Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Five Openings to Avoid

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you can't use one of these openings or that there aren't good books that start this way.

I am saying that you should think once, twice, and five thousand times about using these.

A character waking up: Sure, there's probably a good reason the character is getting woken up. Maybe their house is on fire/they're late for school/they just realized their insides are being sucked out by a sea monster. But not only is waking up overdone, what exactly is gained by showing a character wake up? Why not just cut to the insides-getting-sucked-out chase?

A character looking in a mirror: I know what you're thinking. Namely: "How in the heck am I going to show the reader what this character looks like when it's a 1st person narrative? Hmm... Mirror!" Don't do it. There is another way.

Extended dialogue with insufficient grounding: It's difficult for readers to ease into a new world and get their bearings. It's even more difficult to feel grounded when you're watching two characters talk and you're not exactly sure who they are.

Action with insufficient grounding: You've probably heard that you need to grab the reader right off the bat. But it's really difficult to care about what is happening in an action sequence before the reader knows where they are and who they care about. Even if you do begin with action make sure there's enough establishing detail for the reader to sort out what's really happening.

Character does X and oh by the way they're dead: By all means, tip off your reader that they're dealing with an undead protagonist. But playing it for shock value probably isn't going to work. Think about it - by the time the reader picks up your book in the paranormal section of the bookstore with a title called BEING DEAD SUCKS and a cover to match, are they really going to be surprised when your protagonist does something pithy and then you reveal they're dead?

What do you think? What are some of your least favorite openings?

(Also, check out agent Kristin Nelson's recent list as well.)

Photo by TampAGS via Creative Commons






113 comments:

The English Teacher said...

Worse than the character's just waking up at the start of the book is when the reader is forced to go through a whole dream with them, thinking it's the "reality" of the book, and then -- surprise!-- it's just a dream!
Annoying.

Clémentine B said...

Hilarious!

The dream thing that the English teacher pointed out is definitely a pet peeve too.

However, I disagree with the dialogue one. I like the unsettlement of having dialogue when you don't know who's who and what they're talking about.

In children's books: the silly 'Timmy thought this would just be an ordinary school day'

4ndyman said...

I get annoyed when a book opens with a protracted description of the setting without any characters being introduced or anything actually happening. Don't make me wait for 2 or 3 pages for the story to actually begin.

Laurapoet said...

Great Post! I'm certainly guilty of the mirror thing when i was younger, but it usually wasn't in the beginning.
Maybe its me, but i don't like when books start out with a description of the landscape. I always find myself thinking, "Get to the characters already!"

debutnovelist said...

Hi Nathan
Totally agree with all your choices and the dream - please no more dreams! Less annoying but alsohackneyed is the death-bed/graveside scene (oops - was just about to do one of those!) and I'm also fed up of weather at the start of a novel - pouring rain/mist/searing heat in first para just too obvious a way of setting mood or atmosphere.
AliB

The English Teacher said...

4ndyman and Laurapoet,
I'd suggest avoiding Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Hardy, and Victor Hugo, then, if long setting descriptions bother you. :)

Jeff Abbott said...

PANIC opened with the main character waking up -- but in fairness, being woken by a phone call that would change everything in his life. It sold a few copies in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. :-) And for the new, reimagined YA version of PANIC that comes out next week, I got rid of that opening.

But yes, generally, I really agree with your list.

Lura Slowinski said...

Prologues featuring characters who aren't really characters in the novel. Usually this means they all wind up dead by the end of the prologue, in which case I can't help wondering why we're supposed to care. How can you feel a threat fully when you don't even know who the story is about? Nothing is at stake yet, except your interest in turning the pages.

Jadi said...

Ditto on the dream sequence thing.

Also, when it's told in third person, but nobody has names.

The woman, the boy. Unless whoever's POV you're using doesn't know who they are, wouldn't he think of them as their name?

Cyndy Aleo said...

I'm never a fan of hard-and-fast rules like this. None of these comes off as hackneyed if it's done RIGHT.

chelsea said...

I heard somewhere that you're never supposed to open a story with the protagonist inside of a vehicle. Any idea why?

BP said...

A MIRROR!? FOR REAL?! To show how the character looks? That is a new one for me; I wonder, does it read as bad as it sounds??? Probably... ;)

Nathan Bransford said...

Cyndy-

Well, yeah. That's why I started the post with: "Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you can't use one of these openings or that there aren't good books that start this way."

Angela S. said...

I dislike reading stories that open with pointless routine. Yes, showing how the character's life is before it's upset is good, I guess, but it usually goes on for pages-- with no interaction with other characters.

Nathan Bransford said...

Jeff-

That's awesome that the YA PANIC is coming out next week, congrats!!

Serenity said...

