Bad ways to start a novel

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Bad ways to begin a novel.

The most important sentence of your novel is the first one. The most important paragraph is the first one. The most important page… well, you get the idea. Without a great opening, no-one will read your book.

 Your opening has to do a lot of different things. It has to establish the setting. Think of this as the camera planing over the outside of the spaceship, or across the crowded ballroom.

It has to introduce your main character. You don't have to go into details, but you need enough to show if the MC is male or female, old or young, and ideally, give an idea of their personality.
The opening has to show, or at least hint at, the inciting incident, the problem that starts the story for the MC.

Most important, your opening has to grab the reader. Very few people have the patience to wade through pages of description before the action starts. Work on the first paragraph, and particularly the first line, until no-one can resist reading on.

So, a few ways to get it wrong.

Weather. There is a reason “It was a dark and stormy night” is considered the worst opening line ever.

Describing an average day in the life of your character. No, it won’t give us deep insight into her personality, it’s just boring. Start the story where your character’s life gets interesting.

Backstory. No-one except the author is really interested in your character's backstory. The reader wants to see what is happening now. Whatever backstory is really necessary can be woven into the main story.
Voiceovers to the reader. “Dear Reader, listen closely for I am about to tell you a most wonderous tale.”  I’m not six, so I’ll pass, thanks.

Flashback. It's just a different form of backstory.
Dialogue. Normally, dialogue is great and really lifts a story, but if you don't have any idea about the characters who are talking, it won't work. One line of speech can work. For instance "All cars proceed immediately to Main Street. Major riot in progress." establishes the setting and gives a lot of hints about the MC.
Prologue. The fuzzy bit at the beginning that doesn’t make sense until you’ve read the whole novel. It's backstory in disguise. Prologues that start a thousand years in the past will cause the author to burn in hell.
Philosophy. It ends up sounding like the drunk who insists on telling you what he thinks the world is all about.

Dreams. You know how bored you get when your friends tell you about their dreams? Now imagine a stranger is doing it.

 Geography. If I had wanted to know that Granard was in the midlands and had 1200 inhabitants, I would have bought an atlas. I wanted to read about people doing interesting things.

 Chapter one. What? Where else would you start? According to every publisher and agent I’ve met, most novels really start on chapter three or four. The first few chapters are all set-up or backstory which would improve the novel by being deleted.

Alarm clock. Possibly the worst opening of all: “I groaned as the alarm went off. Oh no, I’m late, I thought to myself. I got up, and put on my blue denims, and my cute pink top…”

There are fashions in writing, just as there are in clothes. The modern trend, particularly for genre or YA fiction, but increasingly in literary fiction too, is to start the story with the main character on the first page, and to start with the inciting incident. No backstory before chapter three, and then pare it to the bone.

Before you scream that your reader won’t understand without a lot of explanation of what is going on, remember that this is the generation that watched the Matrix and Inception. Your reader is smart and will understand what is happening. Spending forty pages explaining the unnecessary is insulting to your reader.

Interesting fact: the average reader will give up on a boring book by page seventeen. If you’ve wasted any of your precious first pages on boring stuff, you’re likely to join the Page Seventeen club too.

There are lots of  books out there. The reader has to decide quickly which one she is going to spend her time and money on. She's not going to buy something just because it might get good later on. Unless you have won a major prize or had a film made from your book, chances are your reader has never heard of you. She’s going to read a page or two and decide. If it’s on Amazon, she’s going to click “Look Inside” and read a few pages.

Have you ever watched American Idol or X factor at the audition stage? Then you'll know the way you can usually tell within five notes if the singer is actually able to sing and is likely to go through. It's the same with writing. Any writer who can't manage a decent opening is not likely to get much better a hundred pages on. Whining for a second chance because "I sing a lot better in the second verse" (or "The second chapter is really good") doesn't fool anyone.

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⏰ Last updated: Apr 01, 2015 ⏰

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