Posted On January 16, 2012 by Print This Post

How “Once Upon a Time” Can Lead to a Happy Ending for Your Manuscript, by Teresa Medeiros

Good morning, RU! It is my great pleasure to introduce one of my all-time favorite authors Teresa Medeiros. Even though Teresa’s favorite pastime is playing with her cats (and new puppy!) and eating cupcakes, that’s not how she won her New York Times and USA Today bestselling author crowns. Nope, her sparkling bestsellerdom titles appeared when her fans couldn’t get enough of her charming wit, adventurous characters, and engaging romance. Plus, her tweets are a hoot!

Teresa’s generously offering one commenter a copy of her latest release THE PLEASURE OF YOUR KISS. Please help me welcome my new Twitter pal, Teresa Medeiros!

“Oh Clarinda, have you seen the latest edition of The Snitch? I picked up one at the docks before we sailed and there’s an absolutely delicious article about Captain Sir Ashton Burke!”


So begins my new novel THE PLEASURE OF YOUR KISS. This simple snippet of dialogue is supposed to stir the reader’s imagination by introducing several questions:

  1. Who is the gushing speaker?
  2. Who is Clarinda and why should she care about the doings of Captain Sir Ashton Burke?
  3. Why are they on a ship and where is it headed?
  4. What naughty things has this mysterious captain been doing to end up in a periodical with a title as nefarious as The Snitch?

The opening scene of your romance should be put to the following three tests:

  1. Does it pose a burning question that can only be answered if the reader keeps turning the pages?
  2. Does it give the reader the sense that in a single moment, your character’s fate is about to be changed forever?  That Alice is getting ready to tumble down the rabbit hole?
  3.  Can you visualize your opening scene on a movie screen?  And if so, would you be willing to plop down $7.99 at the box office to find out what happens next?

If you can answer “yes” to all of these questions, you’re well on your way to success. It’s your first scene that may very well sell your first book, whether to an editor or to a reader.  If you were an actor, your opening scene would be your audition. Welcome to Short Attention Span Theater!

Just like an intrepid reporter, you should always strive to answer the Five W’s in your first chapter—Who?  When?  Where?  Why?  and What?  Answering WHO introduces the reader to your characters.  Answering WHEN and WHERE provides a vibrant sense of time and place, which is no less important in a contemporary than a historical.  Answering WHAT should involve action of some kind and answering WHY sets the stage for those twin essentials of any successful book—conflict and motivation—which breaks down to determining exactly what your characters want and just who or what is going to try to stop them from getting it.

The trick is to answer all of these questions without oversaturating the reader and bogging down the storyline. The most common mistake beginning writers make is trying to cram too much background information into the first few scenes of a novel. In the opening scenes, you don’t have to introduce the reader to every character, nor do you have to set up every subplot or every motivation.

Your opening should be a seduction, a gentle tease promising pleasures to come. Even in a romance, an aura of mystery is essential. If everything is neatly laid out on page one, the reader has no motivation to turn to page two. If your hero has been imprisoned unjustly for a number of years, as Gerard was in my novel THIEF OF HEARTS, isn’t it enough to have him light a lamp in Chapter One because he hates the dark? The reader doesn’t have to learn WHY he hates the dark until he confesses all to the heroine in Chapter 17.

As long as your opening passes the three tests we mentioned above, there’s no set formula for deciding how to start your story. You can use snippets of dialogue, adventure or action sequences, a passionate conflict between key characters, or an intriguing character tag. When I finished my book BREATH OF MAGIC, I had no idea there was going to be a sequel. But I woke up one morning mumbling, “Tabitha Lennox hated being a witch. The only thing she hated more than being a witch was being a rich witch.” And I knew then that I’d found my opening line for my next book.

You may choose action as the key element to start your story.  In the opening of THE DEVIL WEARS PLAID, Emma is standing at the altar about to wed the man of her dreams. Or at least that’s what I lead the reader to believe. When a band of dangerous Highlanders storm the chapel, we realize she’s about to marry the man of her nightmares and it’s the man of her dreams who will abduct her from his arms.

