Posted On February 15, 2013 by Print This Post

The Need for Speed with Elisabeth Staab

I don’t exactly remember how Elisabeth and I became friends but she’s one of the constant friends in my writing life. A fellow Washington Romance Writer, we might write different sub-genres but we can both agree on one thing: we don’t get to see each other enough. She is one of my go-to people when I have a question and this topic of writing an opening that sucks you in is one we’ve discussed before. (And – I didn’t pay her to use my book. I swear.)

The Need for Speed

I’m about to expose something really personal here. Something even egstaab_webmore embarrassing than that time I danced on the bar of Coyote Ugly at my bachelorette party. You see, when I started the sequel to my debut novel, King of Darkness, I had literally never written a sequel. I allowed myself to get bogged down in many “sophomore slump” mistakes including—of all horrifying things—opening an early draft of Prince of Power with my heroine in a coma.

Ew.

“But hey,” you protest. “My sister’s friend’s cousin Marge opened her epic novel ‘The Coma Patient’ with her heroine in a coma and she’s raking in so much money she had to buy the house next door to store all of her cash!”

Marge has my deepest admiration. Here’s the thing though: we all know the basic truth as authors that readers need to be “grabbed” in that story opening. One of the easiest ways to pull that off is through movement. If you’ve got a person lying on a bed unconscious, usually there’s nothing much happening of interest.

So here’s a horrifying snippet from the original opener from my sophomore novel, Prince of Power:

Tick-tock, Anton.

Anton cradled Tyra’s head in his hands. He breathed deep and willed the pulse of static-electricity in his hands to intensify. Her brown hair was soft and her skin was warm, but her face stayed placid and unmoving as it had for too long, and barely a prickle of energy came to his fingertips this time.

He was out of steam.

His eyes shifted from the lovely body beside him to the large, round clock on the wall. Its ghostly tick, tick, tick echoed in his head in rhythmic time with the pound of his heart and the throb of his cramped leg. It mocked him. Reminded him, in a voice just too much like his bastard father’s, that he was also nearly out of time.

Ack! Ick! Are you twitching? I’d almost rather show you the bar-dancing footage from my bachelorette party. Seriously, for about fifteen hundred words the hero hovers by her bed, mulls over how his female got to be in a coma (helooo, excessive backstory!), and has a weirdo argument with the wall-clock which in his sleep-deprived insanity he thinks is speaking to him via his evil father.

I know. It’s okay, you can judge. I do.

I was reminded by my author buddy, Damon Suede, about the concept of approaching the opening of a scene like the opening of a movie: give the actors something to do, and give the cameras something to shoot (the same applies to your scenery, btw). What was there for my camera to shoot? My heroine was unconscious for crying out loud. My hero was sitting there lamenting.

I needed movement. I needed speed. I needed to get rid of that motherflipping coma.

An author whose name shamefully escapes me once said in an insightful article that there’s a good chance the real start of your book is actually a chapter or two in from where you started your draft. Painful though it was, I lopped off that first chapter. Got rid of the damned coma. My heroine’s a vampire. Her hero, well he’s also her enemy. So I gotta figure she’s gonna freak out when she first wakes from that coma. She’s probably going to assume he’s trying kill her. Bingo. Fight scene!

So how about we try something like this:

She pried her eyes open but couldn’t see a thing. A whole lot of bright and blurry invaded her senses. She was lying down, while someone stood over her. Calloused fingers brushed her face. A fellow vampire would have spoken up and identified themselves right then.

This was a bad sign.

A very bad sign.

Fueled by adrenaline and fear and strength she wasn’t sure she had in her, Tyra launched herself, fangs bared, at the threat. She may have been half human, but she let the royal, feral blood of her vampire ancestors take the lead. Lying down with someone over her meant she was in enemy hands. No way was anybody cutting her chest open to take out her heart. Clawing and scraping against a tile floor, she pulled a heavy body beneath her.

In starting the story as Tyra was waking up from that same coma that was making me crazy, I was able to capture her panic and vulnerability. Movement. Speed. And I even slipped in a little backstory.

Okay, but I see Marge’s buddies over there are raising their hands. “We don’t all write vampire stories, Staab. Some of us enjoy cozy mysteries and eel-ranching-sci-fi and historical and gosh, we dunno, contemporaries and stuff! Your commentary here is useless for the many books that have no reason to begin with a fight or a chase scene!”

I mostly disagree. I mean, there are exceptions to every rule, and I am not an expert in everything (eel ranching, for example, is not my bag). I also half suspect Marge’s buddies are ticked at me for dissing the concept of her awesomesauce coma book. However, I still think you gotta have action, even if “action” is not technically your genre.