This is so helpful! I love knowing situational cliches to avoid. Also, I definitely agree with needing a wee bit o' who/what/where mixed in with the opening action or conversation. Quotation marks are actually my least favorite opening in a book. I'm way too stuck on the basic principle behind once-upon-a-time.

Jay said...

Part of my protag's (first person book) issues stem from inferiority of her appearance. I managed to show what she looked like through contrast with a companion, who looked much different. I saw this done in another book and I stole the method outright.

I'm not too into appearance descriptions unless it has something to do with the plot or them, anyways.

Maria said...

For a while every book I read had a "prologue" beginning, where you're thrown right into the climax of the story, and then whoosh, back to chapter 1 to see how it all began. If done well, it can serve to build tension and keep interest. But if not done well, it seems like a ploy to keep you slogging through a lackluster story with the promise that it does get interesting. And sometimes it seems unnecessary altogether. In a detective story where you might expect an action scene why have a prologue at all?

D. U. Okonkwo said...

Hilarious! And I think very, very true! Great post.

Rainy said...

I would have to add forced dialogue, added for the sake of the reader and doesn't feel natural at all. There's never a place for that, but I usually see it in the openings.

Rainy

Stephanie Garber said...

I don't have a ton of opening pet-peeves, but I really don't like it when a book starts with the author telling the reader what is about to come, things like:

I found out I had superpowers on my sixteenth birthday...

The day I died started out like a normal Monday...

Everything changed the day the new boy showed up at school...

None of these are real examples, but stuff like this bothers me... I want to read to see what happens next, not be told before it happens :)

Janice said...

I hate it when a character is introduced, seems like a nice character, and then dies. I also don't like characters that start off whiney or really hating themselves.

Stephanie {Luxe Boulevard} said...

I like a beginning with subtle action. Something that has the character moving but isn't overwhelming me, making my head spin before I've finished page one.

BTW: Kristin Nelson is awesome! I follow her blog religiously. I actualy found you through her.

VonMalcolm said...

I've done the mirror thing, but not as the lead. Would this be a no no too?

Charissa Weaks said...

Oh, the dreaded beginning. The bane of my existence. :)I can honestly say that the only beginnings I've ever truly hated were simply boring. No action. If the writer is good, and the story is worthy, it can begin any way they like. For instance, one of my favorite authors opens nearly every novel with The Phone Call That Changed Everything. And it works because as a reader, I am thrust immediately into action and the moment of change. It keeps me hooked and turning pages. So..my advice? Don't lollygag around. Get to the nitty gritty.

K. Angello-Mayfield said...

I bore easily. I try to write the way I desire to read. Usually inside the main characters head while he's thinking back to catch you up, like a new person at a school and the character wants you to feel humble and at home. I also do not understand the entire interior overdone. Is the carpet a substantial portion of the book? If not - get to the story! :) Luckily they seem to appreciate my "boredom" :)

Lucy V Morgan said...

I hate the "just another day at the office," approach. Character is just leaving and conveniently says goodbye to their colleagues/the secondary characters, who are all introduced. Then MC walks home, so we get the location described, and they arrive home, so we get their house described.

All of which is beyond DULL--and in terms of exposition, lazy.

VonMalcolm said...

@4ndyman: I am trying to write some sci-fi stories featuring aliens with truly unique 'biologies', tech and worlds; but describing these worlds and how they came into being becomes very cumbersome! -Especially at the beginning of a story. I am trying to break things up, but I am not sure if I am succeeding!

Hillsy said...

A pet peeve of mine is opening with something you can tell is designed to be eye-catching. I think it's just from reading so many writing tips that I just end up rolling my eyes.

The best openings I think feel like the intake of breath before you take the plunge. You know something is about to happen, but you have enough time to ground yourself...It's like the starting a story about a rollercoaster. Starting when they get on is too early, starting when they plunge down is too late. You need that moment of apprehension to really get the kick of the next part. That's why I'll always prefer a slow, well crafted opening every time

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I have to echo a lot of the other sentiments. I can't stand an MC who is so snarky they can't be likeable. Please, I love a little sarcasm here and there, but when the character is overly depressed and mean it doesn't help me like them.

Also, a pet peeve of mine is when the writer starts off with dialogue but in between, and before you can get an answer from the other character, you are taken through paragraphS of back story or other context issues. A little it okay, and should probably be there at times, but to make me wait three or four paragraphs for an answer to the previous dialogue tag is obnoxious. And very cruel, too =)

MacLaney Blue said...

If the first page is only the setting and description of characters, I have to force myself to continue reading. At least throw me a bone by starting with a powerful first sentence--unless, of course, the writer's voice is quirky and clever (like John Green). I do believe he could start a novel with his grocery list and keep me captivated.

