by Mindy Obenhaus
Recently, a fellow author and I were discussing opening scenes, why some really grabbed hold of the reader’s attention while others lacked punch, despite having key elements such as the h/h meeting quickly, goal, motivation and conflict, etc.
An opening scene needs to be engaging and make the reader care about the character enough to embark on their journey with them and see it through to the end. But that doesn’t mean that all openings are cast from the same mold, does it? Curious, I went back and looked at the opening scenes of some of my books.
Just in my two most recent releases things varied considerably. In A Father’s Promise, book one in my Bliss, Texas series, the hero and heroine don’t even see each other until the end of the first scene. And when they do, it’s barely a glimpse and they don’t speak to each other. While in book two, A Brother’s Promise, the h/h are conversing by the bottom of page one.
I write for Love Inspired Books and one of their must-haves is that the hero and heroine meet in the first scene. However, whether they lay eyes on each other on page one or page fifteen or somewhere in between depends on the story. Wherever it happens, though, readers need to be engaged from the get-go. If they’re not, they’ll put the book down and we don’t want that.
So how does one craft an opening that will make readers want to keep reading?
Goal, motivation and conflict – You’ve heard this over and over again. Every character has to have a GMC not only for the story, but for each and every scene. In chapter one, though, it’s their story goal, motivation and conflict that needs to be established so the reader knows what the character wants, why they want it and what stands in their way. It’s what makes us want to cheer them on. Now, that’s not to say that their GMC might not change at some point during their story, but in the opening scene, it’s what starts them on their journey and invites the reader to join them. And it needs to presented ASAP.
Stakes – What’s at stake goes hand-in-hand with GMC. Stakes are what will (or could) happen if they don’t achieve their goal. In A Father’s Promise the heroine wants to name a guardian for her infant daughter so that if the heroine (who has no family) were to die, her daughter would be taken care of by someone who loved her. The stakes are that if she doesn’t name a guardian and something does happen to her, the daughter would become a ward of the state. Stakes are the driving force behind each goal.
Inciting incident – Once we know our character’s goal, motivation and conflict and what’s at stake, it’s time to contemplate the inciting incident. This is when something about the hero and heroine coming together changes the trajectory of their goal and/or life. Needless to say, when my heroine in A Father’s Promise sees her baby’s father, she knows her life is about to change in some way. In A Brother’s Promise, it’s when Christa learns that Mick is now the guardian of his five-year-old niece and she can’t help but reach out to them in hopes of making the transition easier for little Sadie. The inciting incident is what brings the hero and heroine together and often results in a common goal. But we can’t simply bring them together. No, we want to…
Rock their world – Example, my very first book was a secret baby story. Of course, the heroine knew her life was about to change as soon as she saw the hero she believed turned his back on her and her son nine years prior. However, the hero didn’t learn about the boy until chapter three. Then an editor asked me to revise it, stating that she wanted him to find out sooner. So I reworked things, bumped it up a little, though not by much and said editor bought the book. Imagine my surprise when I received my edits where she stated she wanted the hero to learn about the boy at the end of the first chapter. At the time, I wasn’t too thrilled about that, but I soon saw how right she was. Instead of simply seeing the girl he loved and whose heart he’d broken, his world was rocked by the knowledge that he had a son!
In my August 2021 release, the hero and heroine both want to purchase an abandoned castle. The owner refuses to sell but issues a counteroffer. The h/h—who can’t get through a church committee meeting without butting heads—must work together in exchange for exclusive rights to use the castle as an event center and a museum.
When trying to come up with a rock-their-world moment, it helps to use an approach you all have heard me mention before. Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to that character at that moment and then find a way to make it happen. It can be a challenge, but it works.
When crafting the opening of your book, remember you only get one chance to make a first impression. If you don’t grab an editor’s/reader’s attention within the first few pages, they may not keep reading and that’s never good. Instead, we want to capture their attention with an opening that makes them want to journey with the characters all the way through to that satisfying ending.
Writers, what strategies do you employ for an opening with impact? Readers, what sorts of story openings capture your attention? Leave a comment to be entered to win one of two copies of an anthology due out later this month. My April 2019 release, Her Colorado Cowboy, has been paired with Lois Richer’s, Rocky Mountain Daddy, and will hit store shelves April 16th. (US mailing addresses only, please)