Open with a Bang!
By Missy Tippens
Today, I want to share a writing exercise with you. To help you write a powerful story opening. I love to talk about first lines and first pages and want to give some tips for opening with a bang. I love the opening of my new Love Inspired book, A Family for Faith, that will be available on shelves this week. (Shameless self promotion alert!) :) I wrote the beginning of this book proposal while at a workshop and wanted to share some of what I learned.
For the proposal for this book, I had my characters chosen and all my charts filled out. I knew the GMC, knew the moral premise, knew some of the main plot points. But I needed to write the chapters. I needed to pull the reader in and hook him/her.
I had a hero, Gabe, who was a widower single dad who was still in love with his dead wife and held her on a pedestal. He also had a preteen daughter who was giving him fits and really needed a mother figure. I had decided to open in his point of view because I thought he was probably the most sympathetic character. He was also the one who was being thrown into change at the outset. (And his problem pulls the heroine, Faith, into the story.)
While attending a workshop taught by Dianna Love and Mary Buckham based on their fantastic how-to book, Break Into Fiction, they had us do an exercise to come up with the best way to open our story. I was thrilled with what I came up with during the class, and it ended up in the book nearly identical to the first version I wrote during that class.
One note I jotted during the workshop is to anchor the reader but don’t overdo the setting. (How many of us have written openings of a character driving back into town describing how the town has changed? I know I have.) Only include what is needed. And make sure it packs an emotional punch.
Another thing I noted was not to use chatter. Dialogue must be engaging. Also, if you use introspection (and don’t overdo this!), be sure it’s active and engaging as well.
In my scene, I needed to make sure the reader knows what Gabe’s goal is. I’ve learned to check every single scene in my stories to make sure the character has a goal. So it’s important for the opening as well.
As I was writing this post, I found the notes I made about my story while in Dianna’s and Mary’s class. I thought I’d share them, then let you look at the opening of my book to see if I followed through on all I planned.
My notes while brainstorming during the class (cut and paste):
Opening significance: show his daughter is kicking off or has kicked off the town in prayer for him to find a wife.
Need more… To show him lonely. To show him having trouble dealing with his maturing daughter. To see her straining against his overprotectivness.
Setting: maybe a weekend and she’s wanting to go out with friends? Maybe she’s put on lipstick and he freaks. She tells him he needs a life. Maybe they’re standing in bathroom and he catches her putting on makeup. And maybe she has a photo of mom on the counter and is looking at it!! He feels helpless.
Details: lonely, overprotective, in uniform (sheriff), helpless
Okay, so those are my notes. Here’s the opening of A Family for Faith:
Gabe Reynolds paced the photo-lined hallway, back and forth past baby and childhood pictures of his daughter, past the door where that same daughter did whatever pre-teen girls did behind closed doors. Considering the amount of time he spent coaxing her out of there these days, he figured he’d wear a path in the finish of the hardwood floor by the time his only child was grown and gone—something he intended to delay as long as possible.
He finally stopped and banged on the bathroom door. “Hurry up, Chels. You’ll be late.”
His dear, sweet daughter growled at him. Growled.
With a badge on his chest and weapon at his hip, he should be prepared to deal with anything. But give him a drunk or a thief any day over this soon-to-be-teenaged-girl business.
He pounded the door again. “I’ve gotta get back to the station. What are you doing in there?”
“For the thousandth time, I’m coming.”
He knew without a doubt that she was in there rolling her eyes at him. “What’s taking so long?”
“A work of art takes time,” she said in her best theatrical voice. Then she giggled, more like her normal, little girl self.
This switching from girl to young woman then back to girl in the blink of an eye was making his head spin. “You better not be putting on makeup.”
“I’m a teenager. All my friends wear makeup.”
“You’re not thirteen yet. And if all your friends jumped off—”
She yanked the door open so fast it banged into the wall. She glared at him. “No. If all my friends jumped off a bridge, I would not jump, too. This is totally different, and you know it.”
Her cheeks glowed with a too-bright pink that matched her tinted lips. Her mascaraed eyelashes, clumped into several uneven spikes, seemed a mile longer than usual. She looked grown-up. Too grown-up—the kind that would attract the attention of guys. “All I know is I forbade you to wear makeup and…and...” He jabbed his finger at the pile of containers on the bathroom counter. “That looks an awful lot like makeup. Where’d you get it?”
She huffed and tossed her dark curls over her shoulder. “I bought it with my allowance. And I’m learning to put it on so it accentuates my best features.”
She was accentuated all right. And sounded like she was spouting something she’d seen on an infomercial. He squinted as he checked out her face, so much like her mother’s it made it hard to look sometimes. And even though he had the urge to drop the subject and run the other direction, it was his job to deal with this kind of situation now. “You’ve got on lipstick. Wipe it off.”
“I want to look nice for our youth group meeting at the church tonight.”
She shrugged. “No reason.” She fingered a small picture frame on the counter, then quickly placed it face down before he could see whose photo it held. “Now, please let me finish. I’ll be out in five minutes.”
