I asked author Vonda Sinclair to drop by to talk about two points in story writing–the beginning and end of a story. As a reader, I know how important it is to get the first chapter right — to snag the reader hook, line and sinker! But not only does the beginning of a novel need to be exciting, the ending must be perfect. Every reader wants to feel, feel, feel! Let’s listen to what Vonda has to say about these two points.
What makes an exciting beginning to a story?
The beginning of a story is the trickiest part because, as an author, I have to interweave a lot of information quickly (introducing characters so the reader gets to know them and care about them, showing the setting and making the reader feel they are in the setting, making the issues and problems clear) while also hopefully engaging the reader and causing them to want to read on and find out what happens next. I always want the story to start at an exciting, action-packed or suspenseful point in the characters’ lives. It’s the point where everything changes for them. Nothing will ever be the same. Some problem has cropped up which they need to solve. I have to show the reader the conflict the character encounters.
The twenty-oar birlinn sliced through the rough waters off Scotland’s west coast. The cool wind lashing at him, Shamus MacKenzie glanced up at the dark clouds hovering over the gray-violet sunset. A storm was fast approaching.
His oldest brother, Cyrus, Chief of Clan MacKenzie, had sent him and his two brothers, Dermott and Fraser, along with full crews on their two galleys to escort the Earl of Rebbinglen to Glasgow. Having accomplished their task five days ago, the brothers and clan members were now on their way home. The weather had been calm until this night.
Black clouds rolled in faster and faster. Lightning flashed, near blinding him. They were in for a thrashing.
“Whose canny idea was it to leave Inveraray?” Fraser grumbled behind him.
Shamus turned, barely able to make out his younger brother’s blue eyes and black hair in the dimness.
He well knew Fraser would’ve liked to have stayed at Inveraray for a fortnight with all the lovely ladies. “Cyrus wanted us to return home forthwith,” Shamus said loudly enough to be heard over the rising wind. If they’d stayed any longer, no doubt his irritable older brother would’ve sent a fleet of galleys to fetch them home.
Though now, he wished they had waited a day or two to continue their journey north.
Thunder boomed and the western wind off the sea blasted them. The oarsmen heaved and grunted, trying to stay the course as the galley rode up and down through the giant swells.
“Stay away from the rocks!” Shamus commanded. The white caps and swirling currents betrayed the dangerous hidden boulders closer to shore.
The helmsman shouted something Shamus couldn’t hear over the wind.
Drops of rain stung his face, and a moment later, pummeled him in cold sheets.
Saints, he’d never been at sea in such a quick and terrible gale. Blood pounded in his ears as he tried to figure out a course of action. How could he keep his younger brother and his clansmen safe?
Dermott manned the other galley. During a lightning flash, Shamus’ gaze scanned over the rough waters and he glimpsed the other vessel some distance behind them.
“May God protect us all,” he whispered, salty seawater splashing into his mouth.
Torrents of chill rain drove against them. Though the sail was down, the fearsome wind, along with the enormous waves, propelled the birlinn eastward, toward the shore and the treacherous unseen boulders just beneath the churning surface.
“Stay the course!” Shamus commanded, scrambling over two thwarts and joining the helmsman in the stern. He grabbed hold of the rudder, helping to steer. He squinted through the rain, able to see only the outline of the mainland. The torches on shore they’d been using to help gauge their route had recently been doused in the downpour. The brilliant flashes of lightning revealed little but the violent sea.
A massive wave crashed into the birlinn and sent it careening into a deep trough. Shouts sounded all around him as Shamus grappled to keep his hold on the slippery rudder, his stomach dropping.
Was this the end? Would they all die this night?
“Hold on, Fraser!” he yelled.
The oak hull crashed against the rocks and splintered. The massive jolt knocked his hands from the rudder and Shamus plummeted overboard into the icy depths.
Despite the shock, he forced himself to hold his breath, kick his feet and swim toward the surface. Fear for his brothers and the crews of both galleys infused him with strength. Fortunately, most of them knew how to swim, but if some had been hurtled into the rocks, they might be badly injured.
