Editor/Author Alicia Raisley is in the house!

I have known Alicia for years because of our visits at Romance Writers of America conferences over the years. I can't believe I got her here. A special offer will appear at the end. You DON'T want to miss this.

Welcome to our blog. Pull up a chair or back up to the fireplace and warm up. It's a cold morning in Georgia. (shiver) Have some hot tea or coffee? Maybe some hot chocolate?

The End of the Beginning

I'd like to thank Mary Marvella for asking me to guest blog here! She asked me to blog about openings to stories—that is, how to effectively start your story. It's a subject big enough, I could write a book about it, and probably will! (Here are some posts on my own blog that discuss openings.) So to keep this relatively short, I want to focus on the all-important last paragraph.

The beginning of a story has a lot to do, and it might be most helpful to write your opening, write the rest of your story, then come back and revise the opening so it is more effective in setting up the plot questions and themes. I was helping a friend with a story just today, and we discussed the "end of the beginning." This book is about a girl raised in Europe who was forced by her parents to study piano for years. She is disillusioned by music and eager to get far away from her parents, so she chooses a college in the US that has lost its music program. That's the opening, setting up her college story.

I suggested that the author think about what is going to happen later in the book. The college is going to resuscitate the music program and recruit the protagonist to be the first major, and in the end of the book she's going to found her own punk band, showing that she has chosen her own way (not the parents or school). Boy! This is good, because it forces her to change, to learn to value her own talent, to choose rather than just react.

The end of the opening, however, could set up the "praxis" of her journey, by posing a bit of a conflict or question. In a way, the last paragraph in the opening could serve as a "hinge" to the rest of the story, actually helping to open up to the rising conflict and rising action of the middle, and hinting at the theme that will be resolved in the ending.

His first chapter has her choosing a college, deliberately selecting the one that has lost its music program. I suggested a final paragraph that would emphasize what he wants the reader to think about. But to achieve that, he must identify what that is! Does he want the reader to think about her disorientation at being in the US after Europe, a fish out of water? Or her sense of her musical talent being trapped by the expectations of her parents even as she arrives in this new place?

He agreed with the latter, that her journey should start with her resistance to those expectations, and so he wanted to draw the reader's attention to this. So he ended the first chapter this way, "My first class was History of Culture, in the Humanities Quad. Shoved into a corner of the lecture hall was a grand piano, swaddled in a gray quilted cover. I hurried past and took a seat in the center, directly in front of the professor."

This sets up the conflict between her desire to be "merely a student" and her musical talent and provides a concrete action (hurrying past the piano) to symbolize the beginning of her journey from resistance to self-acceptance. If the author wanted to emphasize her "fish out of water" aspect, how could that be achieved with the same situation (entering her first class lecture hall)?

Another way to use that final paragraph in the first chapter is to set up a motif (a recurring thematic image or concept) which the rest of the story will develop. For example, in my Regency novel Poetic Justice, the first chapter pits the hero John against an enemy, who tries to trick him by offering an alliance and then trying to kill him. I was worried that the adventure of this opening would conflict with the quieter aspects of the rest of the story. But when I realized that no matter what the situation, John was always being "tested," especially by the class system that scorns him as a tradesman.

By the time his shipmates arrived panting, daggers drawn, the light was gone entirely and the dock was slippery with blood. Two of the bandits had fled, and the third lay unconscious on the dock. John loosed his death grip on the saddlebag, let his first mate take it, let his steward peel his fingers from around the knife and put it away. He nudged the bandit with his foot. "Tell your employer," he said, then paused to drag in a breath, "that I passed that test too."

Thus, in the final paragraph of the first chapter, I emphasized this motif to connect this scene with the rest of the story, which develops and finally resolves the recurrent pattern.

Look at your own first chapter and think of how you might use that last paragraph to wet up the rest of the book, by establishing the context or conflict, by posing a question the rest of the story will answer, or by connecting the first scene with the rest of the story using a theme or motif. Any examples from your work?

Alicia Rasley is a RITA-award winning novelist who has been published by major publishers such as Dell, NAL, and Kensington. Her women’s fiction novel The Year She Fell has twice been a Kindle #1 bestseller in the contemporary fiction category.

Her articles on writing have been widely distributed, and many are collected on her website The Writer's Corner. She also blogs about writing and editing at Edittorrent. Her Regency romance Poetic Justice is currently available as a Kindle Select book. She is also the author of the plotting guidebook The Story Within, available for the first time in electronic format.


Now for the big surprise! Alicia has graciously agreed to offer suggestions on a lucky winner's story opening! PLEASE NOTE, you are NOT to post your paragraph here. Nope, you MUST email it to me at MMARVELLAB@AOL.com and put For Alicia in the subject line. I will delete your entry if you post it here as a comment. Now is the time to ask her questions before you send your offering TO ME. I will select the openings for her.


  1. Mary Marvella // January 30, 2012 at 12:11 AM  

    Good Monday to you. Don't forget to ask questions. DON"T forget to email your openings to ME at MMARVELLAB@aol.com. Put For Alicia in the subject line.

  2. Mary Marvella // January 30, 2012 at 12:11 AM  

    Good morning Alicia!

