Sometimes, you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression, and that adage applies to the beginning of your story. Virginia Heath returns to talk about elements that factor into a line that will grab and keep a reader’s attention.
Welcome back, Virginia!
‘Jack Markham, lately christened the Earl of Braxton, brought his horse to a stop on the brow of the hill just as the first rays of the sun burnt through the hazy mist of the early…’ Zzzzzzzzzzz sorry I nodded off there!
Those were the uninspiring first lines of my doomed, never-to-be-published first attempt at a historical romance novel. If the reader had a convenient pair of matchsticks at the ready to prop open their drooping eyes, the story then went into a great deal of description about the fictitious place he happened to be riding in. I think the story actually started somewhere around page five. Five wasted pages where I should have hooked my reader and made them want to continue reading my book. I’ve come a long way since then.
My dreary beginning aside, there have been some cracking first lines in literature. “All children, except one, grow up.” I read J M Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ from cover to cover when I was eight. He had me from the first evocative sentence. Even at that young age, his words hooked me and dragged me into his world. The concept of one boy remaining a child forever was beyond appealing. Since then, there have been certain opening lines which I will never forget. They all come from my favourite books, but there is one which I love more than all of the others combined. “Being dead didn’t make Jack Mercy less of a son of a bitch. One week of dead didn’t offset sixty-eight years of living mean.” These words were written by Nora Roberts in ‘Montana Sky’, the very first book of hers I read and consistently at number one on my top ten list.
Like all great opening lines, it picks you up from where you are and plonks you exactly where the author wants you, ready to enjoy the rest of their story. I remember reading it on my daily commute, sat on a hot London tube in the middle of July. I used to read a book a week in those days to while away the hour-long journey between my house and my poorly paid researching job at the BBC. One minute I was sat squished between a large, hairy fellow who smelled of garlic and a younger man who clearly felt the need to assert himself by man-spreading into my slim, allotted bit of space on the Central Line, and the next I was stood at a dusty graveside in Montana watching the son-of-a-bitch being lowered into the ground. I was so engrossed in the book, I missed my stop. And I couldn’t find the will to care.
The way you start a book is important, and I have to confess it is something I ponder long and hard. And quite rightly. Those first few words can be crucial in deciding whether or not your reader is going to enjoy your story. In fact, I’ve seen many a person in a book shop read the blurb on the back of the book then open the first page to see if they like the writer’s style before buying. If you don’t believe me, sit in a bookstore and people watch. It is staggering how many people discard a book when the first paragraph doesn’t attract them!
So where do you start a story? Something I have found helps is to plot a loose timeline of the things that need to happen for my story to get going. Even though I am a panster by nature and never really know what going to happen with the rest of the book, I do have a vague idea of what happens in the beginning, otherwise I would never start anything. Let me show you what I mean.
I have just finished writing a story about a kidnapped heiress. Obviously, the kidnapping is significant because without it, she never gets to meet the hero and fall hopelessly in love with him. In my head, the timeline went like this.
1. A mean old earl wants to marry the heroine for money.
2. Evil uncle invites heroine into his study and slips her a glass of drugged wine.
3. In a semi-conscious state, the heroine overhears him talking to the mean old earl and discovers they intend to take her to Gretna Green and force her to marry him. Afterwards, they are probably going to kill her.
4. Heroine is bound, gagged and put in a coach. 5. After almost a day in captivity, the mean old earl falls asleep and she throws herself from the moving carriage and runs for her life.
There’s a lot of stuff there, enough, if I wrote it all to fill several chapters. Initially, I started the story bang in the middle of my timeline with the words ‘The walls began to spin and the floor listed. Letty realised all was not well when her knees gave way and she crumpled to the floor.’
It’s not a bad start, and I went to bed happy. Inevitably, that is where the insomnia kicked in. Those first words might well be good but it still meant there was a long way to go to be in a position for her to meet the hero. And that really was my story. Did I really want to waste valuable pages exploring the terror of the kidnapping in such great deal when I needed to start building the foundations for the necessary conflict within the love story?
And did I really want the reader to think my feisty heroine was a victim? At about 2am in the morning, I realised the love story was more important and I had to take the shears ruthlessly to my opening timeline. Points one through to four could all be dripped in via dialogue or inner musings later on. They were, ultimately, backstory. The most crucial thing was to set up the hero and heroines’ first meeting and to learn some pertinent things about their respective personalities.
The following morning when I woke up, my new opening was already in my head demanding to be written, and if I say so myself, I rather like it. ‘The thin cord dug into her wrists painfully. Letty ignored it to focus on the practicalities…’
What is the best way to open a story?
HER ENEMY AT THE ALTAR [Harlequin Historical – August 2016]
An unexpected end to the Wincanton–Stuart feud…?
Scandal broke last night when Lady Constance Stuart was discovered in the arms of Aaron Wincanton, the son of her family’s greatest enemy! But now we can reveal an even more shocking development. Our sources say a special license was obtained and the two were married before sunrise! It’s been confirmed that Aaron has stolen his new bride away to the country to begin their unexpected marriage. We’ll be watching closely to see exactly what happens when a gentleman invites his enemy into his bed…
Bio: I live on the outskirts of London with my understanding husband and two, less understanding, teenagers. After spending years teaching history, I decided to follow my dream of writing for Harlequin.
Now I spend my days happily writing regency romances, creating heroes that I fall in love with and heroines who inspire me. When I’m not doing that, I like to travel to far off places, shop for things that I do not need or read romances written by other people.
- Easy? I wish… by Virginia Heath
- Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: How to Begin a Romance, by Helena Fairfax
- Erratic Breathing and the Steely Glare by Virginia Heath
- Carve Out a Better Beginning with Dave Thome
- Hit the Ground Running! (Grabbing an Editor’s/Reader’s Attention With The First Line)