NOTE: This is reproduced from an article I wrote for RWNZ Heart2Heart magazine in New Zealand
A vampire strikes fast and hard…with everlasting consequences. The beginning of a book should do the same thing. The beginning is where an author hooks a reader, introduces the characters and hints at the overall theme. Writers are often obsessed with creating just the right hook for their novel in order to keep that reader turning the page.
In a fiction book, more specifically in a paranormal romance, there are three main goals to be met, and three main pitfalls to be avoided. Otherwise, there most often isn’t a chance for the author to get a second chance, no matter how exciting the events are in the second chapter.
1. In a successful hook, the author intrigues the reader.
Finding the hook, finding the theme, is often easier than many of us believe. Look at your beginning. What’s the most interesting aspect of it? Is the hook buried in there somewhere?
Say your story is about a vampire assassin hired to kill the one woman who could destroy his people, because she found an ancient text explaining how. You could start the story with:
Max eyed the woman, surprised by her smile. Kind, thoughtful…intelligent. No wonder she’d been intrigued by the old journal.
Okay. Well, it does mention the journal. But wouldn’t a better hook be:
The knife handle warmed in his hand as Max eyed the smiling woman. Intelligence shone out of her eyes. Twas truly a pity he had to kill her today.
The second example raises some questions. Who is Max and why in the world does he have to kill the intelligent smiling woman? This beginning would hopefully make a reader curious and want to keep on reading the book in order to be entertained.
2. In a successful beginning, the author immediately entertains the reader.
People read books to be swept away for a short period of time, and in paranormal romances, they want entertainment. Happy, exciting, even sexy entertainment.
Kate Douglas is a master at entertaining her readers, as evidenced by the wildly successful Wolf Tales series from Kensington Aphrodesia. Her twelfth and final book in the series will be released in July. Kate spends time getting a visual on her hero, and then sits down to write that beginning from his (or sometimes the heroine’s) view point. “Once that first chapter is set, I can almost always go on and finish the rest of the book. It’s like a foundation for a building—if the foundation is strong, the rest of the structure will stand,” Kate said.
If the foundation is weak or has cracks, the rest of the story will halt and fall. Sad but true. Agents and Editors see hundreds, if not thousands of first chapters every year. These chapters need to grab the industry professionals and not let go in order to get the sale…and when the book hits the shelves, it needs to grab the reader and hold on tight.
3. A reader wants to be involved right way.
The third and final goal to meet is to get your reader involved in the story right off the bat. Make her part of the story; make her care about the characters. Make her not only wonder but truly care about what happens next for them.
Cynthia Eden writes both romantic suspense and paranormal romances. Her next paranormal, Never Cry Wolf, will be released in July from Kensington Brava. She finds there’s definitely a different approach with the two genres. In a paranormal, she spends time showing the new world as well as how normal her characters are within that world.
“Just because my heroine is a vampire, it doesn’t mean that my readers can’t identify with her,” Cynthia said. So in a paranormal romance, Cynthia incorporates as much of the paranormal elements as she can up front, with still showing how the reader can relate to her characters. “Vampires can still have normal personality traits and characteristics that will allow readers to understand them.” And of course, identify with them and thus get involved in the story.
So, what pitfalls can a writer at least try to avoid in grabbing that reader?
1. Avoid information dumps that overwhelm the reader.
So often an author has built an amazing imaginary world with fantastic, third-dimensional characters. This is wonderful. But a problem arises when that author wants to share every single detail with the reader right at the beginning. This is fondly termed ‘an info dump.’
The last thing any reader wants is a huge influx of information to assimilate. “I want the reader curious about my world but not lost, so I try and include the details in dialogue or references characters make,” said Kate Douglas. “A bit here, another tidbit there—eventually the world makes sense without the reader feeling as if there’s going to be a test later.”
There are many ways to let your reader into your world. First by describing the scene, with just enough detail for them to see it. There’s no reason to describe everything from the wall colors to the carpet fibers to the type of wood on the door…unless it’s something your character would notice. If it’s your character’s job to notice such things, of course include them.
Another way to show your new world is through the dialogue or even the actions of the characters. If you’re writing a scene where people fly…well, describe them flying. Your reader will instantly know that this is not the world we live in.
Cynthia Eden finds that in a paranormal novel, it’s important to establish the world rules early. However, “I don’t think authors should do a giant info dump of rules; instead the rules should be sprinkled through the action and the dialogue so that readers see the world as the tale progresses.” She added that the basic rule facts need to be shown in the first chapter so the reader gets the chance to understand and “develop an expectation as to what will come next.”
So the key here is sprinkling. Through in tidbits about your world via quick descriptions, dialogue and of course, action. And do so in a way that engages the reader.
2. Don’t tell about your world, show it.
Some authors go into great detail about the world, how vampires not only exist and rule, and how the bad guys own special guns. Instead of describing this in an introductory paragraph (or a prologue), show the reader your world.
In Fated, my heroine is a scientist who has no idea vampires exist. She gets kidnapped by one, and he could’ve told her all about the vampire world and his role in it. I doubt many scientists would believe him. So instead, I have him yanking out is contacts, showing his otherworldly golden eyes and then dropping his fangs low. The reader discovers the truth at the same time as the heroine.
Shifters also exist in the Fated world. If someone came up to me on the street and told me that people could turn into mountain lions, I’d call the cops. I’m assuming my heroine is as smart, if not smarter than I am. So, instead of having someone tell her about lions, a fully grown lion jumps in front of her and turns into a man. The reader discovers this truth along with the heroine, thus staying involved.
3. Don’t ignore the market.
I don’t know how many editor and agents have blogged lately about the queries they receive where the author claims her book is a paranormal, contemporary, romantic suspense with fantasy and thriller elements. Agents and editors don’t like this. Find a genre, claim it and make sure your book fits in that genre. Industry professionals need to know how to market your book, and booksellers need to know what shelf to place it on.
Kensington’s Associate Editor Megan Records has seen her fair share of such queries. Her best recommendation is to know what books are already out there. “Read, Read, Read. If you don’t know what’s out in the marketplace, how are you going to make your book stand out?”
In other words, once you know what’s out there, you’ll know where your book fits, and how you can provide a new twist to the paranormal worlds.
Vampires have been around in literature for eons. Yet vampire books are still being published and they’re still selling to the public. Why? Well, they each have a new angle, a new twist on the old vampire legend.
Find yours and run with it.