Writing a novel is hard work. It takes a lot of skills. You have to create characters the reader cares about, a fantastic plot, conflict, pacing, setting, dialogue. You probably have to research some aspects of your story. And you’ve got to make sure your grammar and punctuation don’t distract.
But of prime importance is getting the reader into the story–which means a fantastic first sentence, a great first paragraph and a first chapter that will suck the reader in.
I have a friend who says too many authors indulge in “throat clearing.” Remember in Amadeus when Salieri accuses Mozart of using “too many notes.” It was meant as a joke in the movie. Not so funny in a novel. I’ve made up a name for “too many words.” I call it wundeling. And I also use the term to describe scenes where the hero or heroine is endlessly thinking the same thing over and over.
One of my favorite metaphors is-- start with a dead horse in the living room--plunge the reader into the middle of a situation. Don’t confront the reader with an information dump. Give her just enough details so she can follow along. You will have ample opportunity to fill in the background later.
I’m most likely to open with the hero or the heroine, as in CHAINED, my new Decorah Security novella. In the first scene, the heroine arrives home from work to find two thugs hiding in the house. They are there to murder her, and her immediate problem is to escape.
If you have trouble deciding how much background to put into the first scene or the first chapter, ask yourself, “Does the reader need to know this now? Or can I work in these details later?”
Here’s how CHAINED begins:
Isabella Flores pulled open the kitchen door and stopped in her tracks. The house felt wrong. Come to that, it smelled wrong. The familiar scents of the empanadas she’d cooked the night before and the cleaning solution she used on the floor still hung in the air. But they were over laid by the smell of sweat and stealth.
Moments ago she’d been prepared to fall into bed and sleep for the next eight hours, after an exhausting shift on the surgical floor at Phoenix General Hospital.
Instead, she backed out the door and started running, not toward the car she’d just left in the driveway but into the alley.
A blast of noise followed her, and she felt a bullet whiz past her head.
“Christo. Don’t let her get away,” a harsh voice shouted.
Two hombres. Waiting in the dark for her.
She’d hoped she was safe living in this quite, middle-class neighborhood, but she’d always been prepared for the worst. She kept two bags packed, one in the trunk of her car and the other in an SUV, hidden down the block.
She leaped the waist-high chain link fence of a neighbor’s yard on the other side of the alley, rolled into a flower bed, and lay with her heart pounding, praying that the men hadn’t seen her vanish into the shadows.
As two sets of heavy footsteps pounded toward her then sprinted past, she let out the breath she’d been holding. But she couldn’t stay here. When they didn’t find her, they’d double back. Which meant she had only minutes to make her escape.
If the first scene starts with the hero or heroine, you must make the reader like your character. Or have a darn good reason why we think this person is a jerk. If the heroine is doing something mean and petty at the beginning of the story, probably the reader’s going to be turned off.
In the beginning of CHAINED, I haven’t “told” you a lot, but I think you have a pretty good picture of what Isabella is like.
If you’re writing romance, you want the hero and heroine to meet as soon as possible. It's not a must, but in a romance you can't delay the meeting too long because the reader wants to follow the development of their relationship.
Another way to “get them together” at the beginning of the story is to alternate scenes from each point of view. These two people are not together, but you know they will be.
In a romance, the h/h are drawn to each other. But you must set up conflicts that will keep them from working out their differences until the end of the story.
In CHAINED, Isabella hides out at her father’s old ranch. And the hero’s there. Or is he? She thinks he died five years ago. Is his ghost haunting the ranch? Or is something else going on? Isabella and Matt were in love with each other but neither of them could act on the attraction. Now she’s alone with his ghost, and all the sexual longing comes bubbling to the surface. But how can she have a relationship with him? And is there a way to “bring him back to life?”
At the beginning of your story, you must give the reader some idea what these people look like, but it’s more important to have an interior picture of the main characters. What motivates them? What are their values? How do they react under stress? Don’t tell us. Illustrate these traits through their actions and reactions.
If your first chapter has the h/h interacting with secondary characters, don’t let the secondaries take over. The primary focus should be on the main characters.
Try to end the first chapter with a cliffhanger. A tantalizing last line that will have the reader wanting to turn the page and find out about the rest of the story.
Here’s how I ended the first chapter of CHAINED:
Although she saw nothing, she felt the force of the wind like a solid wave that would have knocked her off her feet, except that it held her fast. It felt like giant hands were on her, one clamping her shoulder. The other locked around her neck, choking off her breath so that she couldn’t even scream.
The unseen attacker lifted her off her feet, pressing her backwards, moving in a rush of chilled air toward the stable in back of her.
My beginnings tend to be action scenes where something dangerous is happening, usually to the hero or heroine. If I don’t think I can have a dynamic opening using the hero and or heroine, I might turn to a secondary character.
In my Decorah Security novel, DARK MOON, I start with a scene where a woman is being kidnapped. You don’t know much about her. But you know she’s in trouble. She’s not the heroine. She’s the victim that the hero and heroine are sent to rescue. But I started with her so the reader would understand the urgency and danger of the situation.
You could also give the villain the first scene. One of the most impressive examples of this is in THE KEY TO REBECCA, by Ken Follett. It has that famous first line, “The last camel died at noon.” In the scene, a Nazi spy is sneaking into World War II Cairo across the desert, and he almost loses his life in the attempt. Almost, but not quite. He survives to give the hero and heroine big problems.
Let me add a warning. Don’t promise the reader something you’re not going to deliver. You can’t write a fantastic first scene that will have nothing to do with the rest of the book. (Like in those old James Bond movies, where the opening was a set piece with no connection to the rest of the movie.) The initial action must tie into the story and start the character development that continues throughout the story along with your plot.
On the other hand, I never truly know my characters until I’ve written the first few chapters of my novel. I have ideas about what they’re like, but I can’t fully know them until they start reacting to the situations my plot creates.
And here’s a piece of good news. What you write isn’t set in stone just because the words are on the screen. You can always edit yourself later. My goal is often to “get it down” so I have something to work with. I can always make improvements later. And usually my second thoughts are a significant part of the finished product.
If you comment on my post, you can win a small stuffed wolf and one of my favorite Harlequin Intrigues.
Ever since she can remember, Rebecca York has loved making up stories full of adventure, romance, and suspense. As a child she corralled her friends into adventure games or acted out romantic suspense stories with a cast of dolls. But she never assumed she could be an author because she couldn't spell. Her life changed dramatically with the invention of the word processor and spelling checker--and the help of her husband, Norman Glick, who spots spelling errors from fifty paces away.
A New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly best-selling and award-winning author, Rebecca has written over 125 books and novellas. In 2011 she became the dozenth author to receive the Romance Writers of America Centennial Award for having written 100 romantic novels. Her Killing Moon was a launch title for Berkley’s Sensation imprint in June 2003. Five more books in the series have followed.
Rebecca has authored or co-authored over 65 romantic thrillers, many for Harlequin Intrigue's very popular 43 Light Street series, set in Baltimore, and many with paranormal elements.
When death is stalking, only a phantom can save her- and love her.
Fleeing to her father’s abandoned Arizona ranch to hide from political assassins, Isabella Flores is attacked by a ghost haunting the property. He’s Decorah Security agent Matthew Houseman, killed in the line of duty. Still, passion blooms between Isabella and Matthew, and as their relationship turns more physical, Matthew becomes more real to himself and to her.
After the ranch is attacked and Matthew helps save Isabella’s life, she learns a startling secret. There may be hope of bringing her ghost lover back–if she dares to risk everything.