The most successful opening scenes have one thing in common—something happens! This may sound pretty basic to you, but I’ve read many contest entries where absolutely nothing happens in the first few scenes. The writer begins the book with the mundane details of life—the heroine wakes up, yawns, climbs out of bed, brushes their teeth, makes the bed, stumbles into the kitchen, fixes some cereal, feeds the cat, changes a light bulb, then ten pages later, the phone rings so their lawyer can tell them their presumed dead scoundrel of an ex-spouse has just returned from beyond the grave to rob them of the million dollar inheritance left to them by their great-Aunt Tilly. Well, guess what?  Who cares? The editor has already tossed the manuscript onto the REJECTED pile and the reader checking out the sample chapter on her Kindle has already decided not to hit the BUY button and has bought Nora Robert’s 1200th book instead. The story should start when the phone rings.

What truly makes a story a page turner and a bestseller is a strong sense that the story is happening as it’s being read. And that quality is never more important than at the beginning of that story.

There are four unspoken words at the beginning of every book: Once upon a time…  If you can make your reader hold their breath in anticipation as they await the rest of the story, then your own happy ending may be just around the corner!


RU Crew, how did your opening scene fare with Teresa’s three tests? Readers, tell us what you love most about Teresa’s stories. Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win Teresa’s newest release THE PLEASURE OF YOUR KISS. Here’s a link to an excerpt.

On Wednesday, medical romance author Wendy S. Marcus discusses what not to do with reader reviews.



Teresa Medeiros wrote her first novel at the age of twenty-one, introducing readers to one of the most beloved and versatile voices in romantic fiction. Since then she has published twenty-two books and appeared on every national bestseller list, including the New York TimesUSA Today and Publishers Weekly lists. She is a seven-time RITA finalist, a two-time PRISM winner, and a two-time recipient of the Waldenbooks Award for bestselling fiction. Her first contemporary women’s fiction novel GOODNIGHT TWEETHEART was published in 2010 and Pocket has just released her latest historical THE PLEASURE OF YOUR KISS. You can visit her website at and join her on Facebook at

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35 Responses to “How “Once Upon a Time” Can Lead to a Happy Ending for Your Manuscript, by Teresa Medeiros”

  1. Hi Teresa,

    Thanks so much for joining us at RU and congrats on your recent release.

    Does the opening scene/line generally come to you first, or do you have to develop an opening scene that leads readers to a story element later on?

    So far, my story ideas have developed from a single flash of an opening scene.

    Thanks again,

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | January 16, 2012, 6:34 am
  2. Theresa – thanks so much for visiting RU! Believe me, I will be re-reading this post in conjunction with my latest openin scene.

    Do you ever come up with your first line snippet, and that kicks off the whole story, only to find the first line changes later?


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | January 16, 2012, 6:45 am
  3. Hi Teresa! Thanks for being with us today. I always start with the first line and then I’m off to the races but I wondered if you write in a linear fashion or jump around?


    Posted by Robin Covington | January 16, 2012, 7:08 am
  4. Hi Teresa!

    I think I can answer yes to all three of your questions. Whew! And I’m so happy to see that you started your book with dialogue. I question the “rules” frequently, and one of them was never starting the book with dialogue. 🙂

    Slow starts in books remind me of depressing foreign films when I’m tempted to pick up the remote and hit the fast forward button.

    Since you write different sub-genres, does your process change depending on the kind of book you’re writing?

    We’re thrilled to have you with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 16, 2012, 7:37 am
  5. Morning Teresa!

    Great post – thanks so much! =) There has been so much on the writers posts lately about where to start your story, and it’s all conflicting. Some say you have to show their normal world first, others say jump right in to the moment where their life changes.

    It leaves a girl with her head spinning. =)

    What’s your two cents on the issue?

