12 Terrible Ways to Open a Novel

Terrible? That seems harsh, doesn’t it?

Terrible may be harsh, but it got your attention. Snatching a reader’s attention is the goal of an opening, so I chose a title that would do that. Now that I have your attention, let’s examine openings that are weak, clichéd, or otherwise problematic.

First, the list of twelve terrible openings:

  1. Weather
  2. A party
  3. Waking up
  4. Driving alone
  5. Dreaming
  6. Bad news phone call
  7. Finding a letter/locket/journal
  8. Backstory
  9. Sex scene
  10. Floating
  11. Manifesto
  12. Nameless naked guy tied to a chair in an empty warehouse and being tortured and no one can hear him scream.

Already, I hear the protestations. It is true: every opening listed has been done, and successfully. And some of you hate rules. Fine. I give you both of those points. But if you read on, I’ll discuss why these openings are weak and how to think about openings that are stronger.

Weather happens all the time. Every moment of every day, there is weather. It’s boring and it alerts me, the reader, that you are easing into the story. I don’t want easing, I want conflict, thoughtfulness, or drama. If your story is *about* weather, that’s an exception. A tornado story may open with an ominous cloud formation or an ironically clear sky. If you open your story with a line telling me is it a sunny day, because it is a sunny day, well…is that really the most interesting thing about this day in your character’s life? If you want to mention the sunshine because, in about five seconds, the person driving alone (see #4) is about to be hit with sun blindness and cause a 26-vehicle-pileup, mention the blinding sun. It’s not weather, it’s a story starter. Otherwise, if the weather is not a pending tornado or a blinding sun, start elsewhere.

A party or any large gathering can be problematic because of population. If you place the main character into a social setting with lots of other characters, you are throwing the reader into the same situation: lots of names to learn. It is easy to overtax your reader’s memory by introducing a big cast all at once—too much, too soon. “Too many characters” is a common complaint, so give your reader a break. If a party or heavily populated scene is required, make it easy by only introducing characters whose roles in the story are vital. As a reader, I’m more likely to put down a book if I have to flip pages back to figure out if, at the opening scene party, Louanne was the witch in the blue dress, the blonde who spilled the champagne on her skirt, the OCD one who had a stain remover stick in her handbag, etc.

Everyone wakes up. It doesn’t matter if the wake up occurs in the morning, at night, from a hangover, in a strange place, the story begins with a mundane and relatively passive activity. As I have mentioned 55,000 times on this blog, everyone sleeps, gets dressed, and goes to the bathroom, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about it. Many new writers begin with waking up because they are confused by the “normal world” concept. Before the land mine of the conflict lands, the daily life of a character should be portrayed. That’s fine. That’s valid and effective. BUT—does the normal world have to be dull? The opening is the introduction to the character: a first impression. A first impression should share significant and telling information. If the first thing I see your character do is wake up and take a shower, all I have learned is that she is not in a coma and she has decent personal hygiene. Instead, open the regular day with an intro that is reveals some aspect of the character. It doesn’t’ have to be dramatic: Gardening (a hobby). Dropping off the grandkids at swim practice (family). Arguing with neighbor (conflict). Daily run (routine). Man crammed uncomfortably inside his daughter’s playhouse for a tea party (nice dad). Discovering daughter and boyfriend making out in basement (overwhelmed mom). Think about your character. Surely he/she deserves a better first impression to the reader than opening his eyes and yawning.

A character who is driving alone may be doing a task that’s more exciting than sleeping, but barely. The problem with driving alone or any other solo activity is the absence of someone to react to, and vice versa. Interaction is more interesting than solo contemplation, and that’s what characters do when they drive: they think, they consider, they plan, they stew. They can’t do much else because they are (supposed to be) focused on operating a vehicle. And besides, if your character is headed someplace important in her car, why not just plunk her in the place, already, and start the scene there? Exception: Driving alone can be interesting if the vehicle is a race car, a rocket, or a regular vehicle that’s about to be involved in a 27-car pileup caused by a rolling fog bank. That’s probably not dull.

Why is dreaming not a good opening? Aren’t dreams fascinating, a window to the soul, an unconscious message from the subconscious? Yes, dreams have meaning and maybe a place in a story, but like driving and sleeping, dreaming is not an active event. Dreaming is passive. The character may be a participant of the dream, but in reality, she is lying there allowing the dream to act, instead of being the actor. Additionally, while the dream itself may be active, the character/s who participate in a dream do so through the filter of the dreamer. A filter puts space between the reader and the character. Dreaming can also come off as a cheap trick. Remember Bobby Ewing in the shower? If the story is about a character with chronic nightmares, the nightmares are a symptom. What else is going on in the character’s life that would lead to nightmares? And waking up to a pounding heart because of a bad dream is still waking up. See #2.

