Posted by: Debrah Martin | September 23, 2013

Cracking the egg:

once upon a time

The opening line – iconic, riveting, whimsical; however you start, it has to make the reader rapt. It also sets the scene for the kind of work you are writing. An exciting opening paves the way for a pacy plot whereas a more reflective start might suggest a more introspective storyline examining characters and their motivations in detail.

A novel or longer work of fiction can lead in to the crux of the action over a whole chapter whereas a short story must plunge in setting mood, character and issues within the first paragraph or so. Whichever it is, by the end of it the reader needs to have been hooked and keen to read on.

The first line or sentence is possibly the hardest one to come up with. woman and booksMany writers (including me) spend endless hopeless hours trying to find exactly the right pitch or format, and it often takes many re-writes to get it anywhere close to something engaging. How long did it take Du Maurier to decide on the opening sentence to Rebecca?

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again …’

Suspense, mystery, a sense of place, the immediate implication that something important happened there, otherwise why would it feature so wistfully in a dream – why, what, when and who was involved?  How clever to imply all of that in a mere nine words!

How did she do it? I suppose – as with all good writing, she followed some clever rules:

Opening gambits:

leap in

  1. Plunge straight in. Put the reader right in the middle of the action.
  2. Create a mystery, issue or problem.
  3. Don’t explain or solve it until you replace it with a worse one.
  4. Have a cliff-hanger at the end of the chapter – the ‘hook’, what happens next…
  5. Introduce your main character(s) as quickly as possible – and before secondary ones.
  6. Try to keep the reader guessing from the start.
  7. Set the mood, tone and style within the opening paragraphs.
  8. Edit and re-write as many times as possible until you feel it is as polished as it can be. Remember, that first line is your reader’s first impression – like a smile is a person’s.

Simply going straight in works best at the point of change in a character’s life. In Chained Melody Tom has just been released from prison with a decision to make. Add to that the letter and diary which have prompted it, and there are immediately three hooks – the release and what he’ll do next, the diary, and the decision to make. The first chapter of Webs (to be released soon) contains the memories of the unnamed killer and the introduction of a murder which is the crux of why he is being questioned by a psychologist, yet not the police, so his part in it is immediately unclear – and mysterious. His thoughts in first person POV set the tone of the book – a psychological thriller.  I aimed for mystery and mood as well as hook by the end of the first chapter.

My next project, Falling Awake, poses another mystery and an unexpected departure point in the first chapter. on bookcaseThe initial hook lies in what is in the strange book of the same name, and why it has such an odd effect on the woman who finds it.

I’ll admit I find the first chapter the hardest of all to write – the pressure is on to make an indelible impression, especially when trying to convince an agent they might want to read past it. Sadly this can tend to make the debut author go over the top in order to grab attention when a gentler approach might have been more in keeping with the writing and subject matter overall. I can only repeat the words of another master penman in response to this,

‘…to thine own self be true…’ (Polonius to Laertes in Hamlet: Act 1, Scene 3)

There is such a lot to say about beginnings, I’m merely scratching the surface here, therefore I have to end this blog post with … to be continued

Find out more about me, Chained Melody  and Webs at:


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