Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Engaging Openings

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)

Award-winning author Mindy Obenhaus is passionate about touching readers with Biblical truths in an entertaining, and sometimes adventurous, manner. She lives on a ranch in Texas with her husband, two sassy pups, countless cattle, deer and the occasional coyote, mountain lion or snake. When she's not writing, she enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, cooking and watching copious amounts of the Hallmark Channel. Learn more at



  1. Good morning Mindy,
    That was a good nuts-and-bolts post and one I will use as I navigate my way through my WIP> I've got stakes for Her but not necessarily for Him, so my work is as it were cut out for me.
    Openings are all part of the journey. I've had everyone from crit partners to editors to contest judges suggest that I rework mine and for my first book, "Westward Hope," I must have tried on a dozen, before I settled on Michael and Caroline meeting after three years (AND a secret baby) just before setting out on the Oregon Trail. My favorite of my own openings is in "Settlers' Hope," where Oona dunks Pace in a horse trough before they've even been introduced.
    I try to adhere to the Mary Connealy school of openings, where you have a gun go off at some point. That doesn't always fit and sometimes I have someone pull a knife instead...
    I also had an editor object to "Call me Ishmael." How was I to know it had been used before???
    Well this writing life is an adventure for sure, and not just for our characters.
    Thanks Mindy, may be back later.
    Kathy Bailey
    Your Kaybee
    Crafting openings in New Hampshire

    1. Kathy, there's nothing like a good trough dunking to snag the reader's attention. :D Knives and guns are a little more difficult to get away with in contemporary romance, but hey, there's always a first, right?

      Openings can be a challenge. Finding that sweet spot where the story truly begins. But it's all a part of the adventure.

    2. That's why I don't do contemporaries. No room for my brand of violence.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. As a reader different sciences draw me in depending on the genre. Have a blessed and happy day.

    1. Lucy, we always love to hear what readers think. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for this great post, Mindy!

    I need to remember to rock my characters' worlds! Conflict from the get-go, right?

    Now I'm going back to re-read the first chapter in my WIP. :-)

    1. Yes, indeed, Jan. Conflict from the get-go. Besides, it is so much more fun to rock our characters' world than to have our own rocked. Nope, we avoid that like the plague.

  4. Mindy, what a super post! Conflict is such a tricky thing for me to figure out. I'm getting better at it, but it's not easy. I love your suggestion of thinking of the worst possible thing that can happen in that moment and then making it happen. Again, hard . . . but I'm learning how to do that.

    1. Jeanne, that question has helped me out so many times. Of course, it has also left me shaking my head as I try to figure out HOW to make the answer work, but it's a great remedy for lack of conflict.

  5. Thanks for sharing Mindy! Excellent advice as always. ;) This is a post I'm bookmarking. I've always been challenged by external conflict - at least keeping it realistic or tame (blowing up stuff is perfectly acceptable for romantic suspense, but not so much for contemporary sweet lol). Working on upping the stakes for my wip.

    1. Lee-Ann, if only we could throw in the occasion bomb blast in contemporary it would make things so much easier. But you'll be surprised what you come up with when you take the time to answer the worst thing question. Sometimes it's simple, sometimes it's a freak winter storm. :P

  6. Hi Mindy:

    Here's what I like at the start of a story.

    1. A highly interesting initial state which I'd like to know more about even without knowing who the hero and heroine are. It must be that intrinsically facinating.

    2. I want the location to be somewhere I'd love to visit and learn more about or revisit vicariously. I love Nevada Barr books because they all take place in national parks which I have either visited or wish to someday discover.

    3. I want a big event going on during the story start or soon coming up like building the floats for the upcoming Rose Bowl Parade. (Hallmark has already done this).

    4. I want to see the hero and heroine in a conflict over the same goal or a mutually exclusive goal which is believable and would be so justified for each party that it would be hard to decide, as a reader, who should win.

    5. I want the solution to the hero and heroine conflict to be enlightening and not one that is a cliché which the reader already knows how it will be solved.

    6. I like to be thinking not only who do I want to prevail in the conflict but also 'how in the world is the author going to solve this conflict'?

    7. I want the conflicts to be real world problems which in learning how they are dealt with provides a useful learning experience, makes me feel smarter for having read the book, and which comes as a surprise!

    That's all.

    Now, if this sounds difficult to do, my old advertising copywriting boss used to say, "If it was easy anyone could do it and we could hire Herb, the janitor, for a lot less money than you."

