Thursday, May 8, 2008

Charlene Sands

Hi all, I’m Charlene Sands and for the past 9 years I’ve been writing Westerns for Harlequin and Desires for Silhouette.

I’ve made quite a few mistakes along the way and one of them is that I didn’t always start my story in the right place. Here’s some tips and insights from my very own “rookie” mistakes.

Writers often start their story off with explanation. Too much back-story stymies a good story. Back-story is important, but it must be woven into the plot like a fine thread – a little at a time. Think of a way to tell the least amount of information and still have the story make sense.

Bombarding the reader all at once will not progress the romance. Tell your back-story through dialogue, introspection in bits and pieces. It’s a way to hold to reader’s attention and to make them want to find out more and it allows the writer to throw in a few surprises in the end. Start your story with action or dynamic dialogue. Have something important happening at the beginning that directly relates to the main characters.

What works well is starting your story in the middle of the scene with accusations flying or buildings being blown up. The heroine finding a man on her doorstep, a virtual stranger to her, bleeding and unconscious is a better way to start off than for instance, showing the altercation that leads to him being shot, dragging himself out of danger and landing him at her feet. Don’t take all the mystery out of the story (even if it’s not a mystery) by answering all the questions.

The reader/editor could easily become bored if all the facts were laid out in front of them initially. Leave room for speculation, for doubt. Worry the reader and make them wonder the “why” of the situation. Why did he get shot? Who is he? What is his relationship to the heroine? How did he end up on her doorstep? These questions help to make the story a “PAGE TURNER”. They will snare the reader’s interest and make them want to read on. And often times, you, as the writer, don’t have to answer these questions right away and you also don’t have to answer them all at once. The writer can drop hints, foreshadow and “play” with the scenario a bit, before all truths come out.

Think about the James Bond movies. They basically all start the same way. We usually see 007 in the midst of some incredible chase scene using every stunt and vehicle imaginable. Bond in action. The beginning scene is usually the culmination of a case he’d been working on, and one we as the viewing audience know nothing about. But there’s action, catching our attention, snaring us in, captivating us with all the incredible special effects.

The next time we see Bond, he’s with “M” his boss and he’s learning what his next assignment is. How boring would it be for us, the viewer, to have the film start this way – with a discussion, or conversation with the powers that be, explaining to Bond how they expect him to risk his neck, one more time?
In romance, of course, we can’t write a beginning scene that has nothing to do with the actual story, but the idea is the same. Capture the reader’s attention, draw them in, make them want to continue reading.

Where to start the story takes a good deal of thought. Authors often obsess about it and write the beginning several different ways to see which one works best. Think it through and try to make the beginning as dynamic as possible. No one knows your story better than you.

Here’s the opening scene in my 2006 National Readers Choice Finalist, Like Lightning. I’d always wanted to start a story this way, and when I went to our National convention, I heard Desire Senior Ed, Melissa Jeglinski say she liked to read a manuscript that surprised her. Well, this was a false opening, a surprise and the perfect place to start this story: “I do.” Trey Walker uttered the words slowly, both awed and a little bit frightened. In a million lifetimes, he’d never dreamed he’d say these words. Especially not to Maddie Brooks, the auburn-haired beauty standing beside him, her wide eyes filled with gratitude. They stood under an arbor of lush traveling vines in the small garden area behind his house at 2 Hope Ranch. “I do too,” she offered, as a gentle breeze blew by, messing her hair enough to give her down-home girl appearance a sexy edge. Trey swallowed hard, intrigued by the young woman who’d be living with him for an unforeseen length of time. In truth, the petite green-eyed female scared the hell out of him with her innocent looks and wholesome demeanor. She was the exact sort of woman Trey avoided – the kind that said “KEEPER” in big bold capital letters. But damn it all, if Trey hadn’t needed her or rather if 2 Hope Ranch hadn’t needed what she had to offer, Trey would never have agreed to this. “So you agree to the terms?” She repeated softly, her voice a mere whisper on the wind. “I do, Maddie. There’s no need to sign a contract. My word is good as gold.” For the first few paragraphs we think the two are getting married. But it’s not the case. They are entering into a business agreement. And my plan, which worked out great, was to end the story, in exactly the same way, almost word for word in those first few paragraphs. And this time – they were getting married. HEA
Could I have shown the events leading up to them embarking on their business arrangement? Yes. Would it have been effective? NO. It wasn’t dramatic enough. And, I wanted to surprise the senior editor. BTW— This story sold quickly on the basis of this one chapter. I believe it had a lot to do with how this story began and how it developed from there. Do you recall reading any dynamic openings? Did they stick in your mind? What’s the best opening line you’ve ever read?
Charlene is a partner on the Petticoats and Pistols blog.
Her just released Western Weddings anthology with Jillian Hart and Kate Bridges is in bookstores now.
Grace Lander returns to Springville to pick up the pieces of her life and become the town's schoolmarm. Single father Caleb Matlock's kiss may be just what Grace needs to mend her heart and make a home!
Find out more about Charlene at


