GRABBING THE READER ON THE FIRST PAGE
THE OPENING CHAPTER …
A great opening to a romance sets up questions in the reader’s mind; questions that only the writer can answer.
To achieve this the writer has to:
- Start with something happening
- Get the hero and heroine on the page
- Grab the reader’s attention
The start of any book is a make or break minute. It is the minute when the writer has to convince the reader to buy the book. Not the reader in the bookstore, but the first reader. The acquiring editor at the publishing house where your manuscript will be just one among the thousands sent to them every year.
It will not have a glossy cover or a teasing blurb written by a marketing department skilled in selling fantasy to tempt her. It will be a simple typescript, exactly like dozens of others awaiting her attention. Typed on white paper, double spaced, with an elastic band around it to hold it together.
You have two pages, or maybe three if she’s feeling generous, to convince her that your book is worth more than a minute of her time.
Asked, when giving a talk to hopeful authors, if she could really decide whether a book was worth publishing after reading the first chapter, the editor of a well known publishing house replied –
‘Sometimes all it takes is the first line.’
A great opening to chapter four with a crisis of heart-rending proportions won’t help if the reader doesn’t get that far.
- The opening is important. Start with the crisis.
More, the opening must raise expectations in the reader, set the mood, the style of the book.
- Is it sharp and direct?
- Is there a mystery?
- Will it wrench the reader’s heartstrings?
IS IT SHARP AND DIRECT?
‘Blackmail,’ Faith muttered for perhaps the tenth time that day. Her aunt was an expert in the technique.
The reader of a romance will not be fooled by that word “blackmail”. The word “aunt” qualifies it and promises a book in which the heroine is being manipulated by a strong willed female relative. The fact that she has allowed herself to be manipulated suggests any irritation will be firmly underpinned by affection. But she is still being manipulated. Why?
IS THERE A MYSTERY?
‘Something woke Dora. One minute she was sleeping, the next wide awake, her ears straining through all the familiar night noises of the countryside for the out-of-place sound that had woken her.’
Here the opening suggests that something unexpected, maybe frightening, is about to happen. The danger may be unseen but the potential victim is right there, on the page, focussing the reader’s attention, attracting her concern. Whatever happens is going to happen to Dora
WILL IT WRENCH THE READER’S HEARTSTRINGS?
‘Lizzie French jumped involuntarily as the church door clanged noisily behind a latecomer. Had he come? She had almost given up hope, but now, heart-in-mouth, she turned.’
Lizzie is jumpy, waiting for someone special to arrive. Is it him? And will he be the hero? No. The hero is standing next to her and the reader is introduced to him before she can give the tardy wedding guest more than a passing thought. Having informed Lizzie that the late arrival is the vicar’s wife —
‘… Noah Jordan’s dark brows were lifted just a fraction, his mouth turned down slightly at the corners in a mocking expression that might just have been an apology that he was the bearer of such disappointing news. But somehow she didn’t think so.’
The latecomer is important. But the reader recognizes the hero. He’s right there on the first page.
- The opening tells the reader who the story is about.
- The opening asks questions.
- The opening must intrigue the reader. Draw her in.
IS THIS YOU?
- I don’t understand how a publisher can make a decision on the first three chapters. My book is scarcely started then.
- If I don’t explain what happened in the past, the reader won’t understand why this is happening now.
- I need to set the scene first.
- If I haven’t described the characters first, the reader won’t know who they are, or why they’re acting this way.
Go to the library, grab an armful of modern bestsellers and check out your beliefs against the opening paragraphs.
START WITH SOMETHING HAPPENING
The defining moment of a story is a point of crisis. For the romance writer there are certain major life changing moments which offer great opening moments. Death, birth, marriage, divorce.
The beginning of a book is a moment of change, the unexpected. Consider the wedding.
The expected, is that the bride and groom will say ‘I do’ and live happily ever after.
The unexpected is —
- — when someone burst into the church and says “yes!”
- — when the groom turns to the bride and says ‘Smile sweetheart … this is supposed to be the happiest day of your life.’
- — when the vicar asks the bride if she will take this man to be her lawfully wedded husband … and in response, she picks up her skirts, dashes back down the aisle and hops on a number 38 bus which just happens to be passing.
There is clearly a crisis that has brought the heroine to this point, but given sufficient incentive to read on, the reader will be content to wait for the details.
Think of a major newspaper story. It doesn’t start with ten years of backstory. It starts with a big headline.
- BIGAMIST UNMASKED AT WEDDING
- GIRL WEDS TO SAVE FATHER FROM BANKRUPTCY
- BRIDE DESERTS GROOM AT ALTAR
These are stories everyone will want to read. Does your story start with a headline?
- A romance starts with a moment of crisis – a moment of change.
- Write the newspaper headline for your story and start from that point.
GET THE HERO AND HEROINE ON THE PAGE
In each of the wedding scenarios the heroine is front and centre of the action, the star of her own story. Her co-star, with equal billing, is the hero.
These are the most important characters in a short romance. The sooner you can introduce them the better.
On the first page is good. In the first paragraph is better. In the first line if at all possible.
‘Lukas?’ Georgette Bainbridge felt her mouth go dry at her father’s suggestion. ‘You want me to work for Lukas?’ The day which had begun so badly suddenly became a disaster.
