Writers in the Storm welcomes Shannon Donnelly back, as this month, she gives us some great tips on starting in the right spot.
When Do You Start The Story?
This is a good question—and maybe the hardest one to answer since there is no right answer.
Stories can start with dialogue, with action, with description. They can start with setup to help ground the reader, or with a little background, in the middle of things, or even after the story has finished.
The only two requirements are: catch the reader’s interest and start with the mood of the whole story. And even those rules can be broken if you’ve got the talent to pull off your intent.
But there are a few guidelines that can help, particularly when you’re struggling with that first page.
1. Start anywhere—and finish the story before you go back to fix the opening.
Many times, the right opening can come from getting to the end. By the end you know the mood of the book, you know the action, the characters (well, hopefully, you do). You have a lot better idea of how the book should open. That’s a great time to go back and fix the opening. This is a great help if you’re stuck working on the first chapters—stop messing with that and get on with the rest.
In Burn Baby Burn, my Urban Fantasy book, I always knew the opening scene. However, it wasn’t until I got to the end of the book that I realized a key character was missing—Josh’s mentor. She played a vital role at the end, which meant she had to be introduced at the beginning and woven into the story. If I’d had the “perfect” beginning that I didn’t dare touch, I would have been in trouble. But since I was ready to revise everything I could easily work this character into the story.
2. Start with dialogue.
Yes, you still need to get your readers into the scene, you need to introduce characters, and you need to move the story along. But a lot of times dialogue can be a great hook into a book. Dialogue immediately has your characters on the page and doing something. The caution here is that you can confuse the reader if you have too many characters talking. You can also bore the reader if the characters are only talking about the plot—remember, to interest the reader, your characters have to come alive on the page.
My Regency novella Silver Links begins: “Think carefully before you answer, Olivia, for your honesty or dishonesty now will determine the future of everything between us.”
That line is a great hook into a story because it gets the reader wondering and sets the tone (and character issues) for the entire story. The reader is left asking—why is her answer so important? who is talking to her? what did she do? what is she going to do? The story is about honesty in a marriage—about trust. And the reader knows this from the first line.
Now this story could have started with: Layton Carlisle, Lord Duncastle, stared at his wife and wondered if she would lie to him again.
That’s a good line. But it sets me into the hero’s point of view and the heroine has a lot more at stake in this first scene so I needed her viewpoint.
Or I could have started: Oliva stared across the room to her lord husband, wondering what had happened to the gentleman with the sweet smile who had walked with her along the wild shores of her native Devon, dodging the lapping white foam.
However, that’s a long sentence and doesn’t really hook anyone into the story—not even me. So, here, dialogue gives me the hook and the punch and the interest I need for the story. And it sets the tone. But it’s still not the only option.
3. Start with description.
If this is your strong point, use it. If not, go back to guideline two. Description’s advantage is that you can set up the world—you can use lyrical prose to set the mood and bring the reader into the story. This can be very powerful if you’re doing paranormal or historicals that need more details to help the reader see this “other” world. The caution here is that you don’t want to overdo the details—too much and you risk boring or overwhelming the reader.
In the opening for a Regency I’m currently working on, I needed mood, so I went with this opening: Darkling House seemed designed to intimidate—and was doing an excellent job of it. With a shiver, Ashlyn Somerleigh stared down the length of a private courtyard at the dark bulk piled into a rambling structure, four storey high, with a peaked roof and not so much as a glint of life in any window. Shadows clung to the uneven roof and wound around scattered chimneys. Gargoyles hunkered in the heights, at the end of the gutters, forever braced to spit streams of gathered rain. And rain was gathering.
In this story, with its Gothic tones, the house is an important character—so the description actually matters a lot. However, since this is a work-in-progress, I may yet get to the end of the story and find I want to revise this opening.
4. Start where the main character’s life changes forever.
A story is about a person whose life is out of balance—and what that person does to fix that imbalance. This can be a nudge that takes a person’s life out of what it used to be—it could be as simple as a letter that shows up, or it can be as dramatic as a half-demon baby showing up on the doorstep, as in Burn Baby Burn: Red horns faded to pink at the base where they joined up with pink-white baby skin, and Mackenzie Solomon knew trouble when she just about tripped over it.