Emily Strempler said...

As well as the irritating dream sequence bit, which everyone else appears to have covered, I find it really annoying when a first person book opens with a self-introduction. It just never sounds natural. I understand why people do it, but it reads like a grade six autobiography project 90% of the time.

Robena Grant said...

Truthfully, I don't care how the author starts a story, I just want an opening that shows me quickly who the main character is and why I should care enough to want to keep on reading.

Doug said...

In addition to the above-mentioned weak openings...

I don't like unnamed characters — typically referred to only as "he" or "she".

I don't like a single-sentence paragraph as an opening. It's almost always either a teaser that's unrelated to the real opening, or has been separated from the rest of the paragraph just to try to give it a "punch" that it doesn't have.

I don't like openings that are focused on someone other than the protagonist, when that isn't made clear.

Mark Evans said...

The mirror makes me cringe. It doesn't even have to be the opening. Anywhere in a book where a mirror is used for nothing more than describing appearance I end up groaning in displeasure.
Great post.
Ooh, just caught my reflection in the screen, and saw the blue of my eyes staring back under a flop of brown hair. LOL.

Steve Westover said...

I did all 5 of these things in the first draft of one opening. None of them survived the cut.

I detest any kind of backstory dump but even more so at the beginning.

While we don't necessarily need a major explosion on page 1, some kind of conflict should be introduced. We must know the character and why we should care about what's happening.

Nathan, Congrats on your release!

D.G. Hudson said...

Dead characters not revealed as such, and insufficient grounding annoy me. Why? They seem like gimmicks, and don't encourage the reader to trust the author.

Waking up and looking into a mirror have been overdone for centuries, well maybe decades -- after mirrors were common. Waking up was a better starting point than going to sleep, unless the dream was the story. We aren't supposed to use dreams either. Yikes, so many prohibitions. . .

Perhaps now we should insert - protagonist awakes, checks his facebook account and pix to see what he looks like, checks twitter to ensure he still has friends, then logs onto his blog to see if anyone cares.

These are good points for openings, Nathan. Are there any closings to avoid as well? Ones that really annoy readers?

D.G. Hudson said...

I'm not sure if 'ones' is a real word. Insert 'closings' in that previous comment. Hmmm, better have another coffee.

VonMalcolm said...

Darn it, now I have to reread all of my beginnings! (Great post with interesting responses.)

Andrew Minnick said...

I don't have as much of a problem with ungrouded dialogue as the others. It can be done well. it is not easy to do well.

Cathy Yardley said...

Actually, D.G., I like the idea of someone commenting on his Facebook profile picture to describe himself. Or better, a Match.com picture that's out of date! :D Would not only say a lot about physical details, but shows what sort of person he is by what sort of picture he chose. :)

Justajo said...

I never read the entire book and what I did read was some years ago, but didn't the first Harry Potter start out with two unfamiliar characters having an extended conversation on a street corner? But like you said, Nathan, some good books have started out these various ways. (OMG! Did I just say Harry Potter #1 is a good book?)

Lauren B. said...

I've also gotten sick of the "memory of happier times" opening, either an outright flashback/description, or just the character looking wistfully at a photograph or trinket of their dead/estranged spouse/child.

Sean Thomas Fisher said...

I don't like books that open with dreams, characters, descriptive settings, mirrors, dialogue, action, prologues, sighing, or hairbrushes. This is why I always open the books I write by skipping right to the middle.

Heather Davis said...

Opening with the minutiae of everyday life is dull. We all know how to brush our teeth. I get it that the point is to make a contrast between "before" and the excitement to follow. Of course it is possible to make teeth brushing interesting - perhaps the mc scrubs each tooth individually with different brands of toothpaste and then is thrown into a situation where she must embrace chaos.

Craig Allen said...

There is a story that Hemmingway agonized for days over the first sentence of The Old Man and the Sea. I have no idea if that's accurate, but it IS a masterful sentence that tells us a lot without using many words. Of course, this is the same man who claimed he could write an entire short story using just 6 words, and then wrote it...supposedly on a napkin.

~Renate said...

So, how about five openings to treasure?

P. Kirby said...

In YA, opening scene where the teen (usually female) is having some kind of snitty altercation with her parents, with eye rolls, tantrums, and usually a flounce off to her room. Followed by a call to her BFF where she complains about her parents. Mostly, I've seen in this in unpublished stuff that I've critiqued, but I think I've encountered it in a few published works as well.

Sam Wood said...

Hm, but the same problem presents itself with analyzing your own Facebook photo. Most people don't think about their appearance in a narrative kind of detail. You might go, "My hair looks f-ing great in this picture," but you wouldn't think, "My hair is the color of golden wheat in this picture, flowing in great curls over my shoulders" because you already know what color your own hair is, unless you dye it all the time. I would only accept something like, "This was when my hair was blue. Gotta update it at some point."

