Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 31, 2022

Sweet, Scary, or Some of Each

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

Image is of a little girl in a black witch costume with her wand raised and stars swooping from her wand to the open book in front of her for a sweet, scary, or some of each beginning.

Whether or not you have trick-or-treaters approaching your house tonight, you already know how you're going to entice them toward your door for treats or a good scare. Or how you're going to indicate "no point stopping here, just move along."

Of course you don't want to send that second message to people considering your book. But the first one, enticing them? Absolutely. We all want readers to get the tantalizing invitation, "Come right in, there’s something wonderful waiting for you!"

You want the beginning of your story to give that exact message. The type of treats will vary according to your book, but as long as you have an idea of who you want to dive into Page 1 (and keep right on reading), you'll be able to show ‘em the “wonderful” awaiting them is very much the kind of thing they'll enjoy.

What will that be?

Well, obviously it depends on what your book will be. Sweet? Scary? Fast-paced? Leisurely? Historical? Contemporary? Inspirational? Paranormal? Romantic? Suspenseful? Steamy? Cozy? Puzzling? Comforting? Heart-wrenching? Thought-provoking? Humorous? Adventurous? Horrifying? Empowering? Relaxing? Dramatic?

There's no such thing as a Bad Answer to this question. Somebody might say "My book is for readers who want to fall asleep after reading for two or three minutes." Someone else might say "Mine is for readers who want to stay up all night feverishly turning pages." Others might be anywhere along the line between those two, or even beyond.

But, since we’re all readers ourselves, we know that whether a story opens on some British transport ship carrying convicts to Australia, at the corner Starbucks waiting for the daily venti brewed decaf, or behind the scenes at the first coronation in a new galaxy...

We want something to pique our interest.

It might very well be the setting.

Or it could be the people.

Or quite possibly the situation.

There are even times when just the language -- the imagery, the choice of words -- is enough to enthrall us right from the start.

A book that grabs and holds our attention could easily open in the present day, in a place we know perfectly well. Maybe we’re on a midsize family farm examining the crop, or on a bus carrying people to work at the shoe factory, or in a high school auditorium rehearsing for the annual spring concert.

Regardless of whether the reader perceives this as a fascinating world or an everyday world, they need to see something intriguing.

What’ll make ‘em curious about this particular crop?

What shows this isn’t an ordinary day at the shoe factory?

What indicates there’s something unusual about the concert, or the auditorium, or the choir director, or the tenor in the back row?

Even if the story opens in an everyday world, there needs to be something unsettling about it.

HOW unsettling?

That depends on your genre.

Your readers might want chills running down their spine.

They might want a glimmer of attraction.

They might want a hint of rivalry, or of injustice, or of something eerie. Something dangerous. Something romantic. Something challenging.

Whatever they want, the opening needs to hint that it’ll be revealed soon enough to keep ‘em engaged.

And what else will engage these readers? Oh, right.

Good old Goal, Motivation & Conflict

That’s something the writer and readers will have to identify pretty early in the story. (At least the character’s OPENING goal and conflict.)

It’s okay to keep the reader guessing about someone’s internal motivation. If their goal is a grabber right from the start, this reader will be excited by your story’s beginning...and willing to wait another chapter or scene to get an idea of why your character wants this goal.

But regardless of WHY they want it, we’ve gotta know WHAT they want as of Scene 1. No matter how fascinating the landscape they’re traveling through, no matter how physically beautiful or how emotionally damaged they might be, we need to be rooting for some kind of goal.

It might not be the underlying goal that’ll sustain them throughout the story. It might be as fleeting as:

“make it through the intersection before the light turns red” or

“get the copies stapled before the boss arrives” or

“find the closest veterinary clinic before Little Fluffy chokes...”

...because while none of those is the kind of goal that’ll keep us enthralled for an entire book, it’ll give us something to root for while we’re still getting to know this person.

We need to see, right up front:

Image is a shot between two old gnarly tree trunks into a spooky, fog-covered graveyard with evil-looking pumpkins and crows soaring overhead illustrating the scary part of sweet, scary, or some of each.

* What’s interesting about ‘em? (Even if it’s only their dialogue.)

* What’s fascinating about their story world / setting? (Even if it’s our own.)

* What’s compelling about their situation? (Even if it’s not fully explained yet.)

We want to be engrossed with them as early as possible. Are they likable? Fun to hate? Easy to empathize with? Exciting to root for? Do we want to spend time with them?

Readers of different genres have different reasons for wanting to spend time with a character, so think about what appeals to YOUR readers. And while you’re at it…

Think about some book opening that grabbed YOU right from the start.

Because that’s our prize-drawing question: What WAS this opening?

It can be from a book written by you or by anyone else -- just say the author name, title, and why that opening made you want to keep reading.

