Shirley Jump’s Six Tips for Opening Your Book with a Bang

favOn the Food Network, there have been a few stars that stand out, whose cooking methods have created buzz all over the country because they have a powerful delivery. My favorite of all of the chefs was Emeril Lagasse and his signature “Bam!”

Books that are memorable, that stand out in your memory, also have Bam. They start with a bang, drawing you in and keeping you there, page after page.

You may look at those books and wonder how the author did that, how she got all that power into one little opening. There are a few tricks to the trade to create a powerful opening, as follows:

  1. START WHERE THE TROUBLE STARTS: After judging dozens of contests over the years, the number-one mistake I see new writers making is starting off too slow. They ease into the book–and end up leaving the reader wondering when it’s going to get interesting. They often feel they need to pump in all this back story, so the reader will “know” the character. The point of a book is for the reader to GET TO KNOW the character, as the person’s layers are peeled back one at a time. Don’t start with all that blah-blah about the character’s background. Start with the trouble, the inciting incident that gets the character smack into something new–something life changing.
  2. START OUT ACTIVE: If you can, try to avoid using passive phrases in your opening lines. Sometimes, they can’t be avoided, but by and large, if you want a powerful, active opening, you need to use powerful, active words. “She was tired” isn’t nearly as powerful as “Jane Doe took the last step she had in her, then collapsed.”
  3. GIVE THE READER A LITTLE LIGHT: Often, the lesson of not inserting back story into the beginning of a book is taken too literally and writers put absolutely zero back story in, leaving the reader with too many questions. What happens is that the characters are two-dimensional because they lack the element that gives them life–a past. You want to HINT at the back story, not lay it all out in twenty-five paragraphs of narrative. Give us a tease, a reason to keep turning the pages to put more of the puzzle together.
  4. SET THE TONE: What kind of book are you writing? A comedy? A drama? A thriller? Whatever you are writing, that tone should be set from page one. If you’re writing funny, start out funny. If you’re writing a thriller, start out scary. There’s a book by Bill Johnson called “A Story is a Promise.” The basic premise of that book is that your novel is a promise to the reader. What the reader sees on the opening pages should be indicative of the book’s overall tone. Don’t start out funny and then have a serial killer come in and wipe out all your characters in a grisly scene. Make a promise–and stick to it.
  5. GIVE  US A REASON TO CARE: In one of my earlier columns, I wrote about characters that readers care about. Readers latch onto characters. If you want your reader to form an attachment to your character, give them likeable tendencies. They should be flawed human beings whose stories you can relate to. Look at “Lost,” the hit ABC series. In each episode, the writers focus on one of the characters, peeling back a little more of their story. You care about everyone, even Sawyer, because you have seen them cry, mourn, celebrate and struggle over their lives. They are relatable people with strengths and vulnerabilities.
  6. LOOK AT GOOD EXAMPLES: Pick up five books (or more) that grabbed you from the beginning and look at the first paragraphs. The first lines. The first five pages. What did the author do in those pages that hooked your attention? Most importantly, what was their opening line? Most authors I know struggle with that opening line, revising it a hundred times before they are happy. It is, after all, the most important line, the one readers look at when they are skimming a book, deciding to buy it. Agent Evan Fogleman once told a group of writers that he knows within three lines if this is a book he wants to see more of or not. After judging a lot of opening chapter contests, I agree with him. I can often tell within a few lines if the author has what it takes. Does that mean that if you don’t have powerful opening lines in your work today you can’t write great opening lines? Absolutely not. Writing powerfully CAN be learned. If you have good basic storytelling skills, all the rest is honing your technique. Think of it in terms of coaching athletes. Many have wonderful raw, natural talent, but they need to have that talent honed and cultivated to fit the dynamics of the team, the game, and the coach. They are taught to use their strengths and improve on their weaknesses. 

Writing a powerful opening creates a story that literally comes to life. Whether you are writing novels or articles, powerful openings will make the difference between your piece being read–or being pushed aside for another. Learn to grab your reader from the start with a little Bam! and you’ll be holding his attention for pages to come.

***

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Shirley Jump spends her days Final The_Sweetheart_Ruleswriting romance and women’s fiction to feed her shoe addiction and avoid cleaning the toilets. She cleverly finds writing time by feeding her kids junk food, allowing them to dress in the clothes they find on the floor and encouraging the dogs to double as vacuum cleaners. Look for her Sweet and Savory Romance series, including the USA Today bestselling book, THE BRIDE WORE CHOCOLATE, on Amazon, and her Sweetheart Sisters series for Berkley, starting with THE SWEETHEART BARGAIN and continuing in April 2014 with THE SWEETHEART RULES.

Excerpt:

Diana Tuttle was a settle-down, make-a-family, live-in-traditional-lines woman. Mike was . . . not. At all. Mike was a soldier, end of story.

“Daddy! I want ice cream! Now!” Ellie stomped her feet and made her mad face. “I’s hungry and you promised!”

Case in point.

“We have to finish shopping first, El, then we can get—”

“Now!” The word exploded in one over-the-top Mount Vesuvius demand. Thirty days, he told himself, thirty days, and then Jasmine would be back and he’d be free to return to Alaska.

