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Monday, February 18, 2008

Writing Great Beginnings

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor 

What Makes a Great Beginning?An opening line that grips you so that you have to keep reading and lures you into turning the pages, otherwise known as a hook.
The First SentenceThe first line must be compelling, riveting, and gripping. Think of the first sentence as bait. You want to reel your reader into your story until they are so wrapped up into the characters and plot that they don’t want to put it down.

Before readers can get to know the characters, they must keep reading through several pages. Your job as author is to start out with a hook and keep adding hook upon hook. You can do this by introducing obstacles to keep the issue from being solved, layer the plot with more angles, or bring a new character into the scene. The possibilities are endless. Don’t let your characters resolve their problems. Add enough burdens that it seems hopeless without a miracle. As you do this, make sure you stay within boundaries of what is believable and realistic. Of course, fantasies and superhero stories are exceptions.
How do You Grip Readers?Meet Readers’ ExpectationsEverything depends on the kind of book you’re writing. Your first few sentences will set the tone for the whole book. If you’re writing a humorous chick-lit contemporary, you wouldn’t have an opening line that sounds melodramatic using 18th century language.

Readers choose books by authors they’ve read before and the genre they like to read. Then they go by book covers and excerpts on the back or inside dust jackets. And finally, they flip to the first page and test a sample of your writing. The words you use as bait had better deliver to the reader’s expectations or your book is going right back on the shelf.

If a reader goes to the Western section and sees a rodeo cowboy on the front cover, he isn’t going to be happy to read about a medieval knight on the first page. He’s expecting to read an opening line that sounds like a cowboy. Which sentence do you think is more appropriate to a Western?

  • Jake high-tailed it back to the ranch, hoping he wasn’t too late.
  • Lord Jake instructed his carriage driver to hurry back to the estate before it was too late.
  • Appeal to EmotionsA romantic suspense reader is hoping to read a mixture of a suspense thriller and a love story. An author of this story might have an opening line of murder, a high-speed chase, a fearful night alone in the park—anything that would get the reader’s adrenaline flowing and create an air of mystery.

    A humorous story might start out with a character in some precarious predicament who keeps getting into foolhardy issues after another. This reader will want to chuckle and laugh until embarrassed for the fictitious character.

    The author who writes drama may open a scene filled with pain and heartache. It could be a funeral, a character watching a loved one pass away, a serious injury that will be forever life-altering, or perhaps a sad memory. This reader wants to be touched and moved by emotion.
  • Set the Tone
  • Action – Open with action for a fast-paced novel such as thrillers, suspense, and some contemporaries.
  • Dialogue – Use dialogue when a character has something to reveal or risk.
  • Description – Consider description when the setting is significant to the scene such as an eerie night, a historical to establish time and place, or a tranquil novel.
  • Introspection – Start out inside a character’s thoughts when you want to immediately reveal internal conflict, the mental state, and motives behind upcoming actions.
  • Establish CharacterizationEven if you will be writing in more than one point of view (POV) throughout the book, it’s best to begin in the character’s POV you will use most often and who has the most at stake in the scene. Readers typically identify with the first character as the main character of the book.

    When creating great beginnings, the best thing you can do is study the technique of authors whose writing you admire in the genre you’re writing. Then practice…practice…practice.

    Examples of Beginnings
    If there was one thing Josie Miller knew, it was the smell of a rich man. And whoever had just walked into the diner smelled like Fort Knox. (Her Unlikely Family, Missy Tippens)

    Larson Jennings had lived this moment a thousand times over, and it still sent a chill through him. (Rekindled, Tamera Alexander)

    Annabelle Grayson McCutchens stared at the dying man beside her and wished, as she had the day she married him, that she loved her husband more. (Revealed, Tamera Alexander)

    “Sure you wanna do this, Montgomery?” Fellow U.S. Air Force Pararescue Jumper Nolan Briggs asked above the engine hum. (A Soldier’s Promise, Cheryl Wyatt)

    “You always have to be a hero, don’t you?” It seemed unfair that, at the most inopportune of moments, Sarai Curtiss’s accusations could split Roman’s mind like lightning, cutting right to the fears that lurked in the darkest corners of his heart. (Sands of Time, Susan May Warren)

    “Saints above, girl. What are you doing here?” the shackled man hissed. (A Bride Most Begrudging, Deeanne Gist)

    Carol Burke would never forget the day Jonathon drove over her heart. At least, that’s what it felt like. (A Carol for Christmas, Robin Lee Hatcher)

    Charlisse bolted upright in bed, her heart pounding. The ship’s tiny cabin rocked back and forth. She grabbed the bedpost to keep from being tossed onto the floor. (The Redemption, M.L. Tyndall)

    The young mother bent over the crib rail, and her tear fell onto her sleeping son’s cheek. The scents of formula, baby powder, and newborn filled her nostrils. Pain seared her heart. (Reluctant Runaway, Jill Elizabeth Nelson)


    I liked your examples. :-D

    Great post, Jenn! Very insightful.

    And how fun to see my opening line there. :) (Again, I have to give partial credit to Lindi Peterson for helping me with that opening line!)


    Wonderfully informative! Thank you so much!

    Very good tutorial. I love the examples and the useful suggestions.

    NathanKP - The Ink Weaver Collection - Writing Blog