    Thanks so much for being here with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 16, 2012, 8:15 am
  6. So informative! Teresa, I follow you on Facebook and Twitter, so I am always amazed at what you’re able to do with such distractions as your gorgeous cats Willow Tum-Tum and Buffy the Mouseslayer. With distractions poke these around the house, how do you push it away to focus on the writing?

    Posted by Bridgett | January 16, 2012, 8:25 am
  7. Hi Teresa! Gosh, I’m such a huge fan, allow me to gush a moment…Nobody’s Darling and Fairest of the Them All are two of my all time favorite books. Actually, I love all your books, but those are the two standouts.

    Thanks for this wonderful blog post. I’d like to think I always have “Once upon a time…” and “Happily Ever After” in mind as I write. But I love the idea of ensuring the story is happening as it’s being read. It’s a simple concept but one that can easily be lost in the nitty-gritty of all the rest!

    Yes, I believe my opening scenes pass your three tests. Though I haven’t sold yet, so maybe I better check again – really check, not just glance at it. 🙂

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | January 16, 2012, 8:43 am
  8. I think I answered got all the questions at least semi-answered in my initial draft. We’ll see… when I go back to look at it today. 🙂

    Thank you for the opportunity to win one of your amazing stories! 🙂


    Posted by Terry | January 16, 2012, 8:50 am
  9. Hi Teresa,

    I ask myself where to start my story. My goal is to have the drama already in progress. It’s interesting because my latest WIP has the heroine trying to live down a magazine article written about her.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | January 16, 2012, 9:31 am
  10. Hi Teresa,
    Thanks for your post today, it is timely – I needed to revise that opening scene that just didnt feel right.

    Good luck with your latest release!

    Posted by Dawn in NL | January 16, 2012, 9:47 am
  11. Teresa, I’ve loved your books for such a long time, and I’m looking forward to reading this one. I’ve heard so many great things already. 🙂

    And your advice is helping me as I’m drafting some back-cover copy for one of my books. The first two of your tests definitely entice the reader, so I’m keeping that in mind as I blurb. LOL And if I can get them to visualize the story from the blurb, then I think it can be considered a success!

    Thanks for the great tips. 🙂

    Posted by Donna Cummings | January 16, 2012, 9:57 am
  12. Well, guess what? Who cares? The editor has already tossed the manuscript onto the REJECTED pile and the reader checking out the sample chapter on her Kindle has already decided not to hit the BUY button and has bought Nora Robert’s 1200th book instead.

    LOL! Readers calls em like they sees em. Great advice.

    Posted by Julia Phillips Smith | January 16, 2012, 10:07 am
  13. Tracey,
    I usually get the opening scene before I get anything else. I remember when I was writing AFTER MIDNIGHT, I got the dialogue line, “Our sister is marrying a vampire” and went on to build the entire book around it.

    Posted by Teresa Medeiros | January 16, 2012, 10:29 am
  14. Mary Jo,
    Perfect phrasing–“have the drama already in progress”. That sums it up beautifully!

    Posted by Teresa Medeiros | January 16, 2012, 10:29 am
  15. I follow Theresa on FB. I’m very happy it has led me to this site, as I am trying to become a writer.

    Posted by Marsha Webb | January 16, 2012, 11:13 am
  16. Hi Teresa! I’m a big fan of your books, and THE PLEASURE OF YOUR KISS is at the top of my waiting-to-be-read pile.

    The first scene always kills me in my own writing. Once I get past the first thirty pages I go with the flow, but I usually go through several versions of the opening scene before I get it right.

    I wish I had your deft touch!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | January 16, 2012, 11:48 am
  17. When you write the opening scene and somthing feels ‘off’ do you correct it or fix it later? I know of some who can’t move beyond the first scene until it is ‘just so’ and that helps set the tone for the rest of the story.

    Posted by MarcieR | January 16, 2012, 12:17 pm
  18. I was just wishing that Theresa and some of my other favorite authors would do something like Romance University on their Facebook posts so I will be spending some serious time checking this site out.
    LOVE Theresa’s books. And the opening scene usually comes to me in a flash, also, but then I have a huge problem with figuring out how to flesh out the rest of the story. Any suggestions on how to avoid the dreaded “sagging middle”? Thanks for everything.