And I don't know if this is just me, but I'm always jolted by the detailed use of trendy technology or slang. It INSTANTLY dates the work. Try reading anything about computers. Even a few years after publication I'm rolling my eyes. Yeah, you're a leet haxxor checking your hotmail, got it. And Friends is on TV, great. Your cell phone can send pictures, woowwwww.

Hollister Ann Grant said...

My eyes roll back in my head when the author explains what the story is going to be about. Nooooooooo.

Suze said...

I disagree with no. 3-- though that quite depends on how you define 'extended.'

SamAnnesivaD said...

I try to be patient with a book in the beginning, but some authors would cause even Job to pull out his hair and throw a book in the donate pile. In addition to the ones listed here (which are spot on) I'd like to add these five:

1. If the book is Part 2 of a series and the author feels it is necessary to explain (by referring to Book 1) every detail about the protagonist, or why he/she is in a certain setting (by summarizing Book 1 again), it becomes tiresome. If I've already read Book 1, then you've just reduced Book 2 into a summary of Book 1 with a few new additions (insert yawn here). If I haven't read Book 1 (major faux pas, but let us assume that for some reason Book 1 is unattainable) then Book 2 should stand on its own merit. Some reference to the character's past may be necessary, but please, for the love of reading, don't keep dredging up the past in order for me to get through what is going on NOW.

2. Please don't introduce every single character in the first two pages. It's like being thrust into a family reunion when you're just a friend of one of the 3rd cousins once removed from a former hairdresser of Great Aunt Midge. By the time I get to the sixth character, I've forgotten all about the first person, and I feel like I'm stuck back in math class memorizing random formulas that I may or may not need later.

3. Shock value is not effective unless it plays a part in the unfolding story. Opening a book with the death of a family pet will make me cry. I don't even know a thing about Mr. Fluffykins, but I'm going to cry anyway just thinking about the shoebox in the back yard. But unless the demise of Mr. Fluffykins is the reason the protagonist meets love interest #1 at the pet store, or something of equal importance, I will feel cheated - and there is no wrath like a reader scorned.

4. Steamy love scenes. If I turn to page one and there are people involved, I feel like I am an intruder.

5. Excessive foul language (especially in young characters). I teach 8th grade, and am well aware of the language that has infected their daily dialogue, but when I open a book and characters are dropping the F-Bomb just for the sake of using it, the word loses its impact.

I guess that sums up my to-don't list. Now time to start a new book...

K. C. Blake said...

What about weather? I have seen so many books that start with a storm... It was a dark and stormy night... blah!

Leo Godin said...

What about dreams that show something about the protagonist that wouldn't naturally flow in a conversation? Would that bother those of you who don't like openings with a dream?

Anonymous said...

I love a good fantasy, but cannot stand characters that have have incomprehensable names or novels that introduce all two dozen characters and their relatives all at once.

Gisele said...

Hi Nathan,

I enjoy this post. However, with the jaw-dropping news that JK Rowling is self-publishing her eBooks and audiobooks (she's partnering with her publishers and giving them a percentage for marketing and promotion but she is the de facto publisher of her eBooks)as well as only selling them through her own website (effectively cutting out eRetailers along the way) buzzing all over the internet today, I think you should make an emergency post, pronto!!

Lauren B. said...

@Leo Godin -- I think the problem is not the contents of the dream, but the fact that any dream, regardless of what it shows us, becomes a 'false start' to the story. It feels like a gotcha, it yanks you out of the narrative when you're just settling into it.

And even if we know that it's a dream, if the author makes that clear rather than trying to 'trick' the reader, it just has to be done well because a) it's been seen a dozen times before and b) the reader doesn't know your MC yet, so it requires a lot of trust for him/her to care about what's going on in their subconscious.

Sommer Leigh said...

Worst opener:

The Existential Bubble Bath Scene.There are few things less exciting than opening a dynamic story with a character doing little more than soaking. Might as well throw in some watching paint dry or water boil while you’re at it.

Runner up:

The Dream Bait & Switch. Few openers make me close a book faster than an exciting opening with consequences that ends up being a dream sequence with no consequences. Urgh.

Caroline said...

Thank you for this! I was just about to re-write my opening...the lead character waking up.

**hastily opens word document and deletes...**

D.G. Hudson said...

@Gisele - JKR has a captive audience, it only makes sense. More power to her, it's her creation.

Big names can do what they like, but even JA Konrath was surprised (see his blog).

Misha said...

I have two other pet peeves:

1) "Of course the weather magically coincides with the mood of the story's opening...

