March 30, 2020

Start with a Bang

By Irene Hannon, Author of Starfish Pier

I was recently asked by a fellow author for one piece of advice she could share in a writing workshop she was leading.

After fifty-seven novels and a multitude of years in the publishing game, I’ve learned a lot—so it took a bit of thinking to cull through all the tips stored in my brain and pick out just one nugget of advice. Here it is.

Start your story in the right place.

Where, you may ask, is that? Simple. It’s the moment when everything changes for one of your main characters. When the world they know has shifted, and nothing will ever be the same again.

No matter the genre, our job as writers is to convey that life-altering moment in a high-impact opening. One that grabs readers and lets them know something big is at stake. That leaves them with questions—and eager to read on to find answers.

So how does this work in practical terms?

I write in two genres—romantic suspense and contemporary romance. In suspense novels, not only must authors turn a character’s world upside down in the first few lines, they must also convey a compelling sense of danger. The opening has to launch the book with a bang—sometimes literally.

In my most recent suspense novel, Dark Ambitions, I started with a three-word line of dialogue.

“He got away.”

That short sentence does two things. It suggest a crisis, and it raises questions. Who got away? Why is that important? Is someone in danger because this nameless person has escaped?

The reader will keep reading to find out—and my next paragraph reinforces that this is a red-alert situation, heightening the urgency.

“As the bad news echoed across the miles, I stared at the skeleton of the leaf-stripped tree beside me and tightened my grip on the burner phone.”

Words like skeleton, leaf-stripped and burner phone all suggest danger and intrigue. Language choices are always critical, but nowhere more so than in openings, which must quickly set the mood and evoke emotions in the reader.

Here’s how I captured the precipice of a crisis in the first line of my upcoming contemporary romance, Starfish Pier.

“Maybe coming back to Oregon had been a mistake.”

In this example, it’s clear the character has made a decision he’s having second thoughts about—and that the change in his life may not be for the best.

This opening also raises questions in the reader’s mind. Why was coming back to Oregon a mistake? What prompted him to come back? What is his history in this place he’s returned to? What’s he going to do if he did make a mistake?

Questions like these compel readers to keep reading—and that’s the goal. Attention spans are short these days. You’ve only got a paragraph or two to grab the reader. Make the most of those opening lines.
Irene Hannon is the bestselling, award-winning author of more than fifty contemporary romance and romantic suspense novels. In addition to her many other honors, she is a three-time winner of the prestigious RITA Award from Romance Writers of America (the “Oscar” of romance fiction) and is also a member of that organization’s elite Hall of Fame. In 2016, she received a Career Achievement award from RT Book Reviews magazine for her entire body of work. Millions of copies of her books have been sold worldwide, and they have been translated into multiple languages. She’s active on social media, and especially loves to chat with readers on Facebook!


  1. Thank you Irene, this is excellent.

    One of the biggest problems writers have is the opening sentence in writing their first chapter.

    Your advice, "It’s the moment when everything changes for one of your main characters. When the world they know has shifted, and nothing will ever be the same again."

    Thank you for showing us how to set the mood and evoke emotions. Can't wait to read your new book.

  2. Thank you , Irene, for reinforcing the point that getting the reader interested from the beginning is crucial. That is something I have to keep working on. Sometimes I have to take a look again at the beginning after I have gotten into the story. It would be good to have that key launching point right from the start. As you've pointed out, opening up questions in the readers' mind right from the start is a great way to pull them into the story.

    This is good advice you've given. I plan to use. Thanks.