Likewise, waking up to a bad news phone call provides a double whammy of weakness. Why? First, the person is waking up. Second, a phone call is not action. Most literary phone calls require a POV character saying, “Uh huh, uh huh, the body of the museum caretaker I interviewed yesterday was found where again?” while an off screen character gives details the reader never sees or reads. So we have a one-sided conversation, plus the filter problem. You have important information the reader needs to know–the reason for the phone call. You have a character who will act upon that info—the recipient of the phone call. The character will react to the info and provide action. Why throw in a middle man? Why not put the character in the scene already and skip the boring phone call? No matter how exciting, disturbing, or revelatory the information shared may be, the phone call itself is not action. A phone call is one person speaking into a little box. Generally, the reader can’t hear what’s said on the other side, and the most common way to share what’s said on the other side is for the POV character to repeat it. That’s unnatural and, in reality, would be annoying. Imagine yourself as the caller. You share info. The character repeats every line. What is your reaction? “Why are you repeating everything I say?” The answer is: “Because the reader needs to hear it.” That’s how you end up with talking head dialogue.

Writers are told all of the time that conflict is change. What is the catalyst for change in your story? Finding a letter/locket/journal is a common device to throw a curve ball into a character’s life. A device can be useful, but it can also be obvious, or unnatural, and sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. A device can make a reader wonder if the character (and the author) can’t be more clever than to drop a written revelation into the character’s lap. It puts the burden of activity on someone who is not present in the story. A primary character is more interesting if she is active, rather than reactive. A second issue with letters, lockets, journals, and diaries: they’re common. Really common. Soooooo common. Discovering a message of any kind is passive unless the character is seeking it. If your story starts out with a character searching for an item for a reason, that’s action. If Grandma’s diary discovered after the funeral changes the main character’s life, that’s been done. To death. As dead as Grandma.

If you’ve been told your opening starts on page 3, or 13, or 30, your issue is probably backstory. Backstory is the background to the story world, to the character, to the setting—whatever preceded the action that is (supposed to be) happening on the page. Backstory weakens an opening because it sends the chronology backward instead of forward. A story is meant to progress. If the author stops the forward movement for a line or two of backstory, that pauses the progress. A brief and necessary pause is probably not detrimental. If the author inserts a couple of paragraphs of backstory, that may stall the action. A stall is a bigger concern. If the author inserts a page, or more, of backstory, that brings the progression to a dead halt. Look at your opening three pages. Highlight anything that is not happening right now. Everything you highlight stops the story’s progress. Do you see a lot of highlight? Are you making your story stop and go, rather than moving forward?

Isn’t a sex scene action? Yes it is, and with the caveat that an erotica novel may start in bed because that is the genre expectation, many readers would like to get to know the characters a little before they see them nekkid. A sex scene provides the author a unique opportunity to show characters in an intimate, and thereby vulnerable, situation. A reader can learn a lot about the character by watching them have make love. The problem with that? Not every reader wants to see characters have sex, and if you start with a sex scene, you may lose a reader who – once invested – might read or skip or skim a scene that makes them uncomfortable. A second consideration for opening with a sex scene is that, like every other scene, the sex scene needs a purpose. A purpose other than characters getting laid, that is. Something must be learned or revealed, and can that be done effectively if the characters have just introduced? Like sex itself, a sex scene works best if there is foreplay—a building of desire, tension, or difficulties—between the two lovers. That can be better accomplished by moving the sex scene back a bit, and so allows the reader to experience and enjoy the buildup too.

Floating can happen with a scene that opens with a punchy line. It can be dialogue or it can be a thematic statement. There is nothing wrong with this opening if what immediately follows is a person in a place. If the opening scene begins with a line of dialogue, followed by another line of dialogue, and this goes on with no indication of who is talking and where this conversation is taking place, this is floating. Even if the characters are named, they are still floating around in the ether until the author grounds them into a physical place. To avoid floating, offer the setting ASAP. It is not difficult. After the opening line, insert a physical location. That’s it. The characters are now grounded.