2) X, Y, Z happens. Good thing it was a dream.

2 doesn't happen that often anymore, though.

Joshua said...

Whew! Glad I avoided these without even thinking about it when I started this new work a few weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

I always get to the party late and end up having to say 'ditto' to what everyone has said above because you guys always leave great comments! Mind you, I didn't even realize some of the things mentioned thus far even annoyed me until I read them here, so there you go! Every day is an opportunity to learn something new.

Sommer, I laughed at the bubble bath one. Good catch.

The only thing I can add is those openings who rely too heavily on extended weather descriptions to create a mood.

PS - having enormous difficulty trying to post a comment so I'm sending this anonymously but it's Leila.

Yat-Yee said...

Openings that are exciting, with high stakes, and heart-stopping action...that have very little to do with the book.

SBJones said...

I started with dialog in my Novel. It was intentional as to cause the reader to not know right off the bat who is good and who is bad.

Lexi said...

I'm cheating a bit - this is part of a blog post of mine from 2009:

Personally - and this may be to do with my gender - I am unenthusiastic about novels that begin,

He gazed through the windscreen of his Mercedes-Benz SLR, tensely clicking the Halton-Ratchett RK 41.5's safety catch, his white shirt and Graff black diamond cufflinks gleaming in the dusk...

You just know that before too many pages have passed, you'll be meeting his young, slim, full-breasted, sexually enthusiastic girlfriend. She's another bit of his kit, and with about as much personality.

Then there's the author who introduces on page one a character you warm to, only to kill him off before you reach chapter 2.

But my very least favourite first chapter has to be the one that starts with five or six characters sitting round a table; each one says or does something in turn, and in order to get any sort of grip on the story you have to memorize them. It's hard work. Was it Gina who had the fiery red hair, the underprivileged background she's fighting to escape and a media job? Or Stacey? No, Stacey's the tall one who's just been dumped by her boyfriend and has a pet cat...

Istvan Szabo, Ifj. said...

Sad fact... Whoever is against dreams that one used to forget how to dream in general.

John Wiswell said...

People have been warning me against opening stories with a character waking up since I was four years old. I don't think I've ever written one. It does seem like an overused and cheap way to start. However, I've kept reading and watching stories with just such openings ever since I was four. If it really is such a bugbear to the industry, why hasn't it been weeded out by now?

Kat Sheridan said...

I've seen a new trend in TV shows, especially the cop/action ones, that open with a shocking/exciting/cliff hanging moment, then flash up the words "Three days ago..." and then flashback to that point. I've seen it on more than one program. I've seen the same thing in novels. Whatever happened to startng with the inciting incident??

clairewriteswords said...

I have to admit that 99% of the time those sort of openings are enough to ensure I don't read the rest of the book.

jesse said...

They're cliche 'cause they work. They've worked so many times that we tire when we se 'em. However, if the next few lines are interesting, we quickly forgive the familiarity. At least, I know I do.

Heather Davis said...

An addendum to the mirror thing: Oftentimes I see too much character description. If I read on page 2 that the heroine has bobbed black hair, blue eyes, freckles, a pointy chin, high cheekbones, is 5 foot 4... and none of that has anything to do with the story, chances are I'll forget it. I like to let my imagination fill in the blanks between a couple of character developing features.

Guilie said...

Someone smart said the stuff that bothers you about others is a reflection of traits within yourself... I'm guilty as charged, because I HATE openings that immediately flash back into the past for setting (HATEthemHATEthemHATEthem), but as I edit my stuff I find I DO IT TOO!! I feel like Jekyll and Hyde :(

LupLun said...

I confess to having done the mirror scene before. Not as the *first* scene, mind you, but yeah... first draft of my novel I didn't put effort into describing the protagonist. It wasn't important, and I wanted to give her an everywoman feel. A beta reader complained that she had no idea what the protagonist looked like, so I found space in the second chapter to add a brief scene where she looks in the mirror and reflects on how unremarkable she is (with this opinion saying something about her character). Then I realized... the mirror was unnecessary. All I had to do was have her think about these things about herself. So that's how it goes.

That said, a book I read a while back included the very impactful line "Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw the person who had killed him." Not the first line, but would make damn good one.

-LupLun
Lupines and Lunatics

Kristin Laughtin said...

I don't know, I might be intrigued by an opening with a character woke up because his insides were being sucked out by a sea monster, so long as it was the actual sucking that woke up the character. If the character was merely bemused by this, I'd probably like it even more.

Certain openings are cliche and often a little yawn-inducing for me:

-Description of the weather

-Descriptions of the setting with nothing else

-Dream sequences, especially if the character then wakes up and muses on their boring life

-Prologues with a scene from the climax, then going back to the beginning to see how the story began. Open your story when it first gets interesting.