When his head broke through the seawater, he barely had time to inhale before another powerful wave crashed over him, driving him down again. The water roared in his ears. Flailing, he propelled himself to the surface with his legs.
After inhaling a breath of air, he yelled, “Fraser!”
The lightning overhead illuminated naught in the dim gloaming but the giant boulders protruding from the sea. Had their clan’s other birlinn been smashed to pieces, or had Dermott and the crew managed to stay offshore enough to avoid the peril? Where were Fraser and his own crew?
Shamus flung the wet hair from his eyes and yelled his brother’s name again. This time when the lightning flashed, all he saw were fragments of their birlinn’s broken hull floating out to sea.
“Saints,” he hissed. Surely they weren’t dead. “Dear God, protect them,” he whispered.
Another great wave rose up west of him. He ducked beneath the surface to avoid the worst of the hit. The force of it sent him tumbling deeper. His head and shoulder slammed into a gigantic rock. Pain pounded through him and his head spun. Feeling the boulder anchored in the sea, he climbed up it for a breath of air and held tight. When the next wave struck, he couldn’t hold out. The power of it sent him rolling through the waves and all went black.
“Where the devil is it?” Chief Dugald MacKerrick demanded, staring down into the empty wooden chest in his bedchamber. He didn’t carry the King Richard dagger with him day to day. ‘Twas far too valuable. He only placed the sheathed weapon on his belt during ceremonies and celebrations, just as he had a few days ago when his sister, Mairiana, was betrothed to the Lindsay chief’s eldest son.
“I don’t ken, m’laird,” Geordie, his manservant, answered.
“Damnation!” The word exploded from Dugald’s mouth, a sense of dread consuming him. Surely, it could not be gone! “Search these chests and the whole of Rornoch Castle if you must.”
“Aye, m’laird.” Geordie rushed to the nearest chest and knelt to open it.
Through marriage and alliance, the dagger had been passed down from King Robert the Bruce, himself, centuries ago. And long before that, the large ruby in the hilt had belonged to King Richard the Lionheart. Dugald would not be the one to lose the dagger.
He flung open a large mahogany and brass chest in the corner and tore everything from it, his own clean clothing mostly—linen shirts, plaids. No weapons. Annoyance consuming him, he let fly several loud curses. “One of the Lindsay whoresons must have stolen it!”
Aye, now he remembered Chief Angus Lindsay had wanted to buy it, offering him a ridiculously low sum, and then a much higher one. Dugald had informed him ’twas not for sale at any price. Even Lindsay’s son, Alec, had eyed the dagger with a spark of greed in his eye.
“What is all the shouting about?” Dugald’s twin brother Tòmas barged into the room. His long dark hair in a queue, he was dressed impeccably, as always, in a belted plaid, pressed white shirt and blue doublet.
“The King Richard dagger is gone,” Dugald said, rage crawling over him. “Stolen by some damnable miscreant! I always kept it locked in this chest when I wasn’t wearing it.”
“When did you last see it?”
“After the betrothal ceremony, four days ago.”
“Do you think one of the Lindsays stole it?”
“Of course! Who else?”
Unfazed as usual by Dugald’s flaring temper, Tòmas answered, “Why would they need it? They’re as rich as Midas.”
Tòmas’ calm logic grated on Dugald’s nerves. “Because the dagger would make them twice as rich. The ruby alone is worth a king’s ransom! And both Angus and Alec were near drooling over it. When I told them the dagger was not for sale at any price, they looked vexed and even more determined to have it. At which time, Angus made a veiled comment about always getting what he wanted.” The smirking Angus had been kissing the gloved hand of his new, young bride when he’d said it, but Dugald did not mistake his meaning. He detested the whoreson and now regretted allowing Mairiana to marry into the family.
As you can see, each of these heroes has a big problem and a lot is at stake for them. One is in danger of losing his life, while the other is in danger of losing an incredibly valuable heirloom passed down through many generations of his family. Sometimes the hero and heroine will meet or at least encounter each other in the opening scene, like this one from the first book in my Highland Adventure Series, My Fierce Highlander:
Scottish Highlands, 1618
A stiff breeze carried the scent of bruised grass and blood on its icy breath.
