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 They are both extremely common among unpublished authors and extremely difficult to pull off effectively.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.)
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Art: Tiger and Snake by Eugéne Delacroix
Bea Sempere says
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 says
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 says
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 says
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 says
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.
*=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.
Can you use the "insides getting sucked out" opening in a specific example of what to do and what NOT to do?
John Dylan says
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 says
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…
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.
Also, The Girl of Fire and Thorns starts with a mirror scene, and the book is pretty famous as well.
I hate it when a book starts with a boring prologue. Theres this one historical fiction I gave it a try for a few chapters, but that prologue still grates on my nerves. Because it gave in excruciating detail about the roman empire, the romans them selves, their wars. exc.
Bored to freakn' tears, I want the story to start dang it! Even worse when I polite told the another about his and why it's not a good thing The sob nosed hollyer then tho when into several paragraphs long explaining why it was important and how readers need this information to understand her "amazing" story. Pretty much I got the feeling from here that she thinks her readers are idiots.
Want to help her answer the clue phone and maybe teach her to write better?:
early in the scene i have a character look in the mirror because he was told he'd better check himself before leaving the house. I hate being told how I should and shouldn't open a book. I've read thousands of good book in my lifetime, many of them broke all of these rules. It has to be done right.
There are no rules. Anyone that thinks there are rules in an art is a moron. Story is all about how you wanna write it, not about how you expect people to see you as a writer. Pointless stupid blog trying to put rules in an art form. People are over exaggerating storytelling. Seriously, shut up with the rules already and go study physics or math if you love them so much.
Nathan Bransford says
I explicitly say in the post that using or not using these it not a hard and fast rule.
But in general, ignore craft at your peril!