-In first-person stories, "Hi, I'm X, and let me tell you about myself" openings.

The Frisky Virgin said...

The waking up bit is like getting invested in what turns out to be a dream. Honestly, I've been anti-dream stuff since Alice In Wonderland (I wanted the white rabbit to be real, dang it!) and the time my mama showed me the whole Dallas "dream" season. Not cool.

Roxanne Skelly said...

In my current project, I broke the huge rule and did use a short vision sequence (effectively a dream). I tried not to. I rewrote it like six times. The frustrating thing?

The people I put it in front of for the most part liked the vision sequence one better than the others. And by liked, I mean I got positive feedback, not 'the other ones were crap, and this one is...well...ok.'

I also received positive feedback from a few pretty darn good published writers in my genre, and I warned them that I knowingly gave them the version with the opening vision sequence.

Talk about frustrating...

Only one gave the 'meh, I won't read anything with a dream' response.

The feedback I received basically boiled down to:
'The vision sequence was short, so it didn't get in the way.'
'It was obviously surreal and dreamlike, so it didn't mislead the reader.'
'It contained some good character development and world building.'

The visions are part of the reality of the story, and events in the visions do affect the protagonist in a concrete way.

I also used a 'mirror' scene, but the mirror was a view or window into the 'vision world' and not a mechanism to describe the protagonist, so I don't think that counts.

Maybe I'll just have to accept the fact that I'll turn some people off if my story wants to break the rules. Then again, I'm not a fan of 'absolutes' or 'generalizations' so maybe the rules want to be broken in this case.

Still, it's a 'bang my head against the wall' kinda thing.

Anyway, some often used beginnings...
* Protagonist is a hunter of some sort (cop, detective, werewolf) stalking their prey (ok, I still enjoy many books that start like this)
* Long winded overly descriptive language about the setting, scenery, and so on. I'm all about character and I want to get to know the main characters.
* Big words and overly poetic prose. Often looks like the author is 'trying to hard.' I understand those big words and poetic prose, but I like to get to the point, especially early on.

Neil Larkins said...

Here's one: MC wakes up to find herself looking in a mirror that shows her dreaming she is dead. All the while she is playing the cello as she kicks a soccer ball against the wall and has a two-hour conversation with an intruder and a long-lost ancestor who has just returned from a long trip into the future. MC talks at length about how her life was once so serene until "that" happened...and then we are told what "that" was. (I'm sure someone could do a whole lot better with this than me.)

Mira said...

This was a funny post. :) I liked the sucked out by a sea monster part.

I think I need to start every book now with the progagonist having their insides sucked out by a sea monster. Something about that just feels right.

I also like that you now only listed what openings can be problematic, but WHY. That's important.

LupLun said...

"Prologues with a scene from the climax, then going back to the beginning to see how the story began. Open your story when it first gets interesting."

Mmm... I'm going to have to disagree with that. This is actually a very effective device if you do it right. Like, Hitchcock once said "Surprise is good, but it only lasts for a moment. Proper development of an idea often requires tipping one's hand early." So, sometimes knowing where the story is heading gives it a different tone and feel.

There are also practical reasons for this kind of device. See, a conflict has to be developed, but this is a slow process of buildup, and the book has to start strong to grab the reader's interest.

-LupLun
Lupines and Lunatics

McKenzie McCann said...

I'm very particular about framed stories. There has to be a reason for the outside story to be reading/telling the framed one. I hate it when the two could exist independently, like the Odyssey. The Tale of Ulysses is a much better story.

Gerb said...

I laughed out loud when I read The da Vinci Code and it started with Langdon not only waking up to a ringing phone, but then observing himself in a mirror for a description.

Jan Markley said...

I agree with the english teacher - exciting/scary/suspenseful dream sequence and then the protag waking up is lame. Remind me never to do it!

Tim Greaton said...

Great list, Nathan. I think you could probably grow this by at least another hundred bad openings. It's always great to hear your take :-)

BonSue Brandvik said...

I dislike when a story begins with a weather report. "It was a dark and stormy night..." "It was a hot summer day..." "The snow was falling..." Yawn...

marion said...

I think the dead body, or at least a death, as part of the opening is probably overdone.

Appropriate in a murder mystery or thriller, of course.

And this is done in some good mainstream stuff. (I think Ellen Foster starts this way.)

But I was starting to think I had to have a death to hook people. So I put a nice harrowing description of the corpse in the first 2 pages. My friends didn't like it--although this approach had been recommended by fellow attendees in a writers' workshop!

People prefer the opening I have now. It's a little offbeat. It reveals the character's personality, at least in part, in the first 2 sentences. And there's not a death in sight.

Rebecca Kiel said...

So true!