Instead of this, I could have had the story start with Mackenzie’s ordinary life (which isn’t that ordinary). I could have started with her killing a demon (great action), but that wouldn’t give the main character a problem—it wouldn’t show the character breaking rules to save an innocent. And it would have delayed the reader getting to the good stuff.
The point of the story’s opening is to get the reader the good stuff as soon as possible—don’t make them wait (they may not stick around).
5. Cut the first chapter.
Go ahead. Try it. Put the book away for two weeks and then start reading at chapter two. Is it more interesting? Better scenes? Better action? This is hard, but it’s often the best choice.
When I was writing Paths of Desire, I had a prologue I loved. Adored. Would not let go of. Finally, I had to face the truth—the prologue was getting in the way of the story. It was getting between the reader and the story and confusing readers about what was the story.
I still have that prologue—I’ll email it to anyone who would like to read it and compare how Paths of Desire would be with that in place. And I may use it in another book someday—a book where it will fit better. But it did not belong in Paths of Desire.
So look at that first chapter—is it all back-story? Are you telling the main character’s entire life? Are you starting where the main character’s life changes forever? Look at the next chapter—can you cut it, too? Or even chapter three? A lot of times we, as writers, need to write fifty or a hundred pages to get into the story, but the reader needs to start after that point—when the story really takes off.
6. Start with conflict.
Every scene needs conflict. Even if that conflict is as simple as character A wants a glass of water and character B wants character A to leave. If the first scene in your book is all about nice people doing nice things, the reader is going to tune out and put the story down. We read to better understand ourselves and this world—that means we want to see other people with even more troubles than we have. Get the conflict going—and get it going over stuff that matters.
Conflict can be internal (Mackenzie Solomon in Burn Baby Burn knowing her job is to kill demons, but unwilling to kill a half-demon baby).
Conflict can be external (in A Compromising Situation, the heroine does not want to take a job as a governess that is going to end right away, but the hero needs her help now—he’s not going to take no for an answer).
Conflict can be with nature/environment/situation (in the example above with Darkling House, the heroine is both internally conflicted about going into such a house, and the house itself is being set up for a conflict).
Just get the conflict going on page one—and then you can better keep it going.
How do you decide where to start your story?
Shannon Donnelly’s Regency novellas are now available as from Cool Gus Publishing, as well as on Kindle, Nook, from Kobo and other eBook retailers. Her latest book Burn Baby Burn, is an Urban Fantasy, also out from Cool Gus Publishing, and she is now at work on another Regency romance.
Her writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."
Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and includes Paths of Desire, a Historical Regency romance, of which Romantic Historical Lovers notes: “a story where in an actress meets an adventurer wouldn’t normally be at the top of my TBR pile; but I’ve read and enjoyed other books by this author and so I thought I’d give this one a go. I’m glad I did. I was hooked and pulled right into the world of the story from the very beginning…Highly recommended.”
She has also published young adult horror stories, is the author of several computer games, and now lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and the one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at sd-writer.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.
BURN BABY BURN
Can a demon hunter raise a little bit of hell?
When a half-demon baby puts Mackenzie Solomon’s life—and her job as a demon hunter—on the line, she can’t turn her back on the half-pint of evil. But ‘Junior’ is actually part of a trap to turn Mackenzie’s partner, Josh, and his extraordinary charming skills to the dark uses of the ancient, fallen Grigori, the angels once assigned to be Watchers over humanity. Is she going to have to make a choice about the men in her life?
Can a charmer talk his way out of his destiny?
Josh learned months ago that the bad blood in his demon hunting partner brings out a part of he can’t control—including his desire for her. With a prophecy out on him, he’s more than a little worried some of those bad things should stay buried. But is Mackenzie really the start of something bad—or could she be everyone’s salvation.
Can a couple of humans move heaven and hell?
Mackenzie’s bosses at The Endowment—the place responsible for keeping the peace between heaven and hell—want her to bring in the baby demon and not for anything good. With the Endowment after her and demons to stop, Mackenzie knows she’s on her own.
But she’s going to have to learn to trust Josh—and to use what’s sparking between them. Because it's going to take the kind of love that bonds souls forever to keep the world from ending.