I’ve watched romance readers choosing their book selection in stores. The number who open the book to scan the first page is high. Maybe they’re looking at the size of the font, or the amount of dialogue. Me, I’m looking for an interesting opening premise. Usually I get that from the back cover, but an intriguing hook at the beginning will entice the potential reader further. There’ll be something that gives a sense of great things to come. An invitation to excitement and reading pleasure. A hint of mystery that triggers anticipation, like a door to a hidden new world, just waiting to be opened.
We’ve heard it again and again. We need to hook the reader, and the sooner the better. In a category romance we have less time to do that than in single title stories. A reader picking up a book of around 50,000 words expects to be drawn into the story straight away.
There’s something almost magical about starting a story. Some writers (me included) will jump in boots and all, even though they have only the first scene in their head, because the action and characters are so vivid and there’s a question or problem so intriguing it begs to be written. Others will plot carefully before they start, but they’ll still focus on squeezing the most out of that opening.
Generally our stories start at the point of change in the hero or heroine’s life. Maybe the point when hero and heroine meet for the first time, or are reunited, or when one of them is in danger. There is something happening that signals this is a significant moment for the characters. That signal can be in the first chapter, first page or even the opening line. Here some examples of first lines that grabbed me, taken quickly from my shelves:
She awoke in a coffin. ‘The Sea Wife’ by Holly Cook. I defy anyone to read that and not read on!
Dangling a man upside down by the ankles outside a London ballroom was not how Maxwell Brooke had anticipated spending his first Thursday night as the Duke of Lyle. ‘The Dangerous Duke’ by Christine Wells. We all love a man of action but now we want to find out why he’s doing this.
Come in and take off all your clothes. ‘Big-Shot Bachelor' by Nicola Marsh. What more do I need to say?
It was a filthy night. Which suited Dante Carrazzo’s filthy mood right down to the ground. ‘The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge’ by Trish Morey. After reading that I’m already looking forward to the fireworks.
This Lass is nowt like any whore I’ve ever seen. ‘Untouched’ by Anna Campell. Then we discover a few paragraphs later that the heroine is strapped to bench, unable to move...A real page turner.
By the time Emily Quest realised what sort of party it was it was too late to storm out in a fit of moral outrage. ‘Accidental Mistress’ by Susan Napier. This tells us something about the heroine, the setting and instantly intrigues. What is she doing there and what will happen next?
Tally heard the guttural shouts seconds before the gunfire. ‘The Sheikh’s Disobedient Bride’ by Jane Porter. What a way to make us instantly sympathise with the heroine!
His wife? How she have forgotten something like that? Someone like him? ‘Claiming his Runaway Bride’ by Yvonne Lindsay. How could you go past an opening like that?
OK, so writing a successful romance isn’t just about the opening line. But an opening that thrusts us straight into the action grabs reader interest or sympathy. It makes us want to keep reading. The action need not be physical. It might be the heroine’s emotional turmoil or the hero’s filthy mood as he faces his last hurdle on the way to getting what he’s worked his whole life to achieve.
Not all romances have a snappy first line but the first chapter will contain a hook for the reader. Something to make us read on, despite the fact that we should turn out the light or cook dinner or clean the bathroom. So many juicy scenarios...the bride at the altar who hears the voice of her first husband claiming they’re still married... The heroine who is mistaken for someone else in the worst possible circumstances... The hero who has lost his memory and can’t remember the woman he apparently loves... The woman who finds the one man she can’t avoid is the one who fathered her child – the child he doesn’t know about...
I’ve had enormous fun starting stories with a scene that I hoped would intrigue a reader, mainly because they intrigued me! I think that’s part of the joy of being a writer: creating a situation that makes you curious and involved so you want to write on and discover how the situation is resolved. For instance an opening where the heroine is wearing a swimsuit, handcuffs and manacles (The Sheikh’s Ransomed Bride). And a first chapter that ended with a very grumpy hero saying to the heroine ‘You surely don’t think I’d have celebrated my betrothal quite so publicly tonight if I’d known I still had a wife?’ (The Greek Tycoon’s Unexpected Wife).
Do you have a favourite opening hook? A favourite first line or opening premise or even a lusciously slow description that caught your imagination in a favourite book? For that matter, it could be a great hook in a movie. What stands out for you?
Annie’s current release in the UK and Australia/NZ is ‘The Desert King’s Pregnant Bride’. It starts with a woman walking a deserted country road at night in a storm wearing a cocktail dress, wellington boots and raincoat. A 4 WD pulls up and a stranger emerges... You can find out what happens next on her website.