    1. Good thoughts, Vince. I might have to print this out. Thanks.

  7. Great post, Mindy! Getting that balance of conflict and information, setting and stakes, intriguing opening line, glimpse into who the characters are...that first five pages has so much heavy lifting to do!

    1. Amen, Erica. I think those pages are rewritten more than any others.

  8. I change my openings so many times!!!! SO MANY TIMES..... Depending on the story, the depth, the targeted audience/publisher, it can go so many ways but yes, Mindy is spot on here.

    Now here's where I'd disagree with my buddy Vince... I don't need a big scene or event or anything like that to nail a story because I love small town stories and emotion-laden characters that are going to face their own Rubicon that might be no bigger than selling Mom's house...

    Or coming home...

    Or coming face-to-face with the father of the child you gave away.

    I think an incredible story can rise from so many varied circumstances and that when you draw the reader into the character's heart and soul, they either love them or hate them... but hopefully want to read on! :)

    And the opening often varies depending on the publisher you're working with at the time. An opening for a Love Inspired book, limited because of the shorter length, isn't necessarily going to work for an 80K trade book. I remember writing two fully separate versions of my first published books (before being offered contracts) to make sure that whoever dangled that first contract, I was ready.

    Doing that helped me to actively see how to condense a story for category (because my Walmart shoppers are normal folks, like me!) and how to expand a story for a longer read without adding filler... Boy, we learn a lot in this business, don't we?

    1. Sage advice, Ruthy. LI is a different animal, one that, I think, forces us to learn to get to the crux of the story in a succinct manner. It's a good exercise.

    2. Spot on, Ruthy. And writing a novella is another kettle of fish as well. The story has to hit the ground running because there isn't time to develop the story and characters....

      And as much as I enjoy writing novellas (my pea brain can contain the entire plot easier than 100K! lol), and as much as readers seem to enjoy them, the one thing that I see in reviews of novellas and novella collections is that the reader sometimes wishes the story unfolded slower, had more meandering twists and turns like a long slow drive through the country. But almost every time a read makes that statement, she couches it in the context that she understands the story is a novella and there's not enough room to slow it down.

      Short story, novella, category, trade, family saga (think of trying to set the ENTIRE stage of Downton Abbey in one opening scene!!!!). They are ALL different and require different techniques in that opening scene.

      Good stuff, Mindy!

    3. That is all so true. And I think our skills are nothing but sharpened by being able to either condense or expand and learn how to do both... but Pam, I miss writing novellas with you guys! We had so much fun!!!!!! We should talk about that again.

    4. Pam, I have yet to tackle a novella. And setting the stage for a saga like Downton Abbey? Well, I can't even begin to wrap my pea brain around that.

    5. Hi Ruth:

      You can write a very good romance in the ways you mention. And, indeed, you have. Many times.

      However, I'm a marketing person looking at selling those good books. I mean really, really selling them. In a way, your 'small ball' way, of writing the story provides only the story to be the major selling point. One cannon in a war.

      My way is 'big ball'. It's the Hallmark way. Have a great setting to attract readers who might not otherwise even read a romance. Have a big time event people would love to attend. Show the inner workings of that big event. This will attract and please readers in addition to the joy of the romance itself.

      Make the reader feel smarter for having read your book, say with lots of on-point medical and legal insights, as you've done so well. Do this and the readers will more likely remember that book, word of mouth that book to friends, and buy your next book. (I know a lady does not need makeup to attract a man who will love her for who she really is, however, put on that 'war paint' and there will be a lot more braves buzzing around to choose from. :J you can blame my sister for this comment.)

      Then, of course, it is always good to surprise the reader with a new and creative way to reach an HEA -- a way which the reader knew was coming but could not foresee how it was going to be done!

      Think big ball!
      Sell more books!
      Nothing less than a blockbuster!
      Aim high!

      It's not enough to make the reader happy.
      Delight that reader!

      Show your best stuff.


    6. Considering all the books Ruthy has sold, I think she's on to something, Vince :)

  9. Love the cover of the book Blessings to You!

    1. Thanks, Sarah! Sending blessings right back atcha!

  10. Great post, Mindy, packed with info! Love the comments too!

    Vince, you're a cheerleader! Thanks for encouraging us to write BIG! Your love of place shows, as well!

    I'm laughing at KB's mention of a Mary Connealy trick--have a gun go off! I might use that in a future book. Thanks, KB and Mary, for the tip. BANG!!! :)

    1. Suspense and western authors always get to play with guns. ;)

  11. The beginning of a book, this makes me want to go back and try yet again to really explode my beginning. Great blog, Mindy


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