I analyzed two books I find riveting. (While both books had romance stories embedded, neither of these books is in the typical romance genre.) What did the openings of the two books have in common?
Both are told in third person past tense, and both use the contemporary writing technique called deep point-of-view, or deep POV. This a writing technique born from contemporary cinema where showing is maximized, while telling is minimal or absent.
What does that mean?The reader experiences the situation alongside the character, because the reader sees what the character sees, smells what the character smells, and experiences emotions largely without naming them–for example, “her cheeks grew warm,” rather than “she felt embarrassed.” The character’s thoughts are reported without using quote marks or italics, but just spilled onto the page, because everything that’s on the page is coming from the character’s head and heart–the observations as well as the thoughts and emotions.
1. Description: Both of these openings contain quite a lot of description. They moved the character through the scene and salted the movement with lots of details.
2. Minimal back story: The “you are there” effect, with minimal background information revealed, leaves plenty of unanswered questions in the reader’s mind as to how the character got into this pickle. The questions tend to draw the reader in, too.
3. High stakes: Tension makes a story. Without it, the reader will yawn and put the book down. Tension needs to be on every page, a subtext for every paragraph. In both books, the opening scenes contain fairly high stakes and a lot of resulting tension. What are the stakes? The character is not facing death at this point, but humiliation in both books. We all experience humiliation as something to be avoided at all costs. So we get this.
4. High action? Guess again: Hollywood is fond of prologue-style openings for action movies, where a short punchy action scene introduces the main character to the reader in a situation that is not the main challenge for that character in the rest of the book. Indiana Jones in a cave being chased by rolling boulders, for instance.
Both of these openings sort of followed that pattern, with the main character engaged in trying to do something that isn’t directly related to the big question found later in the book. But these opening scenes are not short, and they aren’t high-action.
4. Dwelling on emotions: The authors take their time moving the character through the scene, portraying above all the character’s emotions. The opening scene, and the whole books actually, become an emotional landscape for the reader to experience alongside the characters. Just what the readers want!
So, what are the two books? By Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson and Firebird by Kathy Tyers. Both adventure stories with romance thrown in, against a backdrop of fantasy/sci fi. Your favorite riveting books will be different. Can you share what you learn from their first scenes?