  1. Brilliant, as usual, Charlene.

    I've found a system that works for me. I write the beginning. It always has some backstory in it - or a scene I don't actually need - but I need to get it out of my system.

    Then I cut out those pages and save the info for later. Sometimes I use a little of it later on, but I rarely need all of it. But just being able to write it helped me get my story jump started.

    Weird, huh?

  2. Hi Charlene,

    Thanks for this timely bit blog! Since I'm starting a story that's been giving me fits, I really appreciate the reminder of what to do and not. :-)

  3. I'm so glad someone else thinks blowing things up is a good plot device. All my reading about black powder was not in vain, I hope.

    But, in trying to avoid info dumps I think I've left out too much sometimes and left people going "Huh?" Confused rather than intrigued.

    Guess it's a balancing act. Lots of good take-home points there.


    Welcome to Seekerville, Charlene. Not only is that a good post but now you have thrown down the gauntlet. My mind is spinning trying to come up with an equally intriguing opening. I love it.

    Thank you.

    I should mention I have a hero bleeding on doorstep story. I apparently took it too far into the action..the story opens with the hospital and I have had several people tell me..BUT I WANT TO SEE HIM BLOODY ON THE HEROINE'S FRONT PORCH.

    Wow, again, lots to think about.

  5. Charlene, gems of wisdom. Too often we cling to what we think is a wonderful opening (and it might be if we were writing in Dickens' time) but it just won't pass muster with the average hurried, harried reader.

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today. We've got pot luck Friday going on. I brought crab salad and croissants.

    And the ever-present coffee bar, of course!


  6. I am working on a story that opens with the central character screaming "Why?" Many trial readers have commented that this one-word question grabs their attention and makes them wonder what could be going on. However, they all agree that I spend too much time on backstory in answer to that question. You inspire me to take another look at that scene and figure out how to optimize the attention that question gets. Thanks for a great post. I would love to share my peach crisp and some coffee from Sumatra with you.

  7. Wow, what a post!! Thank you, Charlene, and welcome to Seekerville. Getting a reader into the book as quickly as possible is critical, and I LOVE how you did that so masterfully with "Like Lightning!

    I am a first-line freak, so I am a big believer in starting the story off with a great line or paragraph. One of my favorites is from a book by a fellow Seeker bud, Missy Tippens in her debut novel, Her Unlikely Family:

    If there was one thing Josie Miller knew, it was the smell of a rich man. And whoever had just walked into the diner smelled like Fort Knox.

    Gosh, I just LOVE that!! And regarding throwing readers off track a bit and making them wonder, I kind of do that a tiny bit in the prologue of my 2nd book, A Passion Redeemed:

    Patrick O’Connor stirred from a deep sleep at the feather touch of his wife’s breath, warm against his neck. “Patrick, I need you …”
    Her words tingled through him and he slowly turned, gathering her into his arms with a sleepy smile. He ran his hand up the side of her body, all senses effectively roused.
    “No, Patrick,” she whispered, shooing his hand from her waist, “I need you to go downstairs—now! There’s someone in the kitchen.”

