This is another topic that has made me take a good look at my own writing. My first thought is that it’s vital to have an opening that hooks the reader. Some people say a killer opening is even more important now, since online stores like Amazon have a facility to “Look inside” the book, or to download the first few pages as a sample.
They say readers have too much choice and a short attention span, and we have to be hooked immediately or you lose us. But I think back to the days when there was no Amazon and I could only obtain books from bookshops or libraries. I used to do exactly the same thing before choosing a book – check out the blurb, and then have a read of the opening to see if it grabbed me. If I wasn’t hooked, I put the book back.
Stories have always had to grab the reader from the opening. That’s exactly what a good story-teller does. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic opening, with bombs or car chases. It just has to set up a scene that makes the reader think, ‘I wonder what happens next?’ I expect when cavemen sat round the fire telling stories, they always began in a way that would grab their listeners’ interest.
I’ve also heard people say that writers now can’t afford a long, meandering description for an opening, which books used to have in the past. But I struggle to think of any classic novel that doesn’t begin with a great hook. Charles Dickens has some brilliant openings. I think of the convict Magwitch grabbing Pip in the foggy cemetery in Great Expectations, or of the grizzled father and daughter on the Thames, trawling for bodies in the opening to Our Mutual Friend, and the girl’s look of dread and horror. A long while ago I wrote a post on great openings in fiction. If you’re interested in checking it out, you can find it here (and see if you can guess them!)
A while ago, too, I wrote a post called Let’s Start at the Very Beginning for the website Romance University on the subject of creating a great opening to a romance novel. It goes into writerly detail on “the inciting incident”, etc, and expands on the things I’ve said in this post.
As for my own books, I write and write and re-write my openings time and time again until I feel that a) I have written something interesting enough to hook the reader and b) the book is starting with something relevant to the story – i.e. not just a gripping incident for the sake of it – and c) I’m starting when the action starts, and not with a lot of backstory.
Over the summer I’ll be releasing a short story I wrote for an anthology. The story is called Come Date Me in Paris. Here’s how it opens:
Alice stood outside the door to her neighbour’s apartment, trying to quell the queasiness in her stomach. It was Saturday, and Edmond had been cooking his usual weekend breakfast. A delicious aroma of pancakes, crushed blueberries and coffee drifted through the door. It should have been a comforting smell – a smell that conjured up leisurely mornings dressed in pajamas, immersed in the pages of a book. Not this morning, though. As soon as Alice thought of cooking, she thought of what she was about to let herself in for, and her insides turned to mush.
She raised her hand, ready to knock.
‘Come on,’ she cajoled herself. ‘How hard can it be? A man who can cook like that isn’t going to bite.’
I’ve rewritten the start to this story several times. Hopefully it now starts in a place that will leave the reader wanting to know what happens next, and that it starts in the place where the real story begins – with Alice meeting Edmond.
The opening to a book is crucial, but…sometimes writers focus on the opening, and then let the rest of the book either drift away or rush towards an unsatisfactory conclusion. It’s not just novel writers who do this. How many times have you watched a film or TV programme – sometimes a whole TV series – and been massively disappointed in the ending?
Writers have to keep that momentum going and keep the reader turning the pages, but they also have to have an ending that delivers and that the reader feels satisfied by. Since I write romance, it’s obvious how my stories are going to end, but I like to make sure they end in a way that’s totally uplifting and gives the reader an “aah” feeling, instead of just fizzling out.
This guest post was contributed by Helena Fairfax. Helena writes engaging contemporary romances with sympathetic heroines and heroes she’s secretly in love with. Her novels have been shortlisted for several awards, including the Exeter Novel Prize, the Global Ebook Awards, and the I Heart Indie Awards. Her first novel was written through the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme.