Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Feature: Great Openings, by Ann Lethbridge

Today we're doing things a little different. Actually, we're not doing anything at all. Yesterday, as I perused my iReader, I came across a very pertinent post by multi-published author, Ann Lethbridge over at Seduced by History. It's a post I wish I'd had the good fortune to read in my early days of writing. So, without further adieu, I give you what all writers NEED, and MUST accomplish in their very first paragraph, sentence ...

More than a hook, a killer opening ...

Last week I had the privilege of reading a few five-hundred word story openings provided by aspiring authors. I was not being asked for a critique, so I was unable to offer advice and I didn't know their names, or anything about them.

I was concerned that almost all these openings suffered from what I saw as similar problems. If it had been possible for me to give feedback on these snippets, this is what I would have said.

  • A reader expects to be carried into your world in a very few lines or they might not get past the first page. One way to do this is to start with action, or dialogue. If you start where something is happening or even better, where everything changes for the worst for the point of view character, the reader will want to read on. People love conflict and disaster, so if you can hint at it, or even provide it at the beginning your book will open with a bang.
  • Providing the details up front of why and how a character arrived at the point when the book opens can cause a reader to yawn. For example, the character thinks about his miserable childhood, his awful time at school and his recent accession to a title, which will allow him to improve his life. In the meantime, nothing has happened in the story. This is an information dump. I see it over and over again in contests. It is also telling.
  • The best way for a reader to get to know your character is to see them in action. This character, for example, could be entering a ballroom, greeting people who in the past had snubbed him and piercing them with his superior wit. The reader would be intrigued. Why would this man act this way? Or he could dive in to rescue a citizen from a band of thugs in a bad part of town. Why is he there? Why is he willing to be involved? Show us whatever it is you want to show us about who this person is, or thinks he or she is right now, by having him or her react to their world. Intrigue us to read more by not telling us why.
  • Avoid large casts of characters in opening scenes. Readers can be confused and/or impatient with too many people to keep track of, especially when they don't know who is important to the story.
  • Don't have your character physically describe themselves, either by looking in a mirror, or by thinking about their appearance. She turned her bewitching blue eyes on her visitor, is, if you turn it into the characters' own thoughts: I turned my bewitching blue eyes on my visitor. How often do you think about the nature and color of your eyes when you look at someone entering your front door? If you can put yourself inside your point of view character's head, see only what they see, feel only what they feel, your reader will be right there with you. And they will want to read on.
  • Know where your story starts. I have this terrible habit of wanting to write prologues full of action. My editor is very smart. She makes me take them out. Writing the prologue puts my head in the right place for the story. Deleting it, doesn't spoil or change the story at all, indeed it leaves a question to be answered later when the reader needs to know the answer. Don't start your story too early. Start where things begin to go wrong, often in a romance at the point the hero and heroine meet.
  • If your book starts with a bang, in the middle of action with conflict, with questions, try to keep the tension going. Don't have your character go off and change their gown, for example, so you can get in some description, while the furious hero waits in the drawing room. Have her confront him right away. Keep the reader wanting to know what is going to happen next and keep things happening.
  • A great first line is wonderful. An art form if done well. If it is followed up by telling and passages of description, its impact is lost.
  • Look at the openings of your favorite authors. What did they do right? Were you bored but only continued reading because you knew in the end they would deliver? Did you skip ahead? Were you breathlessly intrigued? An editor who is breathlessly intrigued by your opening page or two might well buy your book.

Do I perfect openings? No, but I do strive for them and try to keep all these points in my head. I think I spend more time on the opening paragraphs than I do on any other scene in the book. I hope these little pointers will be of as much help to you as they are to me.

Ann writes Regency Historicals for Harlequin. Her next book, The Gamekeeper's Lady is available December 1, 2010. You can find her at her blog http://www.regencyramble.blogspot.com or her website http://www.annlethbridge.com
After reading Ann's post, I rushed over to my bookshelf and chose about ten of my recent reads. This is what I came up with ...

1. "They came for her at dawn. Through the long, dark hours Elizabeth had stared from the window at the garden made darker by the rain ..." The Queen's Captive, Barbara Kyle

Why this line? I'm not going to lie, I was sold at, 'They came for her at dawn.' The line is brilliant. Came for who? And why had they come at such an ungodly hour? What has she done, or rather been accused of doing? I want to know.

2. "Every woman should marry for her own advantage since her husband will represent her, as visible as her front door, for the rest of her life." The Other Queen, Philippa Gregory

The every woman line ... how true! In times gone by, woman of the noble class were seen as no more than chattel to be pawned, married off, well, and, expected to produce an heir. Yet one gets the impression that THIS woman knew her worth, and moved through life accordingly.

3. "The city reeked of sweat and grime. Eidolon's citizens gathered in the chilly, dank air of the commons, their eyes turned to the cloaked figure standing tethered to a post on the center platform ... musing over the prisoner's identity." Son of Ereubus, J.S. Chancellor

Immediately, I was drawn into Chancellor's world, of fear and anticipation of an execution, but who is it? I wanted to read on to find out.

I can't stress enough how critical it is for new writers to carefully craft a truly genius first line, paragraph, and even chapter. So, now 'tis your turn ... What are some of your favorite opening paragraphs?

Big thanks to Ann for allowing us to feature her post on our blog!



  1. Awesome! Thanks for sharing this valuable post.

  2. Great find AJ and a huge thanks for Ann for letting us post this.

  3. Um, ladies? No favorite openings??? And, yes, a big thanks to Ann!

  4. Thank you, Ann. Here's the first line from Julia Harper's "HOT". "In Turner Hasting's opinion, the bank robbery didn't go truly bad until Yoda shot out the skylight." I've just finished reading this book for the third time and I still bust a gut laughing!

  5. From Dori Ostermiller's "Outside the Ordinary World"

    "I'm pacing circles in the family therapist's waiting room, trying to discern what my daughter is saying on the other side of that door. Hannah hasn't spoken to me in days, but she seems to have plenty to say to a stranger..."

  6. WOW, this is an awesomely, wicked blog.
    Thanks so much for posting this!

  7. oh, forgot to say, the site looks great!

  8. Thanks so much ladies. After I read Ann's post, I knew I had to share it with everyone :-)

  9. Great advice, Anne, and thanks for sharing, AJ.

  10. this is awesome...thanks for sharing! I can't think of any openings right now...but what ann has said it true from a readers point of view

  11. Very nice tips, thanks for sharing.

  12. I have so enjoyed all your comments, thank you for coming by. And thanks to AJ for inviting me. She did a great job on teasing out those first paragraphs. They give us all something to aim for.

  13. Ann, thanks so much for letting us post. It's great when published authors interact with the still aspiring. It means a lot.

  14. This is a great list of things to keep in mind for our opening pages. Thanks!

  15. I was really nervous about reading this, sure that it would start me second guessing my opening, but in fact, all it did was help assure me that I did a great job! So thanks (except for the prologue part, but it still works...).