    This is fun -- I can't wait to hear other first lines or paragraphs!!

  8. Here's the beginning of Calico Canyon.

    >>>The Five Horseman of the Apocalypse rode in.
    Late as usual.
    Grace Calhoun was annoyed with their tardiness at the same time she wished they’d never come back from the noon recess.
    They shoved their way into their desks, yelling and wrestling as if they were in a hurry. No doubt they were. They couldn’t begin tormenting her until they sat down, now could they?

    There is no part of my books that I rework more, change more drastically and have more fully developed BEFORE I start writing that that opening.
    I want an explosion...physical if possible.
    I want motion...not emotion. Right in the middle of the action. I have a story idea, characters in broad broad strokes and an opening when I start my very SOTP (seat of the pants) writing.

    Great post, Charlene. Thanks for stopping by Seekerville.

  9. I'll very often write the beginning over and over like you said, Cheryl, cutting stuff I seemed to need to write just to get the picture fully focused in my own head.

    I've heard people call this interviewing their characters. Which might be a way to describe it. But to me, I need to have that backstory written down, then I cut it almost ALL. It seems to creep back into the story without much effort AFTER I know what it is.

  10. I like all these first lines! Can't WAIT to read A Passion Redeemed. My first lines aren't all that exciting. I need to think of something really good for my next book so I'll have something to share when we play this game. Okay. Off the top of my head, this is for the 1880's story I'm plotting:

    David aimed his Winchester rifle at the rope about two inches above Linc's head. If he could squeeze the trigger a half second after the the noose pulled tight, and if he aimed just right, his bullet would save his friend's life.

    Easy. The hard part was getting away before the Hobbs boys recovered from their surprise.

    Any comments? Critiques?

  11. Oh, Mary, I can't wait to read Calico Canyon! That's going to be a scream.

  12. That's great action, Melanie. If you're really feeling bored with your openings then that is BAD. You've got to make them explode.

  13. Hi Cher - Whatever works for you, is what I say. I get the "getting it out of your system" idea. Sometimes you just have to see those images in writing before you chuck them. :)

    I think everyone's approach to writing is so unique, there's no "right" way. Sorta like marriages, if it works, don't question it!

    Thanks for being my first poster this morning!

  14. Hi Carla,

    I'm glad that my reminders helped! Good luck with your story!

  15. Hi Ann,

    Ah,I did a bunch of research on black powder too. I blew up a mine once, think it was before dynamite was invented.

    Yep, it's a balancing act, but I always say when in doubt, throw in some sparkling dialogue for balance!

  16. Hi Tina,

    I am SUCH a sucker for a hero bleeding on the porch. I tend to agree, that's the more intriguing opening!

  17. Hi Ruthy,

    Yummmm, crab salad and croissants! I'm drinking coffee as we speak, but your coffee bar sounds like more fun! Thanks for having me here today at Seekerville!

  18. Hi Julie,
    Wow, I love those examples of openings! The smell of a rich man... that's wonderful.

    And yours in A Passion Redeemed is so intriguing. And in just a few paragraphs, you managed to surprise the reader and get them right into the story!

    I'd want to read both of those stories!

  19. Hi Katherine,

    I'll have a piece of that peach crisp now! And I'm glad my post today helped you take another look at your opening. Engaging the reader from the first page is essential ... you'll know when you've gotten it right!

  20. Good to see you here, Charlene! Wonderful advice and an excellent example on where to start the story.

    Ruthy, crab with a c means it's the real thing. Yummy!


  21. Hi Mary and thanks again for inviting me to Seekerville! The opening to Calico Canyon is great! Really gives a view of the teacher's perspective and sets the tone.

