That first paragraph. The first scene.
You’ve got to Immediately involve the reader. Intrigue her. Make her wonder what will happen next.
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”:
“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.
In reality, the plot of your story probably begins long before the actual book starts. 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 can reveal 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.
If you have trouble deciding how much background to put into the first scene or the first chapter, ask yourself, “Does the reader need to know this now? Or can I work in these details later?”
If you’re writing romance, you want the hero and heroine to meet as soon as possible. It’s not a must, 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. In a longer romance, you have room to develop secondary characters and plotlines.
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.
In a romance, the h/h are drawn to each other. But you must set up conflicts that will keep them from working out their differences until the end of the story.
Early on, 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.
Try to end the first chapter with a cliff-hanger. A tantalizing last line that will have the reader wanting to turn the page and find out about the rest of the story.
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 here’s a piece of good news. What you write isn’t set in stone just because the words are on the screen. You can always edit yourself
later. My goal is often to “get it down” so I have something to work with and them make improvements. Usually my second thoughts are a significant part of the finished product.
NY Times & USA Today best-seller, Rebecca York, is the author of over 150 books. She has written paranormal romantic thrillers for Berkley and romantic thrillers for Harlequin Intrigue. Her romantic-suspense series, Decorah Security, is set at a detective agency where agents have paranormal powers or work paranormal cases. She also writes an Off-World series where each story is a science fiction romance taking place on a distant planet in the far future. She also writes the Unbound series for Changeling Press.