Maybe the hero is standing still, but the movement is all around. Maybe it’s in that provocative opening sentence that hooks the reader and reels them in (“Hester would never forget the moment of that clown’s performance that rendered her heart and mind irrevocably scarred.”). That gets their gears spinning. As “they” will all tell you, the opening sentence is a promise about what to expect for the rest of the book, so make sure that line delivers.
Take for example, the opening of Robin Covington’s A Night of Southern Comfort:

Her Junior League membership was toast.

They’d kick her out for what she planned on doing to that man tonight.

Dr. Michaela Roarke shifted on her barstool to get a better view of the tall, dark, and sinfully sexy man in a tuxedo, playing pool with his friends on the other side of the hotel bar. After leaving her final, boring, political fund-raising dinner, she’d strolled into the historic Jefferson Hotel to end her evening with a celebratory drink. Her new life, the one where she got to be more than the perfect daughter of former governor and current senatorial candidate Jefferson Eastland, started tonight.

The minute she’d taken one look at tuxedo guy’s ass, she’d decided that getting up early was no longer a priority. Checkout wasn’t until eleven o’clock and her night would be so much better with a little company.

His company.

Oh baby, he’s gorgeous. Lifting her glass to her lips, she took a sip and watched the man who’d captured her attention the minute he’d walked through the door with his less captivating friends. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with muscles that flexed underneath his jacket in a way that made her want to strip it off him. With her teeth.

She tamped down the involuntary urge to look away when his gaze once again clashed with hers across the busy bar in open acknowledgment of the sexual attraction between them. She shifted slightly as desire curled in her belly and dampened her panties. Taking a fortifying sip of her drink, she sat back to see if he would accept her invitation.

Mr. Sex-on-a-Stick took his last shot and accepted the congratulatory thumps on the back from his friends. He didn’t smile in response, just quirked his full, sensual lips and turned to face her head-on with an expression full of hot promise. Catcalls and low whistles from his friends drifted across the crowded bar.

Whooo! *fans self* Okay! So not a vampire in sight, and yet somehow we’ve gone from Junior League to bar pickup in just a few short paragraphs. See the speed? I love this opener, because it grabs you fast and subtly informs you all while you’re busy checking out Mr. Sex-on-a-Stick’s flexing muscles and full lips. Our heroine may be sitting on the bar, but she’s shifting and sipping while everything in the bar including her love interest moves. There’s no fighting or crashing or chasing, but the opening is active.

Obviously, there’s no one-size fits all way to open a story. Thank God. But I have found that as a reader, the books that keep moving are the ones I can’t put down. What are the aspects of a good story opening that suck you in?

***

Elisabeth asked a great question – what sucks you in?

Tomorrow – a special post from Jessica Lemmen

***

PoP_new_lgAbout Prince of Power
This Fight Is Personal…

Wizards and vampires have been mortal enemies since the beginning. Now Anton, son of the Wizard Master, has one last chance to steal the unique powers of the vampire king’s beautiful sister, Tyra…and then kill her. But when he meets Tyra face-to-face, everything changes…

Tyra will stop at nothing to defeat the wizards, until Anton saves her life and she suddenly sees an opportunity she never could have imagined… As the sparks ignite between them, together they could bring an end to the war that’s decimating their people, but only if they can find a way to trust each other…

GET IT: Amazon | B&N | Target | Walmart | Indiebound

Bio:

Elisabeth Staab still lives with her nose in a book and at least one foot in an imaginary world. She believes that all kinds of safe and sane love should be celebrated but she adores the fantasy-filled realm of paranormal romance the best. She loves to spend time with good friends, good music, good beverages, and good books (when she isn’t making characters fall in love, that is). She lives with her family and one big scaredy-cat in Northern Virginia.
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Discussion

20 Responses to “The Need for Speed with Elisabeth Staab”

  1. Oh, action definitely wins me. It’s that promise of something momentous, of chaos being just round the bend, that gets me intrigued.

    Sometimes, I find, like in the bar excerpt above, that being in the character’s head does this already. Characterization to me plays a huge part in hooking the reader.

    Posted by Zee Monodee | February 15, 2013, 12:12 am
  2. Action definitely pulls me in as well as intriguing introductory lines or paragraphs. I need to be introduced to some situation that I desperately NEED to know more about, ASAP.

    For example, in Jennifer Probst’s The Marriage Bargain.

    She needed a man.
    Preferably one with $150,000 to spare.

    That right there grabbed me and and made me say “what the heck does she need that kind of money for?” So boom. I’m hooked.

    Kind of like this one, maybe not quite as “need an answer” so much as a “Oh, you know trouble’s coming in the form of MAN.”