    I guess we all have our ways of putting those openings in writing. My method? I don't write a word. I ponder, sometimes for days on end, on how I want my story to begin -what's happening in the first scene and in who's POV. As soon as it's clear in my head, I put the words on the page.
    But then, as I write, the characters do say or do something I'd never expect and my gut tells me, it has to be that way.
    The characters speak to you ... and only another writer gets this. I've tried to explain to my non-writer friends and usually get blank stares in return. :)

  22. Melanie,

    It's a really good opening, but here's something my editor has helped me with and that's to take out all words that aren't decisive. It reads stronger.

    David aimed his Winchester rifle at the rope two inches above Linc's head. He'd squeeze the trigger a half second after the noose pulled tight, and if he aimed just right, the bullet would save his friend's life.

    The opening is very intriguing and starts with action, just what your aiming for!

  23. Hi Janet,
    It's nice to be here today!
    Thank you for your kind comments.

  24. Mel, I love it but I think I'd (personal taste only) shorten it...

    Mel's version:

    "David aimed his Winchester rifle at the rope about two inches above Linc's head. If he could squeeze the trigger a half second after the the noose pulled tight, and if he aimed just right, his bullet would save his friend's life."

    Ruthy's thought:

    "His Winchester rock-steady, David drew a bead on the rope about two inches above Linc's head. With perfect aim and better than perfect timing, his bullet could save his friend's life."

    And Julie, you're right, our Preacher's woman nailed her first line in Her Unlikely Family. Great opening.

    Charlene, I love how you set the scene in your opening as a foreshadowing of the ending. And I confess I haven't read any of your books as yet, but I'd like to. What's available now in stores and online?


  25. Hi Ruthy,
    Thanks for giving me a chance to promote my work. :)

    I have two westerns out, Taming the Texan, a March release, available on and Eharlequin, and for May, Western Weddings Anthology along with Kate Bridges and Jillian Hart is in bookstores now.

    In August, my new Desire Series begins with Five Star Cowboy. There's a sneak peek of the cover on my blog at

    And the second of the series comes out in November called Do Not Disturb Until Christmas.

    Now, aren't you sorry you asked? :)

  26. Along with action I think the opening of a book should read with the tone of a headline.

    Is this book a comedy, a western, a chick lit, suspense.

    All of that should be there in that first line and simple word Melanie's suspenseful beginning or Missy's funny one (the smell of a rich man-I just love that).
    Are we historical? Are we contemporary? England? Texas? Maine? You really can bring that all right up front with the right tweaking and action and setting and it does NOT have to be long to do all of that.

  27. I've always been fond of the opening for The Husband Tree which will be out in 2009.

    Belle Tanner pitched dirt into the hole and a stab of spitefulness made her toss it right on Anthony’s handsome, worthless face.
    She probably should have wrapped him in a blanket but blankets were hard to come by…unlike husbands.

    Then a contemporary Buffalo Gal starts:
    Buffy Lange had been at her new job for fifteen minutes. It was going to take a miracle to last out the hour.

    And the cozy mysteries have yet another tone.

    Pride and Pestilence:

    Woman cry. Men have heart attacks.
    Bonnie Simpson lay the advice-filled woman’s magazine down.
    So, if women didn’t cry were they destined to have heart attacks? Checking for chest pains, she regretted that she wasn’t much of a crier.
    Thunder like an explosion jerked Bonnie out of her mental electrocardiogram. The noise almost gave her a heart attack. It didn’t, however, make her want to cry.

  28. Oh, Charlene, this is sooo much fun today!!

    Katherine, very cool first line (or word, I guess). I always think a question is a GREAT way to start off a scene!! It engages the reader immediately.

    Mary, I LOVE the opening to Calico Canyon, and the others are absolutely wonderful too! Your humor is genius in all of them!!

    Melanie, your opening is GREAT as well, very tense! So much so that I can almost see sweat trickling down the character's neck, which wouldn't be a bad idea, come to think of it:

    Sweat snaked down the back of his neck as David aimed his Winchester at the rope two inches above Linc's head. If he could squeeze the trigger a half second after the the noose pulled tight, and if he aimed just right, his bullet would save his friend's life.