Lukas, the hero, does not appear in person until the end of the first chapter. But his presence is there from the opening line of the book and the reader will recognise his status instantly.
‘Got you, Chay Buchanan!’ Sophie Nash’s triumphant exclamation was a tightly contained whisper.
Chay Buchanan is being watched through the viewfinder of a camera. The reader is there, looking through it, along with the heroine. Seeing what she’s seeing, feeling the same emotional turmoil. There is no doubt whose story this is.
The reader is like a newly hatched chick, programmed to bond with the first likely character she meets. Ensure that it is the hero or heroine.
- ‘Cassandra Cornwell had a problem …’
- ‘Tom Brodie regarded the man sitting behind the ornate desk …’
- ‘”Miss Carpenter?” The enquiry was simply a formality …’
And keep the action moving during that important first scene. Novice writers always use too much description. Characters come alive on the page through their actions, not through a detailed inventory of their looks, or their clothes.
- Description of any kind slows down the action.
Read the first page of any volume of popular fiction and see just how much information the writer has crammed into those twenty or so lines. Not description, but set-up; the information that will draw the reader into the book and make her want to read on. This is the first page of my Mills & Boon romance, A POINT OF PRIDE.
‘Smile, sweetheart … this is supposed to be the happiest day of your life.’
What is the most important word in that line? ‘… supposed …’
‘Not by one flicker of her lashes did Casey O’Connor acknowledge that she had heard the words murmured by the tall grey-clad figure of Gil Blake, as he took her right hand firmly in his own.
‘She stared resolutely ahead, her face almost the colour of her exquisitely simple ivory silk dress. The vicar smiled reassuringly and then turned to Gil. The wedding service moved inexorably on.’
He is wearing a morning coat, she is in ivory silk. Those few words inform the reader that this is not some ramshackle, hole-in-wall wedding. It is a full-dress occasion. A major social event.
He takes her hand firmly in his. He is in control. ‘The wedding service moved inexorably on.‘ The words are doom laden, reinforcing the conviction that this wedding is not the normal happy-ever-event.
Happy people do not make for exciting reading.
‘I Gilliam Edward Blake take thee Catherine Mary O’Connor …’ Gil’s firm voice rang firmly through the church, every word clearly heard by the congregation come to witness the shockingly sudden marriage of Casey O’Connor to the tall, tanned stranger who had snatched her from under the very nose of the most eligible bachelor in Melchester.’
Shockingly sudden. Stranger. Snatched. Those words hammer home the message. But there is a lot more information in that paragraph. Casey may not be happy, but Gil Blake’s ‘firm voice’ tells the reader that he’s well satisfied with events.
Tall, tanned stranger. Where has he come from? The tan suggests somewhere warm. And he’s snatched her from ‘… under the very nose of the most eligible bachelor in Melchester.‘ What hold does he have over her, that she would desert such a man and agree to a marriage that she clearly does not want?
‘The minister, satisfied with the groom’s response, turned to her. “I Catherine Mary O’Connor take thee Gilliam …’ he prompted.
As she heard the words that would bind them together the temptation to flee was so strong that she was uncertain whether she had in fact stepped back, or if it was just her imagination that Gil’s fingers tightened possessively over hers.
She glanced nervously at him from under her lashes. His grey eyes regarded her steadily, but there was no warmth to encourage her response. He was demanding her total surrender.’
The way characters are feeling is more important than what they are wearing. He is in control and knows it. She is unhappy and that raises a question. He knows she’s unhappy and he doesn’t appear to care. That makes it a story.
One page in and the reader knows a lot about these characters. The least important things are their names and the colour of Gil Blake’s eyes.
GRAB THE READER’S ATTENTION
- Show the reader the characters
- Use action
- Introduce conflict
Consider how they do it in the movies. First they show you the character. Walking down the street in her neighbourhood, maybe.
- ‘Hi, Grace! How’re the wedding plans coming along?’ Grace Darling smiled at her neighbour …
Or working in her office.
- ‘Grace, you coming for lunch?’ Grace Darling grabbed her jacket …
Perhaps having dinner in a restaurant with her husband, celebrating their first wedding anniversary.
- ‘John, I’m so happy.’ Grace Darling reached for her husband’s hand …
Then they introduce action.
- Grace, still laughing and talking with her neighbour, steps off the kerb and is mown down by a speeding car.
- The phone in the office rings. Grace goes back to answer it.
- In the restaurant Grace looks up as a woman approaches the table.
A story has begun.
What happens next? Next comes the point on which the story turns.
- The man sitting beside Grace’s hospital bed says that he’s her fiance. She does not recognize him.
- Grace answers the phone and is told by the caller that he has taken her child.
- The woman produces a gun, shoots Grace’s husband, then walks out of the restaurant.
Whatever happens next, Grace has been tossed into the maelstrom of her story.
The beginning is written. The reader is hooked.
* * *
All extracts are taken from books written by Liz Fielding and published by Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd. For more read Liz Fielding’s Little Book of Writing Romance, available in both paperback and digital.
Writer Groups wishing to reproduce this article should ensure that Liz Fielding is acknowledged as the author and her copyright notice clearly affixed.
© Liz Fielding 2001