And somebody who answers will win free registration to a two-week email class on this very topic (Boffo Beginnings & Fab Finales) beginning next Monday at groups.io/g/Boffo-Fab.

Meanwhile, here’s wishing you whatever kind of Halloween you enjoy most!

* * * * * *

Laurie Schnebly Campbell loves remembering favorite openings and favorite closings, and can’t wait to show the many ways of making yours boffo, fabulous, or whatever other Hollywood-blockbuster term you like. 🙂 Right now she has 51 books on her shelf from authors whose first sale was sparked by one of her classes, and she can’t wait to see what #52 will be.

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70 comments on “Sweet, Scary, or Some of Each”

  1. Sue Grafton (writer of 'A' is for Alibi, etc.) is great at dumping you into the protagonist's world with precisely the amount of detail needed. She gets the story going and dribbles in setting and action. I'm listening to the entire series on audiobook and am frequently jealous of her skill. 🙂

    1. Luanna, Sue Grafton's one of the few authors I listen to on audio books when driving a long distance...you're right; she's easy to get enmeshed in even when the story is complicated because she sets everything up so smoothly!

  2. Hi Laurie,

    I love both historical and contemporary but as I write in the now that's where I'll focus. I like to read books where something stands out in the first couple of pages - something that doesn't seem to fit or something that makes you wonder why was that mentioned. An example would be a story I read years ago with the opening line: She stopped as her dead husband walked into the cafe. A little oaraphrasing there but you get the idea. Thanks for another great blog entry Laurie.

    1. Tracey, wow, I'd sure keep going anytime I read an opening line like that one! And I'm glad you said it was paraphrased because otherwise I would've started Googling to find the rest of it...what a great example that is. 🙂

  3. One of my favorite openings is from Phyllis A. Whitney's "The Turquoise Mask". I was 12 when I first read and fell in love with it. The opening paragraph was in first person (I normally prefer 3rd) and was somewhat cryptic, as if the speaker and I knew each other and she was calling to update me on something...but in a way that made me strain to hear because I didn't want to miss a word. There were only three sentences in that paragraph but each built on the one before and held a clear sense of urgency, mystery, danger and determination. There was no preamble, she just went right into it all. And now that I've read that opening paragraph again, I just might have to sit with the rest of the book today. 🙂

    1. Debbie, I remember loving Phyllis Whitney way-back-when...and you're right, it might be good to revisit her. The Winter People took my middle school by storm; none of us had ever heard of this author and suddenly we all wanted everything she wrote.

  4. This morning, I'm leaving the world of fiction and veering into non-fiction. I am reading The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth. It is laugh out loud funny AND informative, and it has a great opening:

    Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius.

    Paula

  5. One of my all-time favorite children’s books is Frances Hodgson Burrnett’s The Secret Garden. I went back to look at its opening line, and it still hooked me. Mary has to live with her uncle (parents?) in a manor (ooo), and she’s described as “a disagreeable looking child” (I could relate. Is this what’s she’s like or just what others think?). A great set up for adventures.

    1. Jane, I remember The Secret Garden as something my fifth-grade teacher raved about and, not wanting to be told what I should read, I skipped it anytime our class checked out library books. Then finally gave in and -- wow, yes, that opening was a winner!

  6. Oh, it's Martha Wells with the opening paragraph of All Systems Red (the first novella in The Murderbot Diaries) for me:

    "I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure."

    It just sets up the character so *perfectly*. Whatever else is going on in the story, you just know that part of the main conflict is that it's cutting into Murderbot's soap operas.

    1. Michael, I know you've recommended Martha Wells before but this excerpt is the first one that has me thinking "oh, wow, as soon as I finish answering blog comments I've gotta head right over to the listings and GRAB that book!"

  7. The most recent book I read was "From Tormented Tides" by Val E. Lane. The opening line was "I had expected danger when I met him. After all, he was supposed to have died centuries ago."

    That made me really keep reading because it set up a mystery, a question I had to have answered. I can't put it down until I know, right? I think those are the greatest hooks.

  8. "Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and knew it was his own." Dan Brown, ANGELS & DEMONS.

    The line hooked me immediately because I needed to know if it really was his own skin that was burning, why was he burning, and what caused the fire?

    1. Christine, that's amazing -- I remember enjoying Angels and Demons even more than The DaVinci Code, but couldn't have told you a thing about the opening. What a great example of how differently readers respond to the exact same things!

  9. Oh I love the way you've woven the joy and anticipation of Halloween through the delight of opening a new book, and reading a line that grabs your attention and sucks you into the book world.

    I'm sure I won't be alone in one noting one of my favorite openings, from Diana Gabaldon's 'Voyager':-

    “He was dead. However, his nose throbbed painfully, which he thought odd, in the circumstances.”

  10. I always enjoy when I see that the blogger is Laurie Schnebly Campbell because I just know it will get me back into my creative groove.