  3. Mona Risk // January 30, 2012 at 8:06 AM  

    Hi Alicia, welcome to the Pink Fuzzy Slippers. I met you ten years ago when I just started to write and still lived in Cincinnati. You gave a wokshop at OVRWA about the music of the sentence and the importance of using the right verb. Later, I took an on-line class with you, and sent you my father's book, "The Genius of Edgar Allan Poe." My father was a French writer. The book has been translated. So much for a long introduction to say I am so glad I found you again. I'll go and check the last paragraph of my first chapter to make sure the hook is quite strong.

  4. Diana Layne // January 30, 2012 at 8:27 AM  

    I might be seeing things, but it looks like this is double-posted? But anyway, thanks Alicia, great advice as always!

  5. Edie Ramer // January 30, 2012 at 8:41 AM  

    Alicia, I never thought of the last paragraph that way. I just checked mine, and it does set up the journey of the book and the theme. Phew.

    Mary, when you say the story opening, what exactly do you mean? A paragraph? Or if someone has a one-story paragraph, then two paragraphs? Sorry, but I need things spelled out for me.

  6. Sandra Elzie // January 30, 2012 at 9:07 AM  

    Edie asked the main question that I had, but I have one other.

    My story has a 4-page prologue, set one year prior to Chapter 1 where the hero/heroine meet. How do you feel about prologues and is the prologue considered the "opening" that you're referring to?

  7. Nightingale // January 30, 2012 at 10:37 AM  

    I have a story that just wasn't working. I'm going to take this good advice and check that last paragraph of the opening chapter. I really feel like going through all my manuscripts and checking that important point. You really pointed your friend in the right direction. I find the premise to his story very interesting. I'm into the piano but don't play.

    My question is: Which is more important--the first paragraph or the last paragraph of the first chapter?

  8. Pamela Varnado // January 30, 2012 at 12:16 PM  

    Welcome Alicia. Thanks to your informative blog, I am now able to recognize the theme/motif that runs throughout my story. My question: What's the difference between a theme, a motif, and a symbol? Thanks.

  9. Judy // January 30, 2012 at 12:30 PM  

    Wonderful to have you here, Alicia! Loved the tip you gave on opening. It gave me a whole new way to look at the end of the beginning!! Thanks so much!

  10. Brandie N // January 30, 2012 at 12:38 PM  

    After rewriting chapter one about ten times, I think I now found my problem...I need to finish the story :-)

    I'm still asking myself so many questions and I do not have a clear ending in sight. Maybe that's why I'm stuck on editing chapter one :-)

    Thank you so much for this post!


  11. Mary Marvella // January 30, 2012 at 12:40 PM  

    I am re-posting this for Brandie. As Diana pointed out, I forgot to delete the post after I revised it.
    Mama Mary.

    After rewriting chapter one about ten times, I think I now found my problem...I need to finish the story :-)

    I'm still asking myself so many questions and I do not have a clear ending in sight. Maybe that's why I'm stuck on editing chapter one :-)

    Thank you so much for this post!


  12. Mary Marvella // January 30, 2012 at 12:41 PM  

    Thanks Diana, I'm deleting the other post. OOPS!

  13. Mary Marvella // January 30, 2012 at 12:42 PM  

    I will revisit our original emails and see what Alicia wants. I'm sure she will clarify wen she comes on. Sorry, I am a dork sometimes.

  14. Mary Marvella // January 30, 2012 at 12:42 PM  

    I will revisit our original emails and see what Alicia wants. I'm sure she will clarify wen she comes on. Sorry, I am a dork sometimes.

  15. Mary Ricksen // January 30, 2012 at 2:19 PM  

    Hi Alicia, welcome to our blog.
    I thank you for the great advise and I am going back to check things out!
    Give us the info MM. Please!

  16. Maggie Toussaint // January 30, 2012 at 3:01 PM  

    Hey Alicia,

    I struggle with openings to get something with the right amount of everything. For me, that's the hardest part, sticking the start of the book. Once I get going, I'm on speed skates clear through to the end. I was glad to read your blog here today and to see the points illustrated by your examples.

    You're such a natural teacher!


  17. Liz Lipperman // January 30, 2012 at 8:08 PM  

    Alicia, thanks for the informative look into what catches an editor's eye. There is nothing like opening a book at the bookstore and reading a fist line that makes you say, "Wow!"

    I'll have to go back and check out my stories to see if I did it right.

    Thanks to you and Mary for sharing this.

  18. Scarlet Pumpernickel // January 30, 2012 at 9:16 PM  

    Great advice! I can see how knowing where the story is going and how it ends would make it easier to craft the opening! That's for visiting the Fuzzies and for the wonderful advice.

  19. Alicia // January 30, 2012 at 11:52 PM  

    I remember what you said about your father, Mona! You're on the IR list, aren't you? Best of luck for the indie publishing... I hope it goes well for both of us. Like "early retirement" well!

    Diana, I must be seeing things too, because I posted a comment on the wrong post. :)

    Edie, I think a lot of writers do these things instinctively, having absorbed "story grammar" from reading a lot of books.