    I do not need a man. I do not need the complications of a man, thought Layla Sinclair. It doesn’t matter how damn good-looking he is.

    Posted by Stephanie | February 15, 2013, 12:59 am
  3. Hi Elizabeth,

    What sucks me in is a problem the heroine needs to solve. She could take any one of different paths. I have to be interested in her choice.

    Love your book cover!

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 15, 2013, 6:31 am
  4. Very helpful and fun, Elizabeth, and thank you.

    You provided exactly the boot in the posterior I needed to turn my blah opener into blazing in my WIP.

    A note, though. It’s a common error these days, especially in romances for some reason, but callous means hard-hearted. Your hero should have “callused” fingers.

    Posted by Faith | February 15, 2013, 7:41 am
    • Glad you found the article helpful, Faith. I thought I’d read that callous was an accepted alternate spelling, kind of like blonde/blond. I’ll need to look into that.

      Posted by Elisabeth Staab | February 15, 2013, 9:45 am
      • Oh, well. I’ve been editing manuscripts for 9 days straight, so I definitely have my picky hat on. Sorry ’bout that, the alternate spelling is a new one for me.

        I turn up amazing and little known facts all the time. The other day I decided to check whiskey/whisky and learned that whiskey with an e refers to Irish, and without an e to Scottish (scotch). And that blonde is for women and blond is for men-talk about splitting hairs!

        *sigh* It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it!

        Posted by Faith | February 15, 2013, 10:03 am
  5. Morning Elizabeth!

    Oh I love a good opening. I’ve made it past some mediocre ones, and some truly terrible ones and finished reading the book but the good ones? You always remember those!

    The best opening I’ve read recently was Nora Roberts Witness. That book had me by the third paragraph and I wouldn’t set it down for nothing! =) I keep trying to analyze how she does it…..lol…but then I’m off and reading the book again!

    Great post!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 15, 2013, 9:15 am
  6. OOoooh, I think you wrote this for me. One of the stories I’m working on *cough* originally started with a scene that, as someone noted, was written to sneak in backstory in the guise of a conversation. Nope, didn’t work. So I rewrote it with an action opening. The trouble was, I got so bogged down in that action scene, it took on a life of its own.

    Now that I’ve let the story sit for awhile, (Okay, it’s been a year.)I’m revisiting the opening scene again. I’m about to chop the action scene and try again. Opening scenes are important, so they weigh heavily on me when I’m writing them. You’d think by now I’d have figured it out, but I don’t think I’ve ever written an opening scene that hasn’t been rewritten countless times. Ugh.

    But your post has the old cogs in the brain spinning again. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 15, 2013, 9:32 am
  7. Ooh, those are the best kind. I think I’ve heard the opening of that book, too! And you’ve just reminded me that I want to read the rest so I can find out what happens!

    Posted by Elisabeth Staab | February 15, 2013, 9:47 am
    • I don’t remember the first line, but I came across Shana Abe’s book THE QUEEN OF DRAGONS in a bookstore sometime back and flipped it open to the first page. I got so sucked in I found a chair and by the time my daughter had found a book she wanted, I’d finished the first chapter. I read the whole book that night, and the next day went back for the first books in that series.

      Adrienne mentioned Harlan Coben, who I also like. I think with suspense and thrillers, in particular, the first line – or first scene – often hooks me on the whole book.

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 15, 2013, 11:17 am
  8. Elisabeth – Hey! Thanks for coming by today. As always, you are fab!

    Posted by Robin Covington | February 15, 2013, 12:51 pm
  9. Hey Elizabeth, hey Robin–I really liked this article!

    I just submitted a novel last night to a publisher and I really needed to read this post today. I’d done exactly what you talked about — I’d cut down the first big scene that ate up a lot of pages and introduced a ton of people you never see again. Then I skipped right off to the next super-juicy dramatic part at the airport. 50 pages and three chapters went bye-bye.

    I was sitting here this morning having my usual bought of second-guessing-myself-hangover that I get after submitting my work, hoping I did the right thing. This post was a balm to my spirit.

    I’m a new member of WRW, and I organize romance panels for Love Fest at Virginia Festival of the Book–and I put your names in the hopper for consideration next year (2014).

    Hope I see you at a WRW meeting one day. :)

    Posted by madeline iva | February 16, 2013, 8:57 am
  10. I thought this post was going to be about speed writing. But this was even better as it was so timely for a point that I’ve been making with a few authors I’m editing. Stories need action.

    By editing others, I find myself making harsh cuts in my own writing. No more meandering “set up the story” paragraphs or scenes. Get to it. Speed!

    Posted by PatriciaW | February 19, 2013, 9:44 am

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