    The opening that has stuck with me (I did have to look again to make sure I remembered it correctly) was from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." It started like a simple statement, an ordinary intro like you’ve gotten a million times until that last sentence. I wanted to know how such a seemingly personable girl could’ve ended up getting murdered. It was a haunting yet disturbing novel, way better than the movie but that’s usually the case. I wasn’t something that I would’ve normally read but I had joined a book club years back and wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of having to read it but ended up really getting into to it.

    Thanks for such a wonderful pot! Happy Halloween everybody!

    ~Margie

    1. Margie, I remember that same thing about The Lovely Bones. The whole premise just sounded icky, but I was waiting for my son to pick up something at Target and started browing the books section...opened up that one, and got hooked!

  11. My first thought went to the clasics and what's more classic and mysterious than "Last night I went to Manderley again." Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The first paragraph is haunting especially reading on Halloween.

  12. Nora Roberts' In Death series always has good opening lines. From the very first one, Naked In Death, 1995:

    "She woke in the dark. Through the slats on the window shades, the first murky hint of dawn slipped, slanting shadowy bars over the bed. It was like waking in a cell."

    Always enjoy your posts. This one especially as I am fresh from a workshop with Debra Dixon on GMC.

  13. I just read another post yesterday about the opening lines of our books and how they need to capture the reader's attention. I love your post too. It's such a huge thing for us authors to think about when writing the first chapter. So I looked at one my favorite books that I wrote two years ago and here it is:

    A HEART LIFE by me:

    "Outsiders call Balmoral State Penitentiary the rich man’s version of San Quentin. A prison for pussies, the guards say, as they shove us into our individual cells. No sharing cells in this place. Guess they’re afraid we might find a way to smuggle in a shank on visiting day and kill our roomie."

    It introduces one of the main characters in his POV, the venue, his attitude, and makes the reader wonder what's going to happen to him and why is he in prison.

  14. I’m sure this one is obvious, but I remember reading “A Tale of Two Cities” and thinking, “Oh, THAT’S where that came from.” The brilliance of Charles Dickens:

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

    1. Nan, I'd totally forgotten about A Tale of Two Cities -- and, boy, that sure deserves its "classic" status! It bowled me over the first time I read it, which was probably 40 years ago, and that opening made the whole thing SO much more appealing. 🙂

  15. Hi Laurie,

    I enjoyed your article.

    I tried clicking the link: groups.io/g/Boffo-Fab but it wasn't working for me.

    I like openings with dialogue and action to compel me to keep reading.

    1. I am sorry the link didn't work, Marilyn. My fault but I've corrected the link in the post. Thanks for letting us know.

  16. Great post as always, Laurie! Thanks for a chance to win a spot in one of your wonderful classes! So proud to have my first book one of those 51 books on your shelf!

    Holiday Protector a romantic suspense by Marilyn Pappano that grabbed me from the first sentence when I took it off the shelf and opened it.

    "Walking out of the prison doors for the first time was much easier than walking in."

    As soon as I read that, I was hooked!

  17. Becky Wade's "Turn To Me". Male protagonist POV starts chapter one and his first thought is this isn't the first time he's been burned by the belief in honor among thieves. Made me immediately want to know more about him. Obviously a past there but he's the protagonist in an inspirational romance. I had to find out what his redemption would be from being in prison to becoming the romantic hero.

  18. There are so many, but one of my favorites is from Jeannette Walls' memoir The Glass Castle.
    "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster."

  19. Hi Laurie! I do love this discussion. The openings that have haunted me later have been from books that invariably ended up on my headboard to read over and over. They have inspired my own focus on openings. My fantasy opening has come from a blend of Divergent, Twilight, and Hunger Games—whose first lines nailed it. For here though, I’m going to stick my neck right out there with the opening of my nonfiction that will be coming out Jan 24 called The Grim Reader: Putting your characters in peril (A pharmacist’s guide for authors).

    Ever had a really bad week and decided to take it out on one of your fictional characters by killing them off with a slow-acting drug? Or were you innocently writing when a character suddenly surprised you by overdosing? Writing these plot twists can be exhilarating, frightening—yes, even therapeutic—adding depth to your novel.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Braiding courses and am looking forward to more classes the future.

  20. My favorite first sentences bring you right into the premise. Favorite fiction opening is from a book that didn't live up to it, but started really strong: "One thing was for damn sure - she wasn't going to let him win again." Favorite nonfiction opening is from a book about nutrition: "Heat makes protein tough." In both those cases, I just had to know more.

    1. Meg, what a fascinating difference between the fiction and non-fiction openings -- each one of 'em shows "yep, you're going to get exactly the kind of experience you wanted to get when you picked up this book!" (Even if the first one later failed to deliver, drat it.)