Yeah, that’s what he should be looking forward to. The problem was, he didn’t want his kids to go back to living with Jasmine. Mike might rank up there close to number one crappiest dad on the planet, but when he’d picked up the girls, he’d finally seen what he’d been blind to for so long. The dancer he’d married in Vegas was a distant, hands-off mother who had blown his monthly child support checks on parties and shoes, while his daughters went around in too-tight, too-short hand-me-downs and ate store-brand cereal three meals a day. That had pissed him off, and when he’d gone through the house to help the girls pack, it had taken every ounce of his strength to stop himself from exploding at Jasmine.

Because truth be told, it was his damned fault they lived this way, and if he’d been the kind of man and father he should have been from day one, then none of this would have happened. Yet another chalk mark in the failure column.

“Ice cream!” Ellie screamed. Several people turned around in the aisle, giving Mike the glare of disapproval.

Diana backed up a half step. “I’ll let you go. Have a good vacation with your daughters.”

He swore he heard a bit of sarcasm in the last few words. He told himself he should let her leave, but a part of Mike wondered about that dress. And wondered if she’d thought about him in the last six months. Plus, she seemed to have a way with Ellie, a calming presence, that he could sure as hell use right now. At least until he figured out what the heck he was doing. “Do you want to get some ice cream with us?”

What was he doing? He had a schedule to keep, a plan for the day. Eighteen minutes until he planned on being done shopping, then thirteen minutes to get home, stow the groceries and then eat lunch at 1300. Lunch done and cleaned up by 1345, and chores until 1500.

Chucking that schedule to the side made the muscles in his neck tighten like steel cables. Yet a part of him wanted to while away the rest of the day with Diana Tuttle in the quaint Rescue Bay ice-cream shop and find out if she was a chocolate or vanilla kind of girl.

His money was on chocolate. Definitely chocolate.

“Ice cream! Ice cream!” Ellie jumped up and down, the teddy bear flopping his head in agreement.

“Just what she needs—sugar,” Jenny muttered.

Diana began to back away. “Uh, it seems you have—”

“Come on, it’s ice cream,” Mike said. “Everyone deserves ice cream at the end of the day.” He nodded toward the basket in her hands. “Unless you have somewhere you need to go.”

Could he be more pathetic or obvious? Somewhere she needed to go?

“Please?” Ellie said. “Please go with us? I like you and Teddy likes you and Daddy is grumpy.”

Diana laughed, and seemed to consider for a moment. In the end, she was won over by Ellie’s pixie face. “Well, who can resist an invitation like that?”

Ellie jumped up and down again, then ran back and forth in the aisle, nearly colliding with other shoppers, singing, “We’re getting ice cream, we’re getting ice cream.”

“Ellie, quit,” Mike said.

Ellie kept going. Jenny studied a hangnail.

“Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream.” Ellie spun in a circle, almost crashing intointointo an elderly woman in a wheelchair. “Teddy loves ice cream, Jenny loves ice cream, Ellie loves ice cream.”

“Ellie, quit it!” Mike said again, louder this time.

Ellie kept going, like a top on steroids. Her song rose in volume, her dancing feet sped up. She dashed to Mike, then over to Diana. “Ice cream, ice cream!”

Diana bent down and put a light touch on Ellie’s arm. “If you want ice cream, you have to be good for a little while, and help your daddy finish the shopping.”

“I don’t wanna be good. I wanna sing my ice-cream song!”

Diana gave her a patient smile. “I’m sure everyone wants to hear your ice-cream song”—an exaggeration, Mike was sure—“after the shopping is done. Because if we stop to listen now, it’s going to be a long time till anyone gets ice cream.” Diana picked up the teddy bear’s floppy paw. “And that might make Teddy sad.”

Ellie stopped spinning and whirring and singing, and stood still and obedient. “Okay.”

Mike stared at his Tasmanian devil child, who had morphed into an angel. She slipped into place beside Jenny, standing on her tiptoes to place the teddy bear in the child seat, and turned back to Mike. “Daddy, we need to do shopping. Jenny says we need peanut butter.”

Mike turned to Diana. His gaze connected with her deep green eyes and something dark and hot stirred in his gut. He remembered her looking at him with those eyes as the sun set and the last rays of the day lit her naked body like a halo. She’d slid down his body, taken him into her mouth—

Mike cleared his throat. “Thanks.”

Diana shrugged. “No problem.”

“Are we shopping or what?” Jenny said, with a gust of frustration.

“One sec, Jen.” He turned back to Diana. “I only need a few more things. Do you want to meet over at the Rescue Bay Ice Cream Shop in, say, fifteen minutes?”

“And then what?” she asked.

“Then nothing,” Mike said. “It’s just ice cream, not a date. No expectations.”

Her face tightened and he wanted to kick himself. God, he was an idiot. No expectations.

It was what he’d written in that stupid note back in January. We both said no expectations and no regrets. You’re amazing and I hope you have a wonderful life. Mike

Diana glanced at Ellie and Jenny, then back at Mike. The smile on her face seemed forged out of granite. “You know, I’m going to take a rain check after all. Ellie, I’m sorry.”

“Diana—”

She met his gaze, and the warmth he had seen there six months ago had been replaced by an icy cold. “No expectations, remember?”

Then she was gone. Ellie started to cry. Jenny marched off with the cart. And a part of Mike wondered if it was too late to make his flight to St. Kitt.

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