A boy. It had to be because of a boy. “Who is he?”
“The boy. The one you’re putting makeup on for.”
She rubbed a finger with brown sparkly goop over her eyelid. “No one. I’m doing it for myself.”
“Hand it over.”
She sighed and slapped a little compact into his hand. “There, are you happy? No more eye shadow.”
“No. Hand over the photo. Of the boy.” He reached toward the picture frame.
“No!” She stopped him by grabbing hold of his hand. She looked terrified.
Which terrified him. If the guy was some high school punk, Gabe would be out the door and into the squad car in five seconds flat.
He shook Chelsea’s hand off and grabbed the gold frame. But he didn’t find some guy. All the frustration and fear whooshed out of him along with his breath when he found his wife. His sweet, beautiful wife.
Once he recovered his equilibrium, he said, “Chels, why do you have your mom’s picture in here?”
She gave a little shrug, this time not so rebellious. “I told you. I’m learning to put on makeup.”
Pain steamrolled him flat to the floor as he remembered Chelsea watching her mom put on lipstick on Sunday mornings before church and often asking if she could have some. Tina would smile, kiss a pink lip print on Chelsea’s cheek and promise to show her when she got older.
Now here their daughter was, studying Tina’s face, learning to apply lipstick by herself. Gabe ached for Chels. Ached period.
It had been five years since the accident, and just when he was making headway and felt like he might finally be able to breathe again, this had to happen.
“Please, Dad?” She took the frame from his hand and held the photo up beside her face. “See? I tried to do just what she did.”
He wanted to hug her. To protect her from any more pain in her young life. She needed her mom, especially for moments like this. But no, all she had was a cop dad who didn’t have a guess at how to handle his daughter growing up. He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. But you’re just not old enough. You’ll have to wash that stuff off your face.”
She heaved a sigh that seemed to start at her toenails. “Okay.” She stared at the photo for a second. “Do I look pretty?” She’d said it so softly he wasn’t sure he heard her right. But then she turned to him and waited, looking everywhere but directly at him.
Oh, boy. “Well, now, I guess you better let me get a good look at you.”
She smiled shyly as she looked up, but then the smile went crooked as she gnawed on her lip. He had a feeling she wasn’t quite as comfortable being in makeup as she thought she would be.
“You look beautiful. Always.”
“I do look a little like Mom, don’t I?”
He breathed in through his nose, then forced a smile. “Even prettier.”
“Thanks.” She threw her arms around his waist, and for a split second, all was as it should be. Or at least it was back to the norm of the last few years. It would never again be as it should be.
Copyright © 2011 Melissa L. Tippens
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin S.A.
Okay, Missy again. If you’d like to read the entire first chapter, I put it on my website. Click here to read now, but be sure to come back! There’s more! :)
So did I carry out all I wanted to do? I tried to make sure I had important details (photos on wall to show family is important, his badge and squad car to let us know his job, pain of losing wife, his overprotectiveness, that he feels overwhelmed.) I stated his goal: to delay her growing up as long as possible. Also wanted to show her straining against him, making him feel unprepared for her growing up. Also, I included her getting the town praying for him to find a wife, but I ended up saving that for later in the book.
I think I did pretty well managing to get everything I wanted in there. I hope it has just enough detail and makes you root for Gabe. I hope you feel his pain. And I hope you’re starting to wonder how on earth he’s going to deal with this problem—so you’ll keep reading! Yep, that’s the story question that you need to have in there.
When I emailed Dianna Love about including their writing exercise in my post, she was generous enough to share another writing exercise for you to try so you can enhance your opening line. (And believe me, that first line is extremely important! You have to suck and editor or agent right in.) From Dianna:
To create a strong opening line, ask this of the first line in your book –
1) Is this the most important sentence on the opening page?
2) What is it about this first line that will make the reader curious about my story if that’s all they read?
3) Is the sentence as concise and specific as it can be?
Dianna also shared an example of how you can take a good opening and use specific details to make it stronger.
A) - He opened his eyes and slowly took in his surroundings, searching for one thing that looked familiar.
- Prince Lucien opened his eyes and slowly took in his bleak surroundings, searching for one thing that looked familiar.
- Harry opened his eyes and whistled softly at his opulent surroundings, searching for one thing that looked familiar.
All three include action, but see how you can make a generic opening completely different with those details?
Okay, so take your first sentence and give this a try. If you dare, share it with us! Show us the sentence as you have it now. Then see if you can make it even better. I hope you’ll join the fun! I’ll be doing a drawing from among all commenters (even if you don’t participate) for a copy of A Family for Faith. Just be sure to let me know to enter you.
Missy Tippens’ fourth book from Love Inspired, A Family for Faith, is available at
Check out Missy’s website to read the first chapter. If she did her job, you’ll want to keep reading!
A special thank you to Dianna Love and Mary Buckham! www.breakintofiction.com