Once upon a time…are there any words that hold more promise to a romance reader’s heart than these? Words to that effect will also work. With romance fiction, we know that, by the end of the book, the two lovers will be together and happy about it, but at the beginning? That’s anybody’s game. Come play.
Once upon a time (see what we did there?) it was common, in an earlier age of romance fiction, to open the story in a more leisurely fashion. Winds blew across the open plains of the savannah, or lush fields of grain, whipped down city streets, died on the open sea, becalming the merchant ship that appeared but a pinprick upon the horizon. If our story took place in a grand, stately home, we might first be treated to a history of the place, and a quick (ish) overview of the family that had lived there for umpteen generations, before we met hero or heroine, either the shining star or black sheep of the current generation. It wasn’t entirely uncommon, either, in those days, to meet that hero or heroine far before they were of an age to do any romancing of anybody. At times, we might even meet them at their birth.
That may be a bit more information than the modern reader would prefer. These days, it’s more likely that we’ll be dropped into the middle of the action, with little or no buildup to the moment that is going to change that hero or heroine’s life forever. This may see us in the middle of flying bullets, walking in on a cheating (soon to be ex) partner, or on the doorstep the character swore they would never darken again. Whatever it is, many modern readers will be looking for the other half of the couple to be, because, now, the norm is for both eventual lovers to meet each other sooner, rather than later. If that happens in the first few pages, great. If it happens on the first page itself, for some readers (and writers,) all the better.
Either way, the first moment our two lovers encounter each other, it’s magic, sometimes literally. Paranormal readers, you know how it goes. Even without a sprinkle of otherworldly pleasure or peril (or sometimes both) there’s a certain charge to the first interaction between the characters. Even if they’ve known each other all their lives, from being born on the same day in the same hospital, or remote village, there’s that moment when they notice each other, for the first time, in that way, and, from the on, nothing is ever going to be the same. That’s a good thing, because that’s exactly how we want it.
The old adage, about beginning as one means to go on, applies very well to romance novels. The first interactions of our lovers make a promise to the reader, of how this love story is going to go. That may be lighthearted banter, erotically charged energy, a deep, quiet understanding that needs no words, or maybe something else altogether, and it doesn’t matter if it happens on page one, or page one hundred (okay, maybe that does matter for some readers, and, likely, for editors and agents, who might want the page one hundred writer to pick up the pace a tiny tad) because, in the hands of the right author, that moment is going to happen at exactly the right time for this couple and their unique story.
Even though the more leisurely openings of days gone by may feel old-fashioned or slow to some modern readers, they also laid a rich foundation for the story to come, grounding the reader in time and place, and making sure they knew important details, straight at the outset. Some might argue that such openings are the product of a bygone age, when things moved more slowly, and books had more time to meander. There may be some truth to that, and there’s nothing like being dropped down into the middle of a whirlwind, feeling the surge of adrenaline and the rush of attraction at the approach of an intriguing stranger. Such openings, set in the past, present, or future, fit well with the frenetic pace of the modern reader’s life, and get down to business, right out of the gate.
Fashions in anything go in cycles, and it’s entirely possible the wheel will turn again, allowing readers a bit of respite from the pace of everyday life, and a chance to put down some roots. Then again, some waves keep on rolling. In the end, it doesn’t matter on which numbered page the beginning really begins. Who remembers the page numbers, anyway? (Unless you do. Then that’s super cool, and we are impressed.) What we remember is the feeling. We remember the emotion, the connection with the characters, whether they meet on the first page, in the first chapter, or farther on down the road. We remember that spark that inspires us to settle in and get comfy, because these two characters have not only found each other; they’ve found us, as well.
So, dear readers, I hand it now over to you. What is your favorite sort of beginning? The more leisurely, wide-angle lens of classic titles, the fast-paced modern approach, or something in between? Do you have a favorite opening, period? Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. If all this blather about beginnings has you wanting to end the discussion, we want to hear about that, too. There’s room for everybody at this table.