  21. Hi Laurie, great insights yet again. My current read written by Katherine Belle: The Marriage Lie. What made me pick up the book was its title and its blurb, which promised me a psychologicall thrill ride. And why I kept reading: Within the first chapter, the author weaved enough narrative about the husband and wife characters that made me want to know what happens.

    1. Chris, good point about how the opening can be an entire first chapter -- more than JUST the first sentence or first paragraph. While those are sure a wonderful way of ensuring that readers keep going, it's equally valuable to give them all the information they'll want!

  22. Love the article Laurie! You've given me some great ideas. I recently read The Downstairs Girl, a YA novel by Stacey Lee, and immediately fell in love with the witty and grounded 17-year-old protag. The opening lines: Being nice is like leaving your door wide-open. Eventually, someone's going to mosey in and steal your best hat.

  23. Since words on a page immediately create a movie in my mind, I tend to prefer books that jump right into dialogue or action without a lot of set-up. Anything from an innocuous "You can't be serious"(made up) to "I'm so sorry, Vane. I didn't mean to get us killed like this." (Night Play by Sherrilyn Kenyon) will pique my curiousity.

    1. Lee, viewing the opening like a movie is a wonderful way of zooming right in on what's captivating...and while we sometimes see beautiful scenery under the opening credits, that's also when people go buy their popcorn. Love both your examples!

  24. A current series I'm reading--the Veronica Speedwell series (Deanna Raybourn)--had this for it's opening for the first book:

    "June 1887. I stared down into the open grave and wished that I could summon a tear. Violent weeping would have been in exceedingly poor taste, but Miss Nell Harbottle had been my guardian for the whole of my life, and a tear or two would have been a nice gesture of respect."

    This doesn't show a goal yet, but you do have to wonder at a character who doesn't shed a tear for one's parental figure; and the very precise "posh" voice of the character, that creates a sort of distance while at the same time making the reader more curious about the character. I wondered, "Oh dear, what was wrong with the guardian?" It's 1887 and now it appears this woman is without anyone--what will happen to her? (My background knowledge of societal mores about single women and behavior in polite society makes me curious about a woman who doesn't seem to behave like a "polite society" woman of the time.) Within a few paragraphs, I learned she wanted to go traveling and was looking forward to doing so again--and that she's a scientist that studies butterflies--but it was the dialogue that hooked me. The dialogue is hilarious in a way like it's not meaning to be, but it's the scandalized reactions of those engaging in the talking and the droll wit of the heroine.

    For instance, when the vicar's wife is trying to arrange a marriage for her, she says, "Mrs. Clutterthorpe, I can hardly think of any fate worse than becoming a mother of six. Unless perhaps it were plague, and then I am persuaded a few disfiguring buboes and possible death would be preferable to motherhood." Upon reading this response, I immediately knew this is a character I would would want to have dinner with...and she has only improved as the pages have flown by.

    There is some scary, some sweet, but wholly diverting scenes.

    1. Fran, good call on Veronica Speedwell -- how could anybody NOT want to read more of a narration like hers? And even without any stated goal, we can see she's in a sticky situation she'd like to get out of, and then who knows what?!

  25. Outlander by Diana Gabladon. "People disappear all the time." That line promised me a mystery right from the start!

  26. Calling it a night because it's dark enough (here in Phoenix) that the trick-or-treaters are gonna start arriving...but I'll check back tomorrow in case anybody else posts tonight, and also say who won the free class. Fun day ahead!

  27. Hi Laurie.
    A little late to the party. But your blog posts are always so insightful, that I don't want to miss out! Love how you say that great openings should have something that is unsettling. Can't think of anything more unsettling than the first line of Rebecca, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." That makes me want to write a spooky story right away! 🙂
    Adite

    1. Adite, this is cool -- you just made Rebecca the top vote-getter for great-opening books. It's always such fun seeing the names of old favorites, not to mention contenders for new ones...and I hope you got just the right amount of spookiness to celebrate!

  28. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca. This haunting line could never fail to draw in even the most reluctant reader: Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again.

  29. I just counted up the number of comments and fed the total into random-dot-org which generated #10 -- so that means congratulations go to Christine Monson, who won free registration to "Boffo Beginnings & Fab Finales" which starts Monday. It'll be great seeing you (and anybody else with time for two weeks of email lectures & optional homework with private feedback) next week!

    1. Carolyn, that WAS a great book! I stumbled onto it by accident when I was recording for the blind; whoever used the booth ahead of me had been narrating that one and when I started looking through it I got hooked and had to get my own copy...definitely worth reading again. 🙂

  30. Love the opening of the book Heidi, as it paints such a picture of the characters, city and natural environment. It really invites you into this new world.

    1. Melissa, wow, I'm late catching up -- but you're SO right about Heidi; that was a treat to re-read just a few years ago. Most children's books don't hold up as well as childhood fans would expect, but the adult version of Heidi was quite good!

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