Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Writers' Wednesday - Great Beginnings

What makes you decide the read a book? The cover, the back cover blurb, the familiar author’s name? Even the title? Today Annie West looks at the technique great books use to entice a reader – the opening hook.

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.


  1. Okay, Annie, how long have you got? These are some of my favourite openings from the books just within arm's reach:

    I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don't want to be married to him any more. David isn't even in the car park with me. He's at home, looking after the kids... (How To Be Good by Nick Hornby)

    The house he died in, on Sunday, 26 October 1997, was not far from the Canberra ambulance headquarters. (Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner)

    I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantlepiece in the room across the hall. (Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson)

    Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. (Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov)

    It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath)

    I love each of these for different reasons - and stand in awe of such wonderful openings.

    I could play this game forever. Wonderful topic, Annie!

  2. Michelle! Thanks for playing. Aren't openings wonderful things, and for so many different reasons? And it's not just the opening lines. One of my favourite openings if recent times was in your 'Loner's Guarded Heart' where the heroine is face to face with a vicious (?!) dog and ends up climbing the clothesline for safety. That was funny and poignant at the same time when we discovered so much about her character, and the hero's, when he turned up.

    What a great variety of openings you listed. The Sylvia Plath one really struck a chord and Nabokov really knows how to set up the story, doesn't he?


  3. Aw shucks, Annie! Thanks for your kind words - so pleased you liked the opening to 'The Loner'. I have to say - I did enjoy your heroine wearing the swimsuit, the handcuffs and manacles - had me on the edge of my seat. And Rafiq from that book is one of my all time favourite sheikhs!

    Since I've read your post, I've been trying to think of movie openings that have grabbed me. I love the way 'Love Actually' sets up all the separate story threads. And I watched 'Romancing The Stone' last week (thanks to Michelle Styles blog here) and the opening is perfect!

    What about you? Any movies popping into your head as contenders?

  4. Hi Annie
    I couldn't resist a quick comment. Beginnings are magical aren't they? The opening lines you list are fab and Michelle's too. I'm very fond of Dick Francis for great opening lines as well.

    "I looked at my friend and saw a man who had robbed me" -- High Stakes

    "Agony is socially unacceptable." -- Proof

    "Art Mathews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the centre of the parade ring at Dunstable races" -- Nerve

    "I was never particularly keen on my job before the day I got shot and nearly lost it, along with my life." -- Odds Against

    Yep, definitely need to keep working on mine!

  5. My favourite opening line is:

    "He needed a woman. Bad." Linda Howard -- MacKenzie's Mountain

    Its the one that's always stayed in my mind for so long. At the Shining Bright RWA Conference in Reno, Nevada, 2005, they led the Awards night with first lines and I swear, everyone in the auditorium went 'ah, I know that one,' when it was read out.

    Annie, I totally agree with you on the power of a strong opening. It instantly sets the tone of a book for the reader. And, just quietly, thank you for using one of mine! :-)

  6. Annie, what an interesting post! And I loved your examples - even the one from that awful Campbell woman! An opening that's often quoted as absolutely exemplary is a Jennifer Crusie one. I think the book is TELL ME LIES. Anyway, the heroine is cleaning out her husband's car and finds a pair of black lace panties. AND THEY'RE NOT HERS! The rhythm of the prose is just exactly right and you know immediately that you're in a for a madcap, fastpaced ride. Another favorite is the first line of Laura Kinsale's amazing FLOWERS FROM THE STORM. "He liked radical politics and had a fondness for chocolate." Somehow the juxtaposition of those two things makes me immediately want to get to know Christian, Duke of Jervaulx, better!

  7. Oh, and I meant to say I was there till the last page the moment I read the opening of THE DESERT KING'S PREGNANT BRIDE. It's such a great opening - dramatic and emotional and Khalid is such an amazing hero. Hubba Hubba. Or perhaps el hubba el hubba.

  8. Hi Michelle, so glad you enjoyed poor Belle's plight in THE SHEIKH'S RANSOMED BRIDE. I was so mean to the poor girl, but at least she got her happy ending (G).

    You're write about ROMANCING THE STONE, with her fantasies being acted out. I'd forgotten that one. And yes, isn't LOVE ACTUALLY clever, setting up all those stories?

    Do you know, my mind has gone blank, thinking of movies. James Bond comes to mind - that action sequence at the beginning is always such a draw card, isn't it? I recently watched a Harry Potter movie (Prisoner of Azkabhan) where Harry turns his vile aunt into a human helium balloon. You know from the start it wasn't going to be an ordinary movie! And RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK - that action packed opening is a real classic. I remember the first time I saw it and was on the edge of my seat.


  9. Hi Sharon,

    What tremendous opening lines. I particularly like the ones from PROOF and ODDS AGAINST. Don't they make you want to sit with a clean page and a pen and start writing?


  10. Yvonne, great quote from Linda Howard! I've been at a workshop where a whole range of terrific openings were read out and we were all nodding as we heard old favourites. And there were some great new ones too - always a good way to decide on a new author to try!

    As for including your quote - it was such a hook I couldn't resist! Worked for me.


  11. Hi Anna, I know the Jenny Crusie story you're talking about. In fact I almost used that in the blog but thought I'd aim for something different. It certainly snapped me to attention and drew me on to read more. I'd forgotten that opening from FLOWERS FROM THE STORM - intriguing in a totally different way, isn't it? Another favourite of mine is from VENUS IN COPPER by Lindsey Davis: 'Rats are always bigger than you expect.' It transpires that the hero is sharing his Roman prison cell with one...

    Thanks for the lovely comment about Khalid and Maggie's story. Getting that opening right took a bit of work. Smirking here at 'el hubba'!

    Oh, and please forgive any typos in my mails. I've already noticed 'write' instead of 'right'. I've been trying to type with phone and family members all interrupting (life is normal).


  12. I so agree with you about opening lines, Annie - I worry over mine so much and on those wonderful times when a really great first lines comes into my head then I know the book is going to work.

    I loved the opening to Desert King's Pregnant Bride - it grabbed me and made me want to read on.

    "...the bride at the altar who hears the voice of her first husband claiming they’re still married... "

    Hmm, now that sounds familiar! ;oD


  13. Kate, yes that line should sound familiar! I was thinking of you when I wrote it (VBG!).


  14. Great post, Annie! (and not just saying that because you liked my first line from Big-Shot Bachelor!)

    I'm a sucker for first lines.
    Love my interest to be grabbed from the very first.