Erotic romance: Where should the story begin?

Today, I’m going to talk about where to start a story in romance writing, and then I’m going to look more specifically at where the story should begin in erotic romance, using some very well known examples from across the literary spectrum. All the links on this page will take you to Amazon, where you can use the “Search Inside” function to read the opening paragraphs of each book for yourself.

When J.K. Rowling first submitted Harry Potter to a literary agent, she was told to cut the first two chapters and start with chapter three. I guess we shall never know what those first two chapters would have been about, but I would imagine they were a detailed description of the night Harry got his scar. The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (aka Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) is unusual for a number of reasons I’ll discuss in a future article. For now, we are looking at how stories start.

The first chapter of Harry Potter, in case you don’t know, follows Vernon Dursley around as he overtly has a very normal and boring day, and it’s tempting to think that means it’s okay to start a story with a normal, boring day, but underneath the surface of chapter one, there is a lot going on; Vernon notices strange occurrences because wizards are celebrating the defeat of Voldemort. Tension pulls us through the chapter as Vernon gets increasingly frustrated by all the things that clash with his values as the day goes on, highlighting just how important it is for him to feel normal. This shows us just how badly it’s going to go, when a wizard dumps a baby on his doorstep with a note saying, “sorry, your crazy sister in law is dead. Have a baby.”

Harry Potter, of course, is not a romance, and it’s certainly not an erotic romance, but it is a good benchmark because it’s the best selling series of all time (the best selling book of all time, I believe, is the Bible).

Regardless of your religious views, the Bible is an excellent example of where to start your story. Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, opens with, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” We didn’t get three chapters about how lonely God was, or how bored he was, how he went about his normal day in his usual existence, or how he had yearned to create a universe of his very own… we really don’t know anything about what God was like before he created the universe, and while I’m sure some fiction writers have written books about that, I’m not sure I’d want to speculate.

In a Victorian example which is closer to modern romance than the previous examples, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, begins with a conversation between four young ladies. The opening line is, “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” Immediately, we know the time of year is probably near Christmas, and we want to know why there won’t be any presents.

The fact of the matter is, you can go back in time as far as you like, and choose anything from any genre, but all good books start with something happening. This is contrary to what some people advise for romance, however. I’ve read articles that say you should start with the heroine and hero’s normal lives before they meet one another. YAWN! No-one cares! Maybe in the 1990’s this was still good advice. Examples of bestselling books published in the 1990s are Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, and Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman Of Substance. Both books start with the heroine’s normal life… or do they?

Let’s look in more detail at the beginnings of both books. Outlander doesn’t begin with Claire (the heroine) sitting at home packing to go to Scotland. Nor does it start with her getting on a train with her husband. It starts with her already in Scotland. Something has already happened; she’s already left her normal life and gone to Scotland on holiday. It’s a very long book; I’d guess over 300,000 words, looking at the thickness of my copy, and yet, it doesn’t begin with reams of information about the heroine. It starts with her doing something, and information is interspersed, trickle-fed to readers between things happening, so they don’t get bored.

A Woman Of Substance is a bit less fast-paced. It starts with Emma (the heroine) getting her brother and father ready for work, before she makes the journey to her own place of work. It’s a historical novel set in Edwardian times, but Barbara Taylor Bradford doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae. We get enough information in the opening to know that Emma is working class, that she works at a grand house, that she has to struggle in her daily life, and that she is contemptuous of the upper class people she works for. The opening isn’t mindless activity for the sake of setting a scene, so much as showing the character through the scene. Even the conversation she has with her brother about buttering bread has a point behind it.

Both these books were published before the internet was a common distraction, before everyone had mobile phones, when more people still browsed bookshelves and read magazines. Both books were bestsellers and both were adapted for television. More importantly, both these books were published before the Amazon “search inside” preview and online blurb basically determined whether anyone bought the book or not.

Things have changed. Outlander is still in print. A Woman of Substance is now out of print in the UK, and it’s not selling very well in the US, either. You can’t even buy it in the Kindle format. Why isn’t it selling so good these days? A Woman of Substance has a strong beginning but it’s not fast paced enough to keep up with the demands of the modern reader.

In a modern romance then, the story will generally start where: 1. Something has changed in the heroine’s life. 2. That something should then propel the heroine toward the hero.

In erotic romance, you have the added element that readers are expecting sexual tension. Quality in this genre is often uncertain, because unscrupulous publishers have put out a lot of books that aren’t very good, so now readers are more hesitant to buy erotic romance books. They need to know, from the outset, whether this book is going to deliver.

A good example of how to start an erotic romance is the number one bestseller Claimed by Her Mates by Grace Goodwin. It starts with the heroine, Leah, experiencing a four-way. There is virtually no information about her looks, her backstory, or any of that stuff; Grace just dives right into the heart of the action and we learn so much more about Leah’s character from this. We learn that she is submissive, that she likes strong, dominant men, and that she might have fantasized about being dominated but had never actually experienced it until now. In fact, the whole Interstellar Brides series is full of perfect examples of how to begin an erotic romance story.

My advice is to start the book with a big, interesting event that will show the reader what to expect. The first few paragraphs have a lot of information to subtly convey to the reader; when is the story taking place? Where? Who is the heroine? What is she like and what is she doing? How does she meet the hero? And hopefully, when all these questions are answered, they will answer the biggest question every reader has: Why should I read this book?

Lots of love,
Katie xxxx

Articles in this series:
Spanking writing prompts
Erotic romance: Where should the story begin?
The main spanking scenarios for spanking erotic romance writers
Erotica words for spanking and anal sex writers in BDSM erotic romance
Naming the characters in your BDSM erotic romance
How to make a Twitter advert for erotic romance authors
How to make your erotica or erotic romance advert shine!