Gwyneth Carswell dropped into a crouch and peered through brambles at the tartan-clad bodies, a dozen or more, lying in the dusky gloaming. While gathering herbs earlier, she’d heard the sounds of battle—men shouting, steel clanging, horses screaming.
A chill shook her. The men of the MacIrwin clan, her distant kin, lived and died only for a skirmish. Her sheltered upbringing in England had molded her into the person she was, a lover of peace, but she’d been in the Highlands long enough to expect brutality at every turn. Thank God her son had stayed in the cottage with Mora.
“More senseless death,” she whispered, yearning to run and hide in the cottage, curl up beneath the blankets, and forget she was a healer. Forget all the drained blood and horrifying wounds that would never heal.
But she must not. She must again face death all around her. Dread and nausea rising within her, she covered her nose with a handkerchief. After peering about to make sure she was alone, she crept onto the soggy moor and forced herself to look at the butchered bodies of her cousins…and their enemies. Who had they been fighting?
Pressing her eyes closed to block out the slit throats and other mutilation, she murmured a prayer, both for their departed souls and for strength that she might keep going.
Please, allow me to save the life of at least one.
A haunting groan floated on the breeze. A sign? Her prayer answered? Gwyneth froze, listening. The groan sounded again, straight ahead.
She rushed to the far edge of the clearing.
Daylight dwindled, but she knew she’d never before seen the injured man, a large warrior with long dark hair, obviously from the enemy clan. She could not tear her gaze from his clean-shaven face, smeared and spattered with blood. Never had she seen such a striking man. But something more captivated her, something she could only sense with her woman’s intuition. She yearned for him to open his eyes, but he didn’t.
Blood soaked through his white shirt and fine, pale-blue doublet.
Kneeling on the damp ground, she attempted to press her hand against his chest to feel his heartbeat, but a rolled-up parchment lay in her way within his doublet. She removed it and checked his heart. The thump was slow but strong and steady.
Her eyes locked to his face again. Enticing, yes, but still an enemy.
Wary of him and what message he carried, she stripped the ribbon from the missive and flattened the thick paper. In the dim light, she could barely decipher a few of the Gaelic words inscribed in bold letters across the top.
A peace agreement? Had the MacIrwins ambushed them? She stared down at the man again, lifted his hand and found a seal ring on his finger. A chief?
For a second, it seemed the very ground had a pulse. The vibrating sensation disoriented her.
Distant hoof-beats grew louder and thundered in her direction—the MacIrwin reinforcements coming to finish off their enemies. Her pulse roared in her ears.
If they discovered this man hanging onto life, they’d cut his throat. Especially if he was a chief who wanted peace. Gwyneth crammed the parchment back inside his doublet and stood.
She grasped the thick leather belt that held the man’s plaide in place at his waist and struggled to drag him a few feet into the yellow blooming gorse and weeds. Good lord, he was heavy, comprised of honed warrior muscle. Another tug, then she rolled him down a short incline and behind the bushes, praying all this shifting wouldn’t worsen his injuries. She spread her dull-colored skirts and plaid arisaid over him to conceal the visibility of his light-colored doublet in the dusk.
Her body trembling, she gently bit her knuckle to quiet her chattering teeth. Please, do not let them find us. She hardly dared to breathe.
The horses’ hooves thumped over the grass, and the riders yelled in Gaelic—mostly vows of revenge against the cursed MacGraths.
What makes a satisfying ending to a story?
The main thing is I don’t want to leave readers hanging when it comes to the hero and heroine. I like for them to be in a committed, loving relationship at the end of the book. Either married or engaged. I must have a happily-ever-after in my stories because there are so many situations in life that don’t have happy resolutions. Life contains a lot of tragedy and loss, as I’m sure all of you are aware. When people read my books, I want them to come away from it with a smile and a feeling of joy, love, happiness and hope. I love bringing these positive emotions to readers.
Thank you, Vonda for sharing today. Readers, if you have a comment and/or question, Vonda will be happy to reply. Vonda, I love your books–keep them coming!