Improving your craft: Writing a smart opening

Today in our ongoing series, Improving your craft, we’re going to talk a little bit about your novel’s opening.

How many times have you gone to Amazon to check out an advertised book, launched the Look Inside feature, and then walked away without buying?

Probably more often than you’d like. But why?

Lack of tension.

Let’s illustrate this with an example.

Our romance between Jack and Jill starts with two chapters of Jill’s backstory. We learn that she just got out of a bad relationship. Her friends think she’s been hiding in her apartment too long. They look at her yoga pants and sweatshirt and march her into her bedroom, where they pick out a sexy outfit, then spend a page or two helping her with her makeup, and finally, they drag her to a bar.

Two bars later, after we’ve learned how many drinks she’s had, and how many guys she’s turned down,¬†and we’ve passed page forty-two in the manuscript, she finally meets Jack.

Now, backstory can be important. If your characters spring to life on the first page, they have no depth. And without depth, readers won’t truly care what happens to them. But, though YOU as the author must know your characters’ backstories, the reader does not need the entire story before the inciting incident. (More on that in just a bit.)

If you’re writing a straight romance (as opposed to suspense, thriller, or paranormal), and you wait until the fourth or fifth chapter to have your hero and heroine meet, you’d better have a very good reason for the delay. Just setting up the meeting isn’t a good enough reason. Your inciting incident, which is the point at which the reader knows the story has begun, should be within your first ten pages. If you can work the manuscript so the inciting incident is in the first five pages, even better.

Make your reader care from the very first page, and you’ll see your one-click rate skyrocket.

In our example, the fact that Jill’s friends spent so much time and effort getting her to the third bar is actually important. But, we don’t need all of the details. Why not start the story at the third bar? Have Jill order a drink and tell her friends, “I’m so happy you dragged me out tonight. I don’t even care that I haven’t met anyone. I haven’t changed out of yoga pants in weeks. I needed this.” And then have Jack bump into her. Sparks fly, and your readers will want more.

Next time in our series, we’ll talk more about tension, including how to know when you have it and when you don’t.

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