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. They are both extremely common among unpublished authors and extremely difficult to pull off effectively.
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?
(Check out literary agent Kristin Nelson’s list as well.)
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Tiger and Snake by Eugéne Delacroix
I disagree with no. 3– though that quite depends on how you define 'extended.'
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 says
What about weather? I have seen so many books that start with a storm… It was a dark and stormy night… blah!
Leo Godin says
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?
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.
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. says
@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 says
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.
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.
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 says
@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).
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.
Whew! Glad I avoided these without even thinking about it when I started this new work a few weeks ago.
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.
Openings that are exciting, with high stakes, and heart-stopping action…that have very little to do with the book.
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.
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. says
Sad fact… Whoever is against dreams that one used to forget how to dream in general.
John Wiswell says
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 says
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??
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.
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 says
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.
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 🙁
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.
Lupines and Lunatics
Kristin Laughtin says
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 says
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 says
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 says
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.)
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.
"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.
Lupines and Lunatics
McKenzie McCann says
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.
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 says
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 says
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 says
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…
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 says
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 says
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.
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.
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 says
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…!!!
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 says
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. says
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 says
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.
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 says
@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.
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.
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!
Jenny Phresh says
Challenge accepted! https://thepartypony.blogspot.com/2011/06/time-traveling-dead-girl-who-is.html