Mindy Hardwick's Blog

Author Mindy Hardwick Muses about Writing

The Opening Page

on September 15, 2014

There is a lot of buzz flying around about the important first page of your novel. It started with a great conversation with my long time writing pal about her first chapter. She was a bit befuddled after three different critiques gave her three different directions about her opening chapter. As any writer knows, a critique is great but when three people are saying different things, you are left shaking your head and wondering, what exactly is it that’s not working?

This week, Harlequin is hosting the So You Think You Can Write On-Line Conference. It’s a great opportunity to hear from Harlequin editors about what their lines are looking for as well as gain writing tips.  The on-line conference kicks off Harlequin’s annual contest where one lucky author wins a contract with Harlequin.

On Monday, one of the tips was about crafting a great first page. Here are the tips.

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Looking at tip number five: Driving scenes, alarm clocks and generic weather descriptions are hard scenes to make fresh and dynamic: Start elsewhere, gave me some food for thought.

The romance story I am currently drafting, opens with a mountain highway driving scene in the middle of a fall storm. When I entered the pages in the Celtic Hearts RWA Contest this summer, the feedback I got was that yes, although this was not the best way to start a story, it does work in the opening of this particular story.

Why is this? In my story, the weather is the antagonist. All through the story, the hero and heroine will fight the weather, until it is the ultimate demise and forces them to come face to face with their internal struggles which are keeping them apart. It is important we are introduced to the weather in the opening pages. The weather is a character in this story. In the opening chapter, the heroine is struggling against the weather–trying to get where she wants to go before a tree crashes on her car.

But romance isn’t the only genre discussing the opening page of your story this week. Over on Dear Editor this week, the Editor was asked this question:

I am currently devouring you Writing New Adult Fiction. You strongly encourage authors to jump into the action from the very first sentence but a few current best sellers begin with backstory or as the day is dawning, as in The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay. Can you give any insight as to what makes those slower beginnings work so well?

Dear Editor responds by saying:

In media res, or “in the middle of the action,” is about timing your book’s opening so that readers join a life in progress rather than shake your hand and read your cast list. This strategy is coupled with other strategies intended to intrigue readers, like piquing curiosity, startling them, triggering fears, etc. The Fault in Our Stars opens with Hazel going to the Support Group meeting where she’ll meet the love of her life. It’s the right time to enter her life even though the action isn’t bold. John Green then startles readers with first lines that defy expectations: a teen poo-poos her impending death. He then makes sure all teens can relate to that teen narrator even though they don’t suffer terminal cancer: Hazel suffers adults who claim to know how she should handle her problem because they are adults and adults know best. I feel your suffering, fellow teen! Her description of the meeting and how she’s been pushed to go feels more like commiserating with peers than a backstory dump.

In other words, it’s about the character and her problem which we are being asked to identify with in the opening of this book. The opening works because the character’s voice works.

And, I am going to go one step farther and say that yes, while all of these “guidelines” are important to pay attention to for the opening of a book, there is something else and that is:

What is the genre’s expectations for the story? What is it that readers who devour this particular genre (whether it be a category romance, YA or thriller) expect?

For example, when I pick up a Harlequin Heartwarming book, I am expecting to get a sweet love story, most often set in a small town location that has a warm and cozy feel.  I do not need or want to be hit over the head with exciting action to my story. I am more than fine reading about the weather IF it is tied to the story and that weather is interacting with the character in a way that I can sense there will be trouble ahead. What keeps me turning the pages as a reader is a sense of impending doom and something that is at stake–in relation to the genre’s guidelines. I do not want or expect to have someone killed in a sweet romance, so I do not need to have grab you action in that first page. But, I do need to understand what the stakes are for this character and that they are high enough for me to keep turning pages.

In young adult, what is it that I am looking for? It is the voice! I have picked up countless YA books and although they started with grab you by the throat action, I have set them down. Why? Because in YA, I want the teen voice. I want a sense of immediacy. I want the teen to take me and tell me his or her story and I want it to be authentic to that teen in that story. I have read a number of YA books where the teen voice is not authentic and I have put the book down–high stakes or not.

So for me,  the two things that need to be in my opening pages are:

1. A strong character voice

2. High stakes with something that is opposing that main character and an impending set of doom for that character that is in alignment with that particular genre’s story promise.

So..now, I’m curious….what do you think is important in an opening page?

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4 responses to “The Opening Page

  1. K.L. Pickett says:

    I have to agree that when I read a first page, what keeps me reading are: 1) the voice of the character and 2) do I get a sense of the character’s problem.

    • I think voice is so important–especially in YA. I had the opportunity to judge a RWA YA contest and the thing I noticed was most of the entries were written “correctly”–ie the check-list of what should be included in an opening pages were all there. But..the voice was missing in so, so many of them and they just fell flat. Finding the character’s voice can be a process, but oh so worth it!

  2. Great post, Mindy. I liked reading about your experience with your story’s opening, and I’m glad you found the q-and-a on DearEditor.com helpful for illuminating your point. Writing effective openings is such an important concern for writers, and your post gives us great points to mull and experiment with.

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