Where Romance and History Meet - www.heartsthroughhistory.com/

Monday, November 29, 2010

Openings

by Ann Lethbridge

No, I'm not talking about job opportunities.  Or am I? I'll let you be the judge.

Last week I had the privilege of  reading a few five-hundred word story openings provided by aspiring authors. I was not being asked for a critique, so I was unable to offer advice and I didn't know their names, or anything about them.

I was concerned that almost all these openings suffered from what I saw as similar problems. If it had been possible for me to give  feedback on these snippets, this is what I would have said.

  •  A reader expects to be carried into your world in a very few lines or they might not get past the first page. One way to do this is to start with action, or dialogue. If you start where something is happening or even better, where everything changes for the worst for the point of view character, the reader will want to read on. People love conflict and disaster, so if you can hint at it, or even provide it at the beginning your book will open with a bang.
  • Providing the details up front of why and how a character arrived at the point when the book opens can cause a reader to yawn. For example, the character thinks about his miserable childhood, his awful time at school and his recent accession to a title, which will allow him to improve his life. In the meantime, nothing has happened in the story. This is an information dump. I see it over and over again in contests. It is also telling. 
  • The best way for a reader to get to know your character is to see them in action. This character, for example, could be entering a ballroom, greeting people who in the past had snubbed him and piercing them with his superior wit. The reader would be intrigued. Why would this man act this way? Or he could dive in to rescue a citizen from a band of thugs in a bad part of town. Why is he there? Why is he willing to be involved? Show us whatever it is you want to show us about who this person is, or thinks he or she is right now, by having him or her react to their world. Intrigue us to read more by not telling us why.
  • Avoid large casts of characters in opening scenes. Readers can be confused and/or impatient with too many people to keep track of, especially when they don't know who is important to the story.
  • Don't have your character physically describe themselves, either by looking in a mirror, or by thinking about their appearance. She turned her bewitching blue eyes on her visitor, is, if you turn it into the characters' own thoughts: I turned my bewitching blue eyes on my visitor. How often do you think about the nature and color of your eyes when you look at someone entering your front door? If you can put yourself inside your point of view character's head, see only what they see, feel only what they feel, your reader will be right there with you. And they will want to read on.
  • Know where your story starts. I have this terrible habit of wanting to write prologues full of action. My editor is very smart. She makes me take them out. Writing the prologue puts my head in the right place for the story. Deleting it, doesn't spoil or change the story at all, indeed it leaves a question to be answered later when the reader needs to know the answer. Don't start your story too early. Start where things begin to go wrong, often in a romance at the point the hero and heroine meet.
  • If your book starts with a bang, in the middle of action with conflict, with questions, try to keep the tension going.  Don't have your character go off and change their gown, for example, so you can get in some description, while the furious hero waits in the drawing room. Have her confront him right away. Keep the reader wanting to know what is going to happen next and keep things happening.
  • A great first line is wonderful. An art form if done well.  If it is followed up by telling and passages of description, its impact is lost.
  • Look at the openings of your favorite authors. What did they do right? Were you bored but only continued reading because you knew in the end they would deliver? Did you skip ahead? Were you breathlessly intrigued? An editor who is breathlessly intrigued by your opening page or two might well buy your book.

Do I do perfect openings? No, but I do strive for them and try to keep all these points in my head. I think I spend more time on the opening paragraphs than I do on any other scene in the book. I hope these little pointers will be of as much help to you as they are to me.

What are some of your favorite opening paragraphs?

Ann Lethbridge
The Gamkeeper's Lady, Dec 1 2010
Harlequin Historicals
Find me at e-harlequin.com

4 comments:

AJ said...

Great post, Ann, and very, very true. If I read the back cover of a book and am not immediately intrigued, but I like the author, I may read the first page ... if said page is filled with info dumps or lengthy descriptions of the character's surroundings ... yawn.

So I took a minute to glance at opening lines from some of the books I've recently read.

1. The city reeked of sweat and
grime. Eidolon's citizens
gathered in the chilly, dank air
of the commons, their eyes
turned to the cloaked figure
standing tethered to a post on
the center platform ... musing
over the prisoner's identity.
Son of Ereubus, J.S. Chancellor

2. They came for her at dawn.
Through the long, dark hours
Elizabeth had stared from the
window at the garden made darker
by the rain ...
The Queen's Captive, Barbara Kyle

3. Every woman should marry for her
own advantage since her husband
will represent her, as visible
as her front door, for the rest
of her life.
The Other Queen, Philippa Gregory

Now why did each pull me in? The first drew me into the fear and anticipation of an execution, but who is it? I wanted to read on to find out.

The second, I'm no going to lie, I was sold at, 'They came for her at dawn.' The line is brilliant. Came for who? And why at such an ungodly hour? What had she done, or rather been accused of doing? I want to know.

And, lastly, the every woman line ... how true, that woman of the noble class in times gone by were no more than chattel to be pawned, yet THIS woman, knew her worth, and moved through life accordingly.

Sally said...

It is correct that a well delivered first line is an art form. I'm with AJ on the sentence, "They came for her at dawn." Lots of practice helps these lines come faster but I rarely accomplish it first time out.

Ann Lethbridge said...

AJ and Sally, thanks for dropping in. Great first paragraphs AJ, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I once read that the ideal opening line would be something like: "'Damn,' said the duchess as she puffed on a black cigar."