Elisabeth said...

Best take I've ever read on number three comes from Edith Nesbit's The Story of the Treasure Seekers:

There are some things I must tell before I begin...because I have read books myself, and I know how beastly it is when a story begins, ' "Alas!" said Hildegarde with a deep sigh, "we must look our last on this ancestral home" '—and then someone else says something—and you don't know for pages and pages where the home is, or who Hildegarde is, or anything about it.

Matthew MacNish said...

As much as I LOVE George R.R. Martin's books, I'm getting just a little tired of the sacrificial lambs in all the prologues.

Or wait, that's actually just for A Song of Ice and Fire books. He has actually written other books, I just haven't read them.

tamarapaulin said...

I hate openings that are REALLY GOOD, leading you to believe you are purchasing a wonderful book, when really it is a mediocre book with a great beginning. I'd much rather it start slow and sizzle by the end.

GabrielKJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GKJeyasingham said...

Sorry, reposting my comment with my new username:

I agree one should think twice about using these openings, but they shouldn't be something to endlessly fret over (except maybe the mirror one, or the dream sequence).

Case in point: Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD begins with the main character waking up. It's a Pulitzer Prize winning novel and a national bestseller.

Mike Walker said...

So top this. My novel currently begins with five heroic characters waking up in an archetypal fantasy adventure setting. They then all go on to die horribly by the end of the first chapter, and the only one who survives wakes up (at the beginning of the second chapter) to find that it was all a nightmare about the deaths of all his most popular fictional creations (he's a bestselling author).

I will probably ditch the initial waking up scene, and throw the troupe of adventurers directly into battle, but I'm reluctant to ditch the whole first chapter (yeah, I know, kill your darling!), since it's a nice way to introduce a character that does turn out to be central to the book. I dunno anymore...!!!

allanbard said...

How about using some interesting facts in the story? Like that birds usually don't like to be touched anywhere but on the heads? There they feel the same feeling as when they put in order their head feathers with their claws. Or that the stomach of some deep water fish burst and jumps out of their mouth when they go in the surface. Or that when you comb your hair the comb collects static electricity and could curve a spurt of water from a tap, etc... That way a book can educate and entertain at the same time?
Another good tips could be using inspiring quotes in the story, I do it in mine all the time like: One can fight money only with money, Even in the hottest fire there's a bit of water, Money are amongst the last things that make people rich, etc.

Sheila Cull said...

Perhaps for a different reason, I dislike the first chapter/essay of Crosley's I WAS TOLD THERE'D BE CAKE,
The Pony Problem.

This charmed essay I think, would be best suited for later because I enjoy chapters where I get to know the little girl first.

Laura W. said...

New Moon does 2 of these, plus a third one: Bella wakes up, then looks in a mirror to assure herself there are no grey hairs because in her dream, she was an old grandma.

I also read another book where the character told the whole story of his life in the first chapter, while at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. No reason why that information--copious backstory--can't be slipped in later or, better yet, not dumped on you all at once.

However, I think any of these openings can work if they're written well and approached in an original way.

J. T. Shea said...

THE PERFECT OPENING:-

'It was a dark and stormy night,' I said, almost beheading him with my broadsword. 'I woke up and looked in the mirror. My face looked the same as ever. Forehead, eyebrows, eyes, nose, two nostrils, mouth and chin. Did I mention the sea monster sucking out my insides?'

'Yes,' he replied, nearly impaling me with his javelin. 'Five thousand times. Oh, by the way, we're both dead. So all this fighting is kind of pointless. And this is all a dream anyway. And we're only minor characters.'

So I went back to sleep.

THE END.

Seriously, I'm surprised so many commenters have so many pet peeves. I have none. I'll enjoy anything well done (particularly steak!). And some commenters' peeves are among my favorite openings!

I suspect ANY opening, however well done, will be someone's pet peeve. Nothing pleases everybody and some people are never pleased.

Robena Grant, amen!

D. G. Hudson, there are NO prohibitions, just cautions.

Sean Thomas Fisher, brilliant idea! I think I'll start my next novel with an epilogue!

Heather Davis, explosive toothpaste, maybe?

Sommer, they say Jean Paul Sartre took an Existential Bubble Bath every morning. Right after he got up and looked in the mirror to check he still existed. Of course they said it in French, so I may have misunderstood...

Lexi, I ALWAYS click the safety catch of my Halton-Ratchet RK 41.5 when gazing through the windscreen of my Mercedes-Benz SLR.

Mira, sea monsters really do suck, at least in my WIP. My protagonist gets literally sucked in by one. But not in the opening.

D.G. Hudson said...

@JT Shea - you made me laugh this morning when I read your comments about others' comments.