    Posted by Sherri Hazelton | January 16, 2012, 1:48 pm
  19. Great post! I always find that I am a good story starter, but after I get past the first scene I have difficulty moving the journey along because I don’t want to reveal everything right away. But this advice will definitely come in to play when I go back and read everything through to maybe make an even stronger opening. Thank you!

    Posted by ML | January 16, 2012, 3:04 pm
  20. Marcier, I’m one of those people who usually has to correct what’s wrong before I move on. Sometimes when I’m “blocked”, it’s my subconscious trying to tell me I’ve gotten something wrong or out of order.

    Posted by Teresa Medeiros | January 16, 2012, 3:32 pm
  21. I actually got it right and started my book in the middle of a scene that teeters on the edge of a life-changing adventure for the heroine. Then I decided to add a prologue. I can see now that was a mistake and it is definitely getting cut before I send off my query. Thanks for the wonderful advice, Teresa!

    Posted by Susan Zanone | January 16, 2012, 3:51 pm
  22. Hopped on over here from Twitter…would love to read another Teresa novel. I just finished “Goodnight Tweetheart” the other day and really enjoyed it! I thought the dialog was creative and snappy, and her use of twitter as a mode of communication in the novel between the two mc’s was really cute and fun.

    Posted by Pattie | January 16, 2012, 4:01 pm
  23. Good openings are so tricky yet the three simple questions you pose will make assessing them much easier in the future! Very useful writing advice. Thank you!

    Posted by Diana Quincy | January 16, 2012, 4:03 pm
  24. Good openings make or break a book indeed. I personally don’t read beyond a sample if the story isn’t going in earnest indeed. An author has to be able to hold my interest for me to want to pay money to buy the rest of the book. No reason it shouldn’t apply to me as an author too. Thanks, Teresa. Wonderful article. Glad I found this on today’s twitter feed.

    Posted by Sam Gill | January 16, 2012, 4:08 pm
  25. Why I Love your books? There are so many reasons. I find them fun, entertaining, fresh, every story is really unique!:) ..I hope u continue to give us more of that for many years to come!:* ..all my love & Good Luck 🙂 LOL

    Posted by Monikarw | January 16, 2012, 4:33 pm
  26. Hi Teresa. Sorry I’m late to the party. This is one of those posts that is going right into my editing binder.

    The opening is usually such a challenge for me. I generally know what I want it to be, but I do sometimes skip writing it until after I write chapter two. Crazy, I know! Sometimes it’s just easier to make notes about chapter one and then come back to it after I’m into the book. Then again, sometimes I dive right into chapter one and just gut it out.

    Thanks for being here today.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | January 16, 2012, 6:35 pm
  27. When I was younger,I always thought I wanted to be a writer. Then I grew up and realized I am a much better reader!
    Thank you for all the hard work you do!

    Posted by Carrie | January 16, 2012, 6:45 pm
  28. Your post is right on! One of the books I recommend to beginning authors is The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. I also have posted a list of opening lines on my website Tim Dorsey is a master at opening lines. Now I can tell people to read Teresa Medeiros for great opening scenes, thanks. Mia

    Posted by Mia Crews | January 16, 2012, 7:22 pm
  29. Teresa (and everyone)–
    Thank you for spending time with us today! So much great advice and wonderful conversation.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | January 16, 2012, 8:32 pm
  30. PATTIE, congrats on winning a copy of Teresa’s THE PLEASURE OF YOUR KISS!

    Please contact me at tracey @ (ignore the spaced) with your snail mail and I’ll forward onto Teresa.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | January 18, 2012, 9:25 pm


  1. […] From Romance University: Monday, January 16 – New York Times bestselling author Teresa Medeiros puts your opening scene to the test. If you can answer “yes!” to Teresa’s three questions, you might have the next best seller. One lucky commenter will win a copy of Teresa’s new release THE PLEASURE OF YOUR KISS. Comment on the blog. […]

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