    Sandra, heck, you know what I'm going to say about prologues! "It all depends!" My co-blogger and I have written some posts (long) about prologues: http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/search/label/prologue
    Anyway, the upshot is... it all depends! I would just ask, what's the purpose of the prologue in your book? If you think it's necessary for the reader, why? What I see in prologues is that they often have an event that the rest of the story kind of explains or develops-- mostly in suspense novels. In a romance, it might be an event that anticipates the meeting of the two main characters. I'd say the prologue works if it works, but there's no doubt a lot of editors don't like them as a rule, having seen too many that kind of interfere with the power of the hero and heroine meeting.
    In the Poetic Justice book, I have a prologue (an event taking place before the book really opens), only I got away with it because I called it "Chapter One." :) It's definitely a prologue though!


  20. Alicia // January 31, 2012 at 12:15 AM  

    Nightingale, The first paragraph is most important... because if that's not good, the editor or reader might never get to the last paragraph! That's scary, isn't it?

    Pamela, what a good question. By my definition:
    A theme is a book-long "message" or idea-- the whole book goes to explore or prove this, like "Nothing succeeds like success."

    A motif is a repeated pattern, concept, or image that recurs in different scenes in the book, maybe 3-4 times. In my book Poetic Justice, the motif is "testing" or "a test," as the hero is always having to pass tests of his ingenuity, his integrity, and his commitment.

    A symbol is usually an object or a thing which is meant to represent something emotional or philosophical. That is, the concrete represents the intangible. In Poetic Justice, for example, there's a signet ring that John wears that belonged to his biological father, and symbolizes to him and his half-brother their shared paternity. At one point he's angry because he thinks Michael (the half-brother) is testing him, and he throws the ring at him, symbolically rejecting their kinship.

    So theme-motif-symbol are all representations of something intangible, but they're of different "size". The theme is created by the whole book. A motif is within scenes. A symbol is a single thing, concretely there in a single moment of the book.
    Does that help?

  21. Alicia // January 31, 2012 at 12:25 AM  

    Mary, Mary M will tell us all how to do this. :) I'm pretty clueless on what she has planned, but I think you submit an opening paragraph to her.

    Maggie, I wish I was like that! I have "fear of finishing." I power through the opening on sheer inspiration, then my energy peters out.

    Liz, I love to analyze great opening lines-- why they work. "The last camel died at noon," for instance. There-- setting, time of day, and conflict, all in one sentence!

    Scarlet, yes, I find that using a word-- a keyword-- in both the beginning and the end can help the coherence a lot.

  22. Alicia // January 31, 2012 at 1:11 AM  

    I am sorry to be so pitiful, but I just started a Twitter account with a friend who has never Tweeted, and I'm no good at it either, but I want to prove that we can do this. (We're both techno-clueless.)

    If you are on twitter, could you follow us? I promise we won't be annoying. I'm not sure how to get followers except to beg piteously. :)


  23. Autumn Jordon // January 31, 2012 at 9:50 AM  

    Alicia, Thank you for visiting with us and sharing your wisdom. I love the idea of rewriting the opening chapter after you finished the book. I'm a total panster and I usually don't know the theme until then the end. In over to foreshadow, I need to know it. Great advice!

  24. Mary Marvella // January 31, 2012 at 1:37 PM  

    Helloooo, Alicia. When you answer, you really answer!

  25. Mary Marvella // January 31, 2012 at 1:40 PM  

    I will do a blog Thursday to remind everyone what we need for you to send to ME, if you haven't already sent an opening paragraph. If you have sent something and change your mind about what you sent, yell and I won't consider it.

  26. Reina // January 31, 2012 at 4:24 PM  

    Thanks, Alicia! Great tips as usual! And handy as I'm about to revise one of my books, again.
    I will go follow you on twitter...under my other pen name. ;) I don't understand it either, though. :)

  27. Alicia // February 1, 2012 at 1:54 AM  

    Thanks, Reina! As you can see, Twitter is not for me-- this "140 characters" is just about impossible. :)
    Autumn, yes, sometimes we have to write it to know what we've written!


  28. Josie // February 1, 2012 at 5:17 PM  

    I'm such a big fan of yours. Thanks so much for your words of wisdom and visiting the Pink Fuzzies. As always, thanks to MM for having you here.

    I'm too late, I assume, to send my opening to MM, but congrats to the lucky winner.

  29. Mary Marvella // February 2, 2012 at 1:20 AM  

    Joanne, you are not too late.

  30. Alicia // February 3, 2012 at 12:24 AM  

    Hi, Josie! I don't think you're too late-- talk to MM!

  31. EC Spurlock // February 3, 2012 at 8:00 PM  

    Hi Alicia, thanks for being here and thanks for the advice! I'm going to keep this post in hand as I re-tackle a WIP I had set aside last year in sheer frustration. I was having a lot of issues with the character arcs, and I think if I can start off with the focus on the theme from that first chapter, and set up the conflict in that last paragraph, that will act as a rudder to help me "steer" the rest of the story on course.

    Ironically, my word verification is "rutfic" -- yes, this piece of fiction was in a rut; here's hoping I can get out of it! :-)