Romance Writing 101: Starting with a bang!

Grace Thiele

This week, Harlequin insider Grace Thiele shares her top tips for grabbing a reader with your first line!

One of my absolute favourite books, the incredibly romantic I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, begins with the immortal line: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ From the moment I first read it, I loved that book, and I’ve reread it every year since. The book obviously has a lot more to it than kitchen sinks, but it’s a perfect introduction to a really wonderful story. Having just read it again for the (millionth) time, I thought this week would be a great time to talk you through how to open your Harlequin romance!

Of course, the most famous opening line in romance is ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,’ by Jane Austen, but a truth perhaps less acknowledged is that a single opening line is not all it’s about. How you open your story will not only be the first thing a Harlequin editor will read, but also, potentially, the first taste a reader will ever have of your work – and first impressions really count!

So so so so scandalous…

There’s something about a really scandalous, memorable moment: one Harlequin editor, when asked, recalled the opening of Presents story A Royal Without Rules by Caitlin Crews, where the heroine, PA to the debauched prince hero, walks in on him in bed with two naked women. Obviously, something like this is not going to suit every story. But if the shoe fits…


Choosing your moment…

It’s really important to open at the right point in the narrative. Too early can lead to unnecessary preamble before anything happens; too late, and too far into the story, and the reader will be confused and quite possibly not continue reading. The first really crucial moment that brings the hero and heroine together is a good one to go for: they might not be on the page together (although it shouldn’t be too long before they are), but whatever that moment is, it should be a distinct part of both their stories.

‘Hello, it’s me…’

A really striking line of dialogue is one great, and very popular, way to begin your book. You might begin with your hero exclaiming, ‘Who is Rebecca Warfield?!’, or your heroine announcing ‘I’m carrying your child!’ – this will immediately thrust the reader into their relationship. However, be wary of starting with a really dramatic line of dialogue that the rest of the story cannot live up to: it needs to be followed through with a fantastic overall opening that will lead into the rest of the story.

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay’…

Another, if slightly gentler way, might be to begin with a description of place: this can be a really wonderful way of introducing the reader to a place that should be very important to the story. A really effective way to do this might be the heroine walking into a new place, for example a hero’s palatial mansion, for the first time, and being totally overwhelmed by it. Especially in series like Presents or Romance, you may be taking your reader into a glamorous, wealthy world that they are not familiar with. Having your heroine introduce us to it is a great way to begin a story – but don’t let yourself indulge in too much description. It’s great fun to write paragraphs describing a hero’s amazing penthouse apartment, but remember, Harlequin editors and readers want to know what the protagonists are going to be up to in it!

In the context…

One series that you need to be careful when introducing a reader to the world of is Historical. While editors often encourage their authors to begin with a date and location line, however you decide to begin (be it with dialogue, description, backstory, et al.), it really needs to reflect the historical context. Editors really want their readers to sink into the historical environment like a bubble bath and be totally immersed in it throughout: so start as you mean to go on!

Last week I wrote about backstory, and this is another way to open up a story: but advice from the Harlequin eds, as per my last post, is not to overdo it. Focussing on what a character is thinking about is a great way to get into the story, but never forget that romance is all about the present moment – and that’s what we can’t wait to read about!


Anyway, I hope that helps! Next time I shall be discussing how to describe your characters, from their appearance to their mannerisms. Cheerio possums!

6 replies on “Romance Writing 101: Starting with a bang!”

Excellent advice! How’s this for an opener?

Will Conall sat at a shadowy table in a far corner of the bar with his back to the wall. He was nursing a drink and watching my every move.

Loved it, Yvonne. The first line was like, “okay…” and then you closed with the mysterious “watching my every move” in the second sentence and I was like, ohhh. Now I’m wondering if she’s some criminal? If he’s a PI hired to catch her in some salacious act? If he’s her ex?

My mind’s spinning with solutions. I think you’ve got a winner. Could you combine the two sentences (as below)?

“Will Conall sat a shadowy table in a far corner of the bar with his back to the wall, nursing his drink and watching my ever move.”

“Too much back story” was the reason I was rejected!
I hope I have done better this time.
Thank you for the great advice.

Okay, what do you guys think about this? Does it go too long with her thoughts before Alex shows up?

“Two hundred dollars doesn’t sound that bad right now,” Isabelle grumbled as she hefted yet another shovel full of the heavy snow.

Her arms and back were killing her. Six inches of the white stuff had already fallen and the weatherman was predicting at least six more. Considering how accurate the local weather forecasts were, Isabelle was willing to bet her entire net worth, small as it was, on at least another eight to ten inches. Another eight to ten inches of muscle-straining, back-aching snow removal. What on earth possessed her to think she could manage this? Wisconsin winters were notorious for snow and harsh weather. Two hundred dollars was all the guy wanted and he’d promised to keep her drive and walkway clear the entire season. And she had turned him down.

In July it hadn’t seemed like such a problem. In July, the thought of six inches of snow had seemed … refreshing. In July, she hadn’t realized just what she was getting into when she bought the side-by-side rental property. Living on one side and renting out the other seemed like such a great way to own her own home and have help paying the mortgage. She’d learned a lot in the last five months and Isabelle was now of the firm belief she knew what hell was.

Hell was being a landlord.

“The road to the underworld is paved with snow-covered driveways and lined with rental properties,” she muttered disgustedly.

“So…hell has frozen over, then?”

Isabelle didn’t bother to turn around. The voice was unmistakable. It was her tenant, Alex Chamberlin. She groaned silently and waited….

“Do you want to be on top, or can I?” he asked, far too cheerfully.

Isabelle closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the shovel handle.

“Go away, Alex. I’m in no mood for this tonight,” she told him tiredly.

It was her fault, she supposed. She was the one who said, “Hell will freeze over before I sleep with you, Alex Chamberlin!” She just didn’t like having it thrown up in her face.

Hi Tessa! I really like this opening! Everything flows naturally through the heroine’s thoughts, which I really like, there’s things going on around her and the hero comes in at a good time too. Lovely stuff 🙂

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