Emotionally Engage from the Very
By Cheryl Bolen
"The average piece of writing has not minutes, but seconds,
and not pages to convince someone to invest both time and money," said
romantic suspense author Colleen Thompson in her recently delivered
workshop titled "Emotionally Engage from the Very First Page."
Thompson, who previously wrote seven historicals under a
pseudonym, earned a Rita nomination for the first of her six romantic
suspense novels and is a current Romantic Times nominee for Best
Romantic Suspense of 2007. Sheís also contributed several articles to
Romance Writers Report and Writers Digest.
According to Thompson, successful openings hinge on these six
Quickly build identification with protagonist
Readers automatically "imprint" on the first character; therefore,
itís important that readers identify with the characterís humanity. How
is he/she like me, only more so? Whatís special about the person that
leaves readers wanting more?
"Get the reader in an emotional situation right away," Thompson
Since she writes suspense, her examples came from that genre.
Donít, Thompson said, write, "She was scared." Give symptoms, physical
reactions that demonstrate her fear.
Tap into emotions we have all felt. Hereís an example from
Thompsonís The Deadliest Denial:
|The worst day of Claire
Winslowís life started early, with a banging at the front
door that began at five a.m...a wave of dizziness broke over
her and her body trembled like the most damaged of her
patients at the rehabilitation center.
Spence was due home from his shift this morning. But her
husband would never bother knocking. ..
Claire hurried back into her bedroom and grabbed
her robe, her mind stumbling through the thought: If
SpenceĎs dead, Iím not letting them tell me while I stand
there in one of his old T-shirts.
If Spenceís dead...God no.
An early morning knock. A midnight phone call. Who hasnít
experienced these things and the instantaneous fear for loved ones they
Connect with universal emotions
Evoke jealousy, fear, suspicion, love, hope, etc. with
recognizable mental or physical hallmarks that simulate and stimulate
the readerís own emotions.
Remind the reader of a time he/she felt pressured, left out,
exasperated in mortal terror by using vivid, concrete detail.
Quickly establish narrative drive/escalation
Thompson said the writer must keep narrowly focused on the sceneís
"Make it immediately clear why the reader should care," she said,
"then make it matter more."
And, of course, do all this with only hints of back story, not
Raise expectations/build suspense
Raise a question, make clear its importance, show the character
sweating ó and make the reader wait for an answer.
Layer more questions, small and large...leading with the "trail of
breadcrumbs" to the next (worse) complication.
Walk the thin line between the familiar and the
Thompson advises that the events related are recognizable but have
a compelling twist. Ask yourself "What makes this opening stand out from
other published examples of the same?" In todayís market, it canít be
"as good as." It must be better than. Every publisher has established
writers who have loyal readers. These publishers are not going to slight
them to make room for a new author who is not a heck of a lot better
Convince readers he/she is in the hands of a pro
Use fluent, evocative, or witty prose with no distracting usage
And the author must accomplish all this while being different from
Master these six strategies for emotionally engaging your reader
from the first page, and you just might become a Rita finalist like
This article was first published in In Print,