After the long, cold winter many of us had this year, it’s almost impossible not to look at the snow melting and the flowers blooming with a sigh of relief. There is hope, always, when springtime makes itself known. There is the promise that dark mornings will give way to sunlight and that warmth will replace the shivering of fingers and toes. Ah, spring! It’s a new beginning, with all kinds of new life poking through.
I think that’s why we love story beginnings so much, right? There’s such excitement when you turn to that first page; anything can happen. A character might leap off the page and astound you (or frighten you or offend you or intrigue you…). A setting might whisk you away from reality. A fragment of conversation might pique your interest and make you wonder just what’s going on.
Beginnings are tricky to write, though. Books on the craft of writing abound, and many of them talk in detail about how to structure the opening of your story in just the right way, to hook and keep the reader. Some of the advice always includes the following:
*Don’t start too early. Readers don’t need backstory about your characters in your first line (or even in your first chapter)
*Start with a mystery/some kind of intrigue that immediately makes the reader want to know more.
*Begin with dialogue – thrust your reader right into the middle of a conversation. BUT…
*Keep talk to a minimum – remember that your reader won’t know who any of your characters are when they begin reading. Make sure to ground the dialogue in character or situation context.
*Introduce your voice.
*Establish a mood. What kind of mood is up to you! Do you want suspense? Glee? Frustration? Just where are you starting your story (which brings us back to the first point)
Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d take a look at the first sentences of the books I’ve written and see how well I think they work (some definitely work better than others).
"Get out!" shouted Dakota James as she threw Sean McCabe's jeans - her favorite pair, she noted bitterly, faded in all the right places - across the room. (from One Night in Memphis) – This story was a reader favorite and an EPPIE finalist in 2009. I love this first line because it immediately sets up the conflict that drives most of the plot: a breakup, fiery and laced with reluctance.
Grant Walker knew it was going to be a long day when he woke up and couldn't remember the name of the woman lying next to him. (from One Night in Napa) – Also a reader favorite, especially of the three One Night books. I think this one works because Grant's playboy personality (and how it both gets him in trouble and ultimately changes) is a major focus of the plot.
Summer stared at the solid silver container holding her father's remains. (from Summer's Song) Establishes some intrigue and definitely the conflict that the heroine faces from page one. A dead father. A stoic reaction. What comes next?
"We're out of time." (from One Night in Boston.) I used dialogue here in the opening of my first published novel, heavy on the emphasis of "twenty-four hours" to solve a problem and reach a goal.
Set back from the street, its original coffee color faded to a dusky beige, the house on Lycian Street waited. (from Lost in Paradise) This is the only one of my books that begins with a prologue. While this opening line doesn't engage the same way the others do, it does establish mood and the setting where everything - the good, the bad, the sexy - takes place.
So there you have it! Some opening lines have more power than others, some engage on a different level than others. Regardless, it is something to think about: the power of a beginning, the promise that it holds. Happy spring, everyone! May it give way to all things warm and wonderful in the months to come!