Guest blogger: Sarah Richmond
Writing romance comes with its own unique set of challenges. Even with a beginning filled with explosions, car chases, witches or even magic fairy dust, the opening scene of a romance needs to show the troubling internal conflict that keeps the hero and heroine from having a satisfying and everlasting relationship.
In my opinion, this is accomplished by paying attention to three factors.
First, the writer establishes conflict in the tone or mood of the story. Using sentence structure, word choice and setting, the tone hints at the internal conflict.
Here is an example from Nora Roberts’ Lawless:
He wanted a drink. Whiskey, cheap and warm. After six weeks on the trail, he wanted the same kind of woman. Some men usually managed to get what they wanted. He was one of them. Still, the woman could wait, Jake decided as he leaned against the bar.
The whiskey couldn’t.
He had another ninety long, dusty miles to go before he got home. If anybody could call a frying pan like Lone Bluff home. Some did, Jake thought as he signaled for a bottle and took his first gut-clenching gulp. Some had to.
For himself, home was usually the six feet of space where his shadow fell.
Notice the short sentences and clipped speech, the uncomplimentary description of his surroundings. There’s an edge to this character and to his way of living. The reader doesn’t know why Jake is alone, but the dark tone of these opening paragraphs establishes that there is a problem.
Here’s another example from Linda Lael Miller’s Miranda in the heroine’s point of view.
“I’ve got two kids to tend to, and hogs to butcher,” Landry announced forthrightly, that crisp, early October morning, in the dining room of the Springwater station. “Potatoes and turnips to dig, too, and fields to plow under. The fact is, I need a wife in the worst way.” He paused, hat in hand, colored up a little, and cleared his throat. “So I’ve come to ask if—well, if you’d marry me.”
It wasn’t the most romantic proposal, Miranda Leebrook reflected, but she’d wanted Landry Kildare for a husband from the moment she clapped eyes on him a couple of weeks back, while the Hargreaves house was being raised, and she wasn’t about to refuse his offer. Besides, she and little Isaiah-or-Ezekiel couldn’t expect to stay on with the McCaffreys forever. Heaven knew the baby’s real father didn’t want either of them, and pa and his woman, Lorelei, were long gone.
The opening dialogue is several long, stumbling sentences from a hero proposing marriage showing he is nervous. The language is folksy. This is small, friendly town. The tone is lighter than the first example.
Secondly, the story should be in deep POV. Put your reader inside the characters’ heads. If there is description, have it come from the characters, not the author. For the reader who wants to emerge herself in the story, deep POV is essential.
The characters in both examples above are in deep POV. The reader is in Jake’s head. All he describes is coloured by his opinions. Miranda gives us information that reinforces her belief that she’s in a desperate situation and has no choice.
Another example of two POVs:
Betsy stood in front of the beautiful Victorian building where she’d rented a flat for the summer. (author’s POV)
OMG, Betsy mused. Her very own flat—in this beautiful Victorian—for the entire summer. (We learn more about Betsy in this sentence than the first one because her POV is filtered through her emotions.)
Finally, the opening scene shows the character as relatable and/or likeable even though they are far from perfect.
In the first example the reader finds out that Jake is a loner. He doesn’t need anyone. He’s away from home and in no hurry to be home. He’s experienced with women but any woman will do. He’s not in a committed relationship. This man has a swagger and confidence.
All of these descriptions hint at his internal conflict. Why is he a loner? He likes women. Why doesn’t he have a wife or girlfriend? Why is home unimportant to him? Where does his swagger come from?
Does the reader still like him even though he comes across as bit of a rough diamond? Do you want to find out more about him? If he’ll change?
In the second example, Landry needs a wife but is almost embarrassed to ask. He takes off his hat as a sign of respect. As he makes his case for this marriage of convenience, he is not indifferent to the heroine and he’s a little shy.
What do we find out about her? She has a baby and no husband. She’s new in the town and depends on the kindness of strangers. Her baby has an interesting name—Isaiah-or-Ezekiel, hinting at her difficulty in making decisions or possibly she’s lost her confidence in her ability—in this case to pick the right name.
Landry and Miranda’s ‘marriage of convenience’ starts out loveless but they are willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of their children.
What could go wrong? That’s what the rest of the story works out. It’s the power of the internal conflict at the beginning that starts the reader on the journey. If your reader likes your characters, they’ll cheer for them until the very last page.
Allow me to add a few paragraphs from my book Dulcie Crowder Gets Her Man to see if I have the courage of my convictions:
Deputy Sheriff Tom Walker spotted the corner of the black ace peeking out from under Willie Crowder’s frayed sleeve, but he didn’t let on he knew the old boy was fixing to end the evening with a winning hand.
Willie laid four aces on the table as easy as you please and looked up at Tom with a twinkle in his eye.
Tom shook his head and threw down his cards. “You’ve cleaned me out,” he said. “I never did see a man with such a string of good luck at cards.”
Willie chuckled as if he and Lady Luck were on intimate terms. He scooped up his winnings into a hefty pile.
“Another cup of coffee?” Tom stood and stretched.
“Don’t mind if I do.” Willie said with a voice full of gravel. He drained his mug and handed it over.
Tom exited through the open cell door and poured two mugs full.
The tone and mood is established by the folksy dialogue. All is well until the reader realises the two men are in a jail cell.
Deep POV? Not completely. I used Tom’s name and title in the opening sentence to anchor the reader as to whose point of view it was. I was giving the reader information, which I could’ve introduced in dialogue.
Relatable/likeable: Tom lets the condemned man win the card game even though the prisoner has cheated. It was a small kindness toward a man about to die. Tom leaves the cell door open—either he’s a terrible lawman or he doesn’t believe the old boy is a threat. Often a fatal mistake. What is his internal conflict? Tom may be too soft-hearted to be a good lawman. Hopefully, the reader finds Tom deserving of love.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to express my opinions on writing the opening scene of a romance. Hope you find them beneficial.
Sarah Richmond is the author of ten romances. Her favourites are set in the old West and in the golden age of the Edwardians. You are invited to visit her website at www.sarahrichmond.com
(Lawless by Nora Roberts (c) 1989; Miranda by Linda Lael Miller (c) 1999; Dulcie Crowder Gets Her Man by Sarah Richmond (c) 2011)