Your Opening Pages – Pitfalls to Avoid

By Dorothy Love

In countless writing classes and workshops, aspiring writers are urged to make their opening pages memorable, to “hook the reader” from the outset. Easy to say, hard to do,  judging from the common problems I see in opening pages I’m asked to critique.  Here are some pitfalls you may want to avoid on your way to drawing readers into your fictional world, and some suggestions for making your opening pages shine.

  • Spending too much time describing the protagonist’s ordinary routine. Showing your protag waking up, getting dressed, making coffee, reading the paper, commuting to work slows your story and makes the reader impatient to know how this day is different from any other. Because it’s that difference that makes us keep reading,  give it to us right away.
  • Beginning with a flashback.  If you must use one at all, make it later in the story, after your reader has invested emotionally in your protagonist.
  • Beginning with a phone call  or an alarm clock that wakes the character is a cliche. Don”t do it.
  • Beginning with action for the sake of excitement. Opening your story with a bank robbery, a runaway stagecoach, a hurricane can work, if the action is tied to your main character so that your readers can root for her to foil the robber, rein in the horses, escape the rising waters. The opening action must be  related somehow to the plot and not be there only for the sake of excitement.

So then, how should you begin? First of all, try hinting at your story problem on the first page. In her novel, Beyond this Moment, Tamera Alexander does this beautifully. In her opening sentence the heroine steps off the train in a new town. Three sentences later:  “Each step was heavy, coerced, a reminder of  what had brought her to this place. And of just how far she had fallen. “   Let the reader know your protagonist’s goal, and give  some clue to the choices she  will have to make to achieve it.

Create an immediate disturbance for your character, something that draws him out of his ordinary world. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler refers to this as the call to adventure.  In  The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell reminds us that people read books in order to worry. The writer’s job is to immediately create a  significant problem for the main character. Will the detective find the killer before he finds his next victim? Will the schoolmarm win the affections of the taciturn cowboy? Will the time traveler find his way back to the worm hole before it’s too late?  “Speed in the opening is a matter of disturbance, not high levels of action,”  Bell says. “The faster we worry about a character, the quicker the bond. And the greater our desire to turn the page.”

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Dorothy LoveBefore moving to the inspirational market with her Hickory Ridge series of historical romances for adult readers, Dorothy CarolinaGoldLove published more than a dozen novels for preteens and young adults at major New York houses including Random House and Simon and Schuster. Beyond All Measure, her first Hickory Ridge title from Thomas Nelson debuted in June, 2011 to starred reviews from Library Journal and Romantic Times.  The second book, Beauty For Ashes, released  in early 2012. The third and final book, Every Perfect Gift, released at the end of last year. CAROLINA GOLD, Dorothy’s next novel, a stand alone historical, will be published in November of 2013. Dorothy shares a home in the Texas hill country with her husband and two golden retrievers. She loves chatting with readers through her website: www.DorothyLoveBooks.com or her author page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/dorothylovebooks

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