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How to craft opening passages that WOW

by Sue Brown-Moore
Line edit lesson: First page critique of Tempting Taste by Sara Whitney

Line editing lessons in romance by Sue Brown-Moore

The opening lines of a story are critical. 

This is your first chance to hook a reader, and if you don’t wow them right off, you’re already fighting a losing battle. Your first lines must:

  • Represent your style and voice
  • Introduce the essence of your character(s) and story world
  • Incorporate something memorable to keep readers interested 

Today’s Line Edit Lesson features a story I worked on by the incredibly talented author Sara Whitney. Her stories have heart, driving energy, and memorable witty banter, so it was important to me to be sure all that came through effortlessly in the opening page of the book, Tempting Taste. I’m sharing this excerpt and sample of line edits with the permission of the author, 2019 RWA® Golden Heart® Finalist Sara Whitney. Tempting Taste is available on February 18, 2020.

Here’s the original opening excerpt from Tempting Taste: 

Josie Ryan jerked awake with a start, gripping clammy vinyl under her hands as she squinted in the watery yellow lights and pieced together her current situation.  The L. She must’ve dozed off on her way back to her River North apartment after the launch party. She yawned and pulled her phone from her bag. Almost two a.m. at the end of a very long work week. No wonder she’d nodded off. Every business in the Chicago area wanted to launch new products and host grand openings during the newly warm-ish temperatures of April, and she’d been sprinting from event to event all month long, including this Friday night bash to celebrate a downtown club opening that had run inexplicably late. Good thing she’d woken up before she’d missed her stop. But what had pulled her out of sleep?

Line editing tip: Minimize adverbs
The opening page of a story—especially the opening sentence and paragraph—is critical to locking in a reader’s commitment to keep going. Ideally, the first line is succinct and attention catching. The opening line above definitely catches attention (something has clearly gone wrong for Josie), but the essence of the message here gets lost in extraneous adverbs and prepositions…

  • Clammy; watery
  • With a start; under her hands; as she squinted; into the lights 

If we revise this sentence a little, we can retain the energy and setup without getting bogged down in the details. Something like this might work better: 

Josie Ryan jerked awake. Yellow lights swam in her vision and clammy vinyl creaked under her hands as she bolted upright.

Line edit tip: Be succinct
I removed “with a start” because when someone is jerking awake, it’s likely with surprise. Notice that I kept one of the adverbs—clammy, although it could be removed and still retain a similar feel—and used the verb “swam” to replace the adverb “watery” for similar effect. By having her “bolt upright”, we’re infusing extra energy into the opening, telling readers she’s not just waking up, but that there’s an urgency to the actions. We don’t really need to tell readers that she’s piecing together her current situation, because the next lines already imply that (“The L. She must’ve dozed off”). I considered trimming my own addition of “as she bolted upright” as well, but the imagery there is stark, so I ultimately left it in place. This is where personal preference comes into play. Because Josie is shown jerking awake, we could cut that last phrase without affecting the visual this passage is helping the reader build.
Line editing tip: Line breaks
My next suggestion was to move the bolded line below, which currently starts a new paragraph… 

She yawned and pulled her phone from her bag.Almost two a.m. at the end of a very long work week. 

up to finish off the previous paragraph, like: 

The L. She must’ve dozed off on her way back to her River North apartment after the launch party. She yawned and pulled her phone from her bag. Almost two a.m. at the end of a very long work week. 

This might seem like a silly change request, but it’s a good example of how formatting affects tone and intention. The paragraph above connects the action of Josie checking her phone with her realization of the time, which implies that she pulled out the phone to check the time. Notice how Ms. Whitney could have just said “Josie pulled out her phone to check the time,” which would have been telling—the current version illustrates (shows) the character’s intent.  With the formatting change above, the next paragraph now starts with “No wonder she’d nodded off”, which allows the story to efficiently move on from Josie’s opening sequence of waking up. At this point, she’ll lapse into a quick mental recap after her flurry of physical activity (the two distinct paragraphs separating those sets of activities).
Line edit tip: Details matter
Let’s look at the next paragraph. 

she’d been sprinting from event to event all month long, including this Friday night bash to celebrate a downtown club opening that had run inexplicably late.

Because the story is just starting, we need select our prose carefully. A reader’s attention span at the start of a new book is limited, so each word and phrase must have a specific purpose. Here are some questions I left in the manuscript’s comment sidebar as a thought challenge for the author:

  • Is the fact that the party ran late important to Josie’s role in it? 
  • Is she somehow responsible for keeping the event’s timeliness? 
  • Does this potential professional snafu affect her in any other story-related way? 

If the answer to any of the questions above is no, we should consider removing the adverb “inexplicably”. Try to save adverbs for situations where they matter most and will have clear story or scene impact.

With the changes I recommended above, here’s what the line-edited story opener looks like

Josie Ryan jerked awake. Yellow lights swam in her vision and clammy vinyl creaked under her hands as she bolted upright.  The L. She must’ve dozed off on her way back to her River North apartment after the launch party. She yawned and pulled her phone from her bag. Almost two a.m. at the end of a very long work week. No wonder she’d nodded off. Every business in the Chicago area wanted to launch new products and host grand openings during the newly warm-ish temperatures of April, and she’d been sprinting from event to event all month long, including this Friday night bash to celebrate a downtown club opening that had run late. Good thing she’d woken up before she’d missed her stop. But what had pulled her out of sleep?

What do you think of the changes?

Do you have any questions about the line-editing decisions I made?

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