“It was a dark and stormy night.” “Once upon a time …” Those are two classic ways to begin a book. While they’ve become clichés, they are effective beginnings. Why? Because they set the scene.
The first one tells us we’re not reading a romantic comedy. Instead, there’s likely to be at least something sinister about this story. The second one makes it clear that the tale will take place at some time in the past. It also has a leisurely feel to it, signaling readers who are seeking fast-paced contemporary stories that this isn’t the one for them. All this in just one line. That’s part of the art of a great beginning.
But there’s more. Not only should the first page tell readers what to expect from the rest of the book in terms of tone and timeframe, it should also intrigue readers enough that they simply cannot put the book down.
How do authors do that? By asking more questions than we answer. I don’t mean that we necessarily begin with a literal question, although a line like, “Why couldn’t you at least have tried to hide Wayne’s body?” would probably intrigue readers enough that they’d continue.
Rather than use actual questions, I try to begin my books with sentences that will pique readers’ interest and cause them to ask themselves questions like, “Why did she say that? What does that mean? What’s going to happen next?” That’s why I began A Tender Hope this way:
She was free.
Thea Michener smiled as she checked the harness, then climbed into the buggy. Within minutes, she would be leaving the only home she could remember. As much as she loved Ladreville, whose half-timbered buildings and Old-World charm made visitors declare it to be one of the prettiest towns in the Hill Country, it was time for a change.
While others might have trembled with fear over the thought of leaving family, friends, and all things familiar, the prospect filled Thea with relief. A new town, new possibilities, a new life beckoned her. A year ago she would not have dreamt of leaving, but that was a year ago. So much had changed in the past year, most of all Thea.
Here’s what I hoped to accomplish in each of the three paragraphs. The first paragraph, which is only three words long, is designed to make readers ask, “Free from what?”
The second names the heroine and sets the time and place. The references to the harness and buggy signal that this is an historical, while “the Hill Country” tells readers that the book is set in one of the most beautiful parts of Texas.
The third paragraph gives us a few clues to our heroine and the story itself. She’s clearly leaving home, and her reaction to that isn’t necessarily commonplace. Instead of being apprehensive, she’s excited. Why? I don’t tell readers that yet, because I want them to keep turning the pages, asking why Thea wants to leave and what changed her so much that she wanted to leave.
Did I succeed in creating an opening that raised more questions than it answered and that intrigued readers? You tell me.