A humourous observation is worth the time it takes to create, especially if it makes even one person laugh. Laughter is good.

Thanks, JT.

C.Smith said...

Least favourite openings would be all of the above mentioned. What's more annoying than opening with a dream scene is reading to the very end of a 200 page novel and then being wacked with the 'it was all a dream!' reality.

I think you've done a blog similar to this a while ago, or you've mentioned the cliché openings to try and avoid in a blog.
I wonder, would you be interested in doing a blog on how TO start off a story? I'd be curious to see what the readers put down in the comments as their ideal/most loved opening scenes.

Anonymous said...

I really hate when books open with long dialog sequence, WITHOUT ANY description of the characters' surroundings. I just read a book that went on like that for twelves pages, and all the while I couldn't help picturing the characters floating in some white void.

Great post, Nathan!

Nicole said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenny Phresh said...

Challenge accepted! http://thepartypony.blogspot.com/2011/06/time-traveling-dead-girl-who-is.html

Bea Sempere said...

I believe it depends on the genre. In a thriller, a reader can expect the unexpected, such as opening with dialogue. It can kill a story for some, but it can also pull the reader in to wanting more.

Cynthia Vespia said...

Nice post Nathan. Writing the opening is probably one of the most important parts of the novel when you first sit down. I always like to grab their attention right off the bat. A combination of action/dialogue seems to work best for my thrillers. But it depends on the genre on which way to turn.

Emeline Danvers said...

What? No one mentioned the BIG SNOOZE(unless I missed it):

When the story starts of with the MC sitting there, thinking. Just thinking. Thinking about whatever situation he/she is currently experiencing, or whatever backstory led to the situation.

"Sarah stood in the shower, letting the water run over her as she thought again about the death of her best friend. She'd known Liz for ten years, they'd grown up together..." blah blah blah backstory info-dump for the next five pages. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Emeline Danvers said...

Oh, and another:

Endless description of the weather and/or the setting. I can take a sentence or less of weather description, and one paragraph (not the first paragraph) of setting description. But if you spend a whole page describing the hills of Rome, I'm done!

Craig Allen said...

The more I think about this, the more I believe the problem is that all of these are just info-dumps in disguise, and the real problem is beginning the story with an info-dump. The real issue is how to blend the beginning of the story with both plot action and enough information to comprehend that action.

If you look at the original Star Wars movie, the beginning info dump is the screen crawl, which is interesting only because the music and visual is retro. Then we hope right into the action and know nothing about the characters. That's tough to accomplish in a book.

So, I think this is really talking about starting with a massive info dump while nothing else seems to happen, and that's a tough sell to a prospective reader.

Anonymous said...

*=I might be a hack

My second novel *opens with conflict. In a *Prologue. In which one character(not the one who was previously *unnamed) *dies.

So: the dude (who lives) got a name...and in order to help the reader empathize with this fine fellow, I have now opened the book with a brief image of him *Leaving his mother's graveside...hahahahahahahahaha.

Anonymous said...

Can you use the "insides getting sucked out" opening in a specific example of what to do and what NOT to do?

John Dylan said...

IMO, any scene that is there for exposition's sake only, be it a wake-up or a mirror or a chit-chat or whatever scene, is a boring piece of writing and should be eliminated.

The dumbest thing a writer could do is to wonder "how am I going to expose that bit of information" instead of "how am I going to hook the reader and keep him turning pages". Dear writer, don't give me details just to familiarize me with your world, don't give me dialogue just to introduce me to your characters, give me story, and only story, and nothing but story, and that is interesting events leading to more interesting events all the way till the end. Else why in hell would I waste my time and money on you?

If that sounds difficult or too demanding, it is your problem, not mine and there is no logic in expecting me to suffer because of it. Hook me or lose me.

Kentish Janner said...

Worst opening I ever read?

Chapter 1 started by introducing us to a plucky young African boy out hunting on the plains. We were told, in loving and colourful detail, about his background, his family, what life was like for him in this harsh environment... the whole works. We followed him on his current quest; hunting for his dinner with his trusty spear. And then, in the VERY LAST SENTENCE of Chapter 1 - he was gored by a wild boar and promptly died.

Chapter 2 then began with a new, random girl character who had no connection whatsoever to the deceased boy from Chapter 1 (who, incidentally, was never referred to again.) For some strange reason I was unwilling to invest much emotion in this new female character - didn't want to get too attached...

Anonymous said...

Great points to follow, but for the mirror scene, I'll disagree. Because such a famous book as Divergent opens with a mirror scene where Tris saw her own reflection. There are certain things can not be done without mirrors, and if necessary it's not wrong to use mirror.

Anonymous said...

Also, The Girl of Fire and Thorns starts with a mirror scene, and the book is pretty famous as well.

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