A manifesto is defined as “a public declaration of principles, policies, or intentions, especially of a political nature.” I doubt anyone reading this plans to open a manuscript of fiction with a political statement, but I am using manifesto in a different sense: a declaration by the author that reveals in advance what happens ahead. By reveal, I don’t mean the author explains out the plot in the first paragraph. By reveal, I mean the author tells the reader, through the character’s voice, that what is ahead did this, that, or the other, to the character’s life. This is an old style opening- The events I shall relate herewith occurred in the dark December of my youth – and may have worked then, but not so much now. A manifesto is often a sign of stalling. Rather than jumping into the action, the author eases into it by chatting with the reader for a bit, trying to explain that what’s ahead is really great, once we get there. If you have to persuade me, the reader, that what’s ahead is so great, why am I not reading it instead of being persuaded to read it?

Nameless naked guy tied to a chair in an empty warehouse and being tortured and no one can hear him scream – My pet peeve, for a couple of reasons. Victimizing a nameless person is emotional blackmail. The dude tied to the chair may be Charles Manson, but if someone is going at him with a blow torch and gardening shears, I’m going to sympathize with Charlie, no matter what he’s done in the past. And that’s not fair. As a reader, I don’t like being manipulated. A second reason why this is a terrible opening is the absence of context. Opening a scene with action is great. Opening a scene with action I don’t understand because I don’t know these characters or how they got to this place is the same problem as opening with a sex scene. I’m not invested in these people. We just met. I don’t know who deserves my sympathy or my empathy or my disgust, so I end up feeling sorry for Charles Manson. I don’t want to feel sorry for Charles Manson.

Finally, a problem with #12 that applies to all of the other numbers is this: an opening scene is meant to reflect the rest of the story. If I read a torture or sex scene on page 1, I am going to expect a story with graphic violence or sex. If that’s what’s ahead, the author has done his job with an accurate opening. If not, and the author opening with a dramatic scene as a hook, that’s dangerous territory. Why? What if this is the only scene of violence or sex in the story, and I hate graphic violence or sex? I’m going to close the book, and the author has lost a reader who got turned off by a misleading hook. Or, if the author writes only one graphic scene, as a hook, and I like graphic scenes, I’m going to feel tricked when I read on and the rest of the story is not what I expect.

The opening of your story is the introduction to the story world, but also to the writer’s choice of how to introduce that world. If the opening is mundane, unimaginative, manipulative, confusing, or a cliché, the reader can only surmise the rest of the book will be mundane, unimaginative, manipulative, confusing, or a cliché.

One of my favorite writing quotes is from Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.”

I’m not sure it comes so easily after the first paragraph, but I agree that the opening reflects the rest of the story. Is your opening weak, or does it do justice to the pages ahead?

19 thoughts on “12 Terrible Ways to Open a Novel

  1. Eugenia Parrish says:

    You made me look. Actually, I like my first paragraph and I don’t think it violates any of the advice you give here. But I keep worrying that it’s become cliche: The county sheriff is standing in the heat and filth of a back alley gazing down at a defenseless-looking corpse, waiting for the investigation team to arrive. Too trite?

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    • Ramona DeFelice Long says:

      Genie, as I noted, even the ones I mentioned as overdone are done. Yours sounds like a dramatic visual. What’s going on in the sheriff’s mind? What else is happening in the scene? Are there onlookers? Does he recognize the corpse. This could be a quiet and solitary scene, or a chaotic one; it could be a regular day in the life of this sheriff or a killing that blows his mind. It sounds like it’s in the details, for this example.

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  2. Jan says:

    To be honest, I love bad weather. If you start your story with a storm, I will love it. Same goes for driving alone. It’s dangerous out there. Who knows what can happen? The only openings that would turn me off as a reader would be sex and torture. Honestly…I do not understand this particular set of “rules.” That said, I really try hard to follow them. 🙂

    Like

    • Ramona DeFelice Long says:

      Jan, please note they are not “rules” but more like guidelines, to quote Captain Jack Sparrow. 🙂

      With the two examples you gave, there is the inherent possibility of drama with bad weather or dangerous driving conditions. It’s when an opening offers no potential for drama, a better choice might be a better choice. But, if you like an opening with weather, write an opening with weather!

      These are my thoughts and suggestions on this topic, based on reading many manuscripts in progress and published stories. As with all of my posts, I write what I hope will be helpful and I stand by my posts, but I don’t expect universal agreement from all quarters. If this list got you to think about what you do and do not like, and what works for your own writing and what you read, then I hope it was helpful in that regard.

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  3. sarahlearichards says:

    I’ve always hated dream sequences on television. Talk about boring! I prefer flashbacks–something that actually happened! This is a good list. I have read many novels that have too many characters to keep up with, and trying to disrupts the flow of the story.

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