Jul 082012

Could you use some tips on how to write that oh-so important opening paragraph for your next novel? The paragraph which will draw a reader in deeply enough to induce them to carry your novel from the bookstore bookshelf to the check-out counter? In today’s article, Cheryl Bolen will share some valuable information which she learned during a workshop offered by author Colleen Thompson.

The six principles which will help you write a powerfully compelling first paragraph …

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"The average piece of writing has not minutes, but seconds, and not pages to convince someone to invest both time and money," said romantic suspense author Colleen Thompson in her recently delivered workshop titled "Emotionally Engage from the Very First Page."

Thompson, who previously wrote seven historicals under a pseudonym, earned a Rita nomination for the first of her six romantic suspense novels and is a current Romantic Times nominee for Best Romantic Suspense of 2007. She’s also contributed several articles to Romance Writers Report and Writers Digest. According to Thompson, successful openings hinge on these six components:

Quickly build identification with protagonist

Readers automatically "imprint" on the first character; therefore, it’s important that readers identify with the character’s humanity. How is he/she like me, only more so? What’s special about the person that leaves readers wanting more? "Get the reader in an emotional situation right away," Thompson recommends.

Since she writes suspense, her examples came from that genre. "Don’t," Thompson said, write, "She was scared." Give symptoms, physical reactions that demonstrate her fear.

Tap into emotions we have all felt. Here’s an example from Thompson’s The Deadliest Denial:

The worst day of Claire Winslow’s life started early, with a banging at the front door that began at five a.m…a wave of dizziness broke over her and her body trembled like the most damaged of her patients at the rehabilitation center.
Spence was due home from his shift this morning. But her husband would never bother knocking. …

Claire hurried back into her bedroom and grabbed her robe, her mind stumbling through the thought: If Spence‘s dead, I’m not letting them tell me while I stand there in one of his old T-shirts.

If Spence’s dead…God no.

An early morning knock. A midnight phone call. Who hasn’t experienced these things and the instantaneous fear for loved ones they evoke?

Connect with universal emotions

Evoke jealousy, fear, suspicion, love, hope, etc. with recognizable mental or physical hallmarks that simulate and stimulate the reader’s own emotions.
Remind the reader of a time he/she felt pressured, left out, exasperated in mortal terror by using vivid, concrete detail.

Quickly establish narrative drive/escalation

Thompson said the writer must keep narrowly focused on the scene’s purpose. "Make it immediately clear why the reader should care," she said, "then make it matter more." And, of course, do all this with only hints of back story, not dumps.

Raise expectations/build suspense

Raise a question, make clear its importance, show the character sweating — and make the reader wait for an answer. Layer more questions, small and large…leading with the "trail of breadcrumbs" to the next (worse) complication.

Walk the thin line between the familiar and the innovative

Thompson advises that the events related are recognizable but have a compelling twist. Ask yourself "What makes this opening stand out from other published examples of the same?" In today’s market, it can’t be "as good as." It must be better than. Every publisher has established writers who have loyal readers. These publishers are not going to slight them to make room for a new author who is not a heck of a lot better than them.

Convince readers he/she is in the hands of a pro

Use fluent, evocative, or witty prose with no distracting usage errors.

And the author must accomplish all this while being different from others.

Master these six strategies for emotionally engaging your reader from the first page, and you just might become a Rita finalist like Thompson.

© 2008 – 2012 Cheryl Bolen
This article was first published in In Print, February 2008.
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.

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