What is it about the first line of a book that keeps you tethered to the story or the perfect ending that makes a story memorable? Today, best-selling historical author, Nicola Cornick, shares tips on writing the all important hook and ending that leaves a lasting impression on your reader.
Welcome to RU, Nicola!
Hello everyone and thank you very much to RU for inviting me to visit. It’s a great pleasure to be here! Today I’m going to be talking about beginnings and endings – how to grab the reader’s attention at the start of your book and how to wrap the story up with a final line that will stay long in the memory.
I have a confession to make. I’m an impatient reader. If a book doesn’t grab me on the first page I am tempted to give up on it already. I want it to catch my interest from the very first line and never let it go. One of the books I read when I was in my teens has one of the most memorable first lines in literature:
“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…” This, of course, is from Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier. For me this summed up the power of the first line. It’s intriguing. It drew me in.
We all want to write a first line that is so memorable that people instantly recognise it and are pulled into the story from the off. Big newspaper stories always start with the headline, not 10 pages of back story. Back story comes later once the reader is hooked.
Here are some of my other favourites, examples of classic first lines that draw the reader in.
“He was drunk. Gloriously drunk. More drunk – drunker – than he had ever been.” Stephanie Laurens, On A Wicked Dawn
“It had been too long since he had bedded a woman.” Lisa Kleypas, Lady Sophia’s Lover.
“Kayla Green cranked up the volume on her favourite playlist and blocked out the sound of festive music and laughter wafting under her closed office door. Was she the only person who hated this time of year?” Sarah Morgan, Sleigh Bells in the Snow.
Every one of those first lines makes an impact. They make the reader sit up and pay attention. They GRAB you.
A story begins at the point where things are about to change. Something is happening. There’s a mystery or a crisis. The first line raises the reader’s expectation and sets the mood and style of the book.
I try to keep beginnings simple, sharp and direct. There may be an element of danger or something unexpected. I wanted the opening of the first book in my Scottish Brides series, The Lady and the Laird, to create an atmosphere that was a little bit mysterious and other-worldly:
“It was a night made for magic. The moon was new that night and the sea was a thread of shining silver. The wind sighed through the pine trees and there was the scent of salt on its edge.”
After the magical opening I bring my heroine Lucy and my hero Robert together for an encounter on the moonlit terrace.
I’m a great believer in getting my protagonists on the page in front of the reader as soon as I can. I want to spin their story, show their dilemma and outline their conflict. I’m not necessarily suggesting that the hero and heroine have to meet or be together on the very first line of the first page if that doesn’t fit the story but I think it’s important to introduce my protagonists to the reader from the off so that she/he can identify with them and start to build a relationship with them. The combination of an intriguing first paragraph and characters that are immediately engaging will hook the reader.
Another way to start the book is with a conversation. But my advice would be don’t start at the beginning of the conversation, start in the middle. “You want what?” The hero asks and the reader immediately wants to know too.
Here’s a summary of my tips for writing sparkling opening pages:
- Establish clearly who is your point of view character
- Write a powerful first line
- Have a strong hook in your first paragraph
- Establish setting with fast, effective narrative and sharp dialogue
- Incorporate action – something must be happening
And most important, especially for the historical romance, don’t dump too much research into the story too soon!
Naturally there are exceptions to these rules. (There are always exceptions!) There’s a school of thought that says that we have short attention spans these days and all lead such busy lives that you can’t afford a chapter of build up before you get into the story. Fine. Yet although I said I was an impatient reader, I don’t necessarily demand action all the way. Intrigue is equally powerful. Some of my favourite historical novels have “quiet openings”, paragraphs of build up before the story proper starts. The one that springs immediately to mind is Frenchman’s Creek, again by Daphne Du Maurier:
“When the east wind blows up Helford river the shining waters become troubled and disturbed, and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores. The short seas break above the bar at ebb-tide, and the waders fly inland to the mud-flats, their wings skimming the surface, and calling to one another as they go…”
There are 22 paragraphs, a whole chapter, before the action of the story starts. But none of those words are wasted because as well as being beautiful and lyrical, they have a tension, a build up, almost a menace. The reader is waiting for something to happen. And as the paragraphs flow past he or she is drawn in, turning the pages, anxious to know what happens.
I think that the historical lends itself to this sort of set up. You can set the rich tone and atmosphere with your build up and I’m sure if Daphne Du Maurier were trying to sell that book now she would still be successful. I hope so. But a word of caution. I think you need to be very sure of your word power to use this sort of beginning. Daphne du Maurier is a master of suspense. The tension in her writing is almost tangible. She builds it up brick by brick until the actual story bursts out and you’re hooked.
If you create a fantastic beginning the reader will start reading the book. You want them to keep reading. So each section, each chapter, needs a mini hook at the end and a strong beginning to the next section to keep them turning the pages. If you start a chapter with “James and Jan didn’t meet for a month…” Then the pace slackens and your reader might well put the book down and go and do the ironing instead.
At the start of this article we looked at first lines and paragraphs, but of equal importance is the way in which an author wraps the whole story up. The last line is the memory that you leave with the reader.
“And they all lived happily ever after” is the classic last line. It’s not just a formula – it’s a reassurance and it sums up the theme of the story. In fairy tales, folk tales and romances the story is about challenging that happiness, and the reassurance for the reader is that all is well and will continue to be so after the end of the book. Jane Austen uses this theme to end her books.
“The wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.”
The ending has to have a rhythm that sounds right and I think that Jane Austen’s books do have that natural final cadence.
At the end of my book One Wicked Sin when the hero has come back to claim the heroine and they fly off together in a balloon, I finish with the line “They were the talk of the Ton for years to come.” I was really happy with this ending because it is perfectly in keeping with the scandalous life the hero and heroine have led together. I felt it summed up the characters and their story.
Now it’s over to you. What is it that draws you into a story? Do you have a favourite first line – or a favourite final one? I’d love to hear your thoughts on beginnings and endings.
Join us on Thursday, December 12th when Janice Hardy shares Tips on Creating Conflict in Your Novel.
Nicola’s latest book, ONE NIGHT WITH THE LAIRD, released in October 2013.
A night of no return…
Lady Mairi MacLeod is young and beautiful, and fashionable Edinburgh’s most flirtatious hostess. But within the merry widow beats a grieving heart and she mourns the loss of her husband and the secrets she must keep. Desperately seeking to forget, she spends one night with Jack Rutherford, an accomplished rake, but their wanton night together is an encounter of the body only, and Lady Mairi would prefer to forget it.
A strong protector…
When Mairi is threatened by blackmail, Jack is the only man who can help her. As they work together to uncover where the danger lies, their passion reignites. Little by little, the masks they wear burn away, and their most private secrets come to light.
Bio: International bestselling author Nicola Cornick writes award winning historical romances for HQN Books. Nicola also acts as a historical advisor for television and radio, and works as a guide in a 17th century mansion. Visit her website or find her on Twitter @NicolaCornick and Facebook.
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- Hit the Ground Running! (Grabbing an Editor’s/Reader’s Attention With The First Line)
- Don’t Leave Me Hanging – Knockout Happy Endings with Traci Bell
- Dialogue in Historical Fiction with Nicola Cornick