    Oooo ... more, I want more!!

  29. Charlene my Filly sister, what a great subject. I've always been envious of those who write openings that really hook a reader. I definitely need work in that area. I don't think mine are strong enough. Love the example of yours that you gave. It's guaranteed to make a reader turn the page.

    I think another excellent one is Lorraine Heath's "A Rogue in Texas."

    "Grayson Rhodes' father had always warned him that he would burn in hell, but he had never expected to arrive at the damnable place while he was still alive."

    That one sentence hooked me. I immediately lost myself in the story. Good beginnings are crucial to snagging reader interest. I know that. Now, why can't I seem to do it? I tell way too much of the backstory. guess I'll have to study more on what a good beginning takes.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  30. Oh, Julie, you must have the gift of encouragement. Bless you. ;-)

  31. Hi Mary,
    Your opening is very dynamic, love it, love it:
    Belle Tanner pitched dirt into the hole and a stab of spitefulness made her toss it right on Anthony’s handsome, worthless face.

    Man, that line speaks volumes!

    Hi Linda - thanks for stopping by today my Filly sister. You're right, this opening made me want to read the book instantly.

    "Grayson Rhodes' father had always warned him that he would burn in hell, but he had never expected to arrive at the damnable place while he was still alive."

  32. Charlene between you and Cheryl you could single handedly teach all the workshops at RWA Nationals and we'd never be bored.

    My current WIP. Mind you this is not for the CBA.

    “Tell me honestly, Sophie, don’t you miss sex?”

    Sophie James refrained from spewing diet soda all over the kitchen counter. This was, after all, her mother. Did she expect anything less? She slid the phone away from her ear for a moment and took a deep breath.

    Dora Rosario wasn’t waiting for a response. “They say it’s like oxygen,” her mother mused. “You don’t miss it until it’s gone.”

  33. Hi, Linda, thanks for stopping by.

    I've always loved Julie Garwood's opening lines. She's just the master.

    They pop into my head at odd moments.

    Douglas Clayborne was thinking about killing a man.

    The little lady was in big trouble.

    He didn't die easy.

    He found her in his bed.

    Kate McKenna's Wonderbra saved her life.

    The first one was a mercy killing.

    The news was going to destroy her.

  34. I would LOVE to write opening lines that people actually remembered even long after they'd finished the book.

    I think I'd better go tweak mine right now. :)

  35. Wow! Now this has been a class in openings.

    I love how everyone tweaked Melanie's opening. The differences were subtle, each changing to reflect the author's voice.

    Time to go work on my opening.

  36. Oh WOW, Tina, that was WONDERFUL!! You grabbed my attention IMMEDIATELY, and not just because of the word "sex" ... although that definitely didn't hurt!! :)

  37. You know, the new Bond didn't really work for me in the movie.

    But that poster if working VERY WELL.

  38. Tina,
    Thanks for the compliment!
    And I've been to Cheryl's workshops, they are wonderful, so I'm honored that you included me in there.

    Very clever opening to your story.
    SEX always catches the eye doesn't it?

  39. Mary,
    I remember the WonderBra opening line. It's unforgettable! What a classic.

    I have to say that the new Bond, Daniel Craig hooked me. I didn't think I'd like him at all, but oh, baby - there's a scene when he's coming out of the water and...okay, I guess you can tell, I converted. Did you hear someone on American Idol say that Simon should be the next James Bond?

  40. I didn't think I would like Daniel Craig either, but aside from his awesome RAW good looks, he isn't the humorous playboy, he is very real, very human, very vulnerable. He's a real man not a character. I love him.

    Blogger is being difficult, I had to use the verbal word verification to get in

  41. I badly wanted Adrien Paul to be James Bond but I suppose he missed his chance. He's a bit old for the part now.