O is for the Opening Pages of Your Novel

I think it's safe to assume that most writers write and rewrite their opening chapters a lot more times than they'd ever spent on the middle and end part of the novel. Because really, if you can't get your readers interested in the first chapter, you can't get them to reach the awesome climax and ending you have in store for them. Lots of pressure, right?

So, how do YOU start your novel?

Here's a list of no-no's I've heard from agents and other writers:

1. Don't start with your character waking up. Or being woken up by the sound of the alarm clock going off. Or being woken up from a nightmare--which really goes to #2.

2. Don't start with a dream. Or a nightmare. If your aim is to hook the reader with a heart-stopping scene, and then wake up the character just as he was about to be eaten by a *Sasquatch or whatever...let me just tell you the truth right now: You're going to piss off your reader.

3. Don'st start with a boring scene where nothing happens to your character. If it's a day-to-day scene: A is getting ready for school, A eats breakfast, A drives to school, A goes to her first class, etc. Why would we read about your character's routine? We've already got normal, boring routines going on in our own lives, and we don't need to pay $$ to read about it.

4. Don't start with the weather. Seriously. You're not one of those people who sidles up to an acquaintance during a dinner party and goes, "Hey, what do you think of the snow outside?", are you?

5. Don't start with a high-action-packed scene where the character's world is already being blown apart, and said character is facing likely odds of being mincemeat if he doesn't run away from Sasquatch... I mean, c'mon, give your readers a chance to KNOW your characters and CARE about them, before putting them all in jeopardy. If we don't care, we'd be perfectly content to let Sasquatch get his dinner on page one.

*Sasquatch probably doesn't eat people. Or maybe he does. I don't know. *shrugs*

What other no-no's can you think of? Also, I want to say that some authors have broken above rules and have managed to succeed. They're masters, ok? They can do it. You and I, however, we gotta work our butts off to make a novel worthy to be read by all. And if it means following a few rules, so be it.

Ever heard of the Bulwer-Lytton literary parody contest? It's a yearly contest looking for fake and real worst opening paragraphs to novels. Here are a few "winners" for deliberately terrible sentences (taken from www.innocentenglish.com):

When she sashayed across the room, her breasts swayed like two house trailers passing on a windy bridge.

--Stan Higley
 Fairport, NY

The goose waddled slowly, heavily, across the road, exactly the way my mother-in-law would if she were a goose.

--Mary Montiel
Wichita, KS

Kathy, who had bound her breasts and cropped her hair, and lied about her gender to join a monastery of Jesuits in northern Kentucky, until she was discovered one night in the shower, winced as the dentist pulled her tooth.

--Terry Johnson
Tularosa, NM


Mrs. Silverstein said...

My crutch is to start in media res, with a line of dialogue--but I'm realizing that none of my favorite first lines are dialogue, so that's bookmarked in my head as something to work on. It does help me get to the meat of the scene quickly, though.

Judy said...

i'm not a novelist, but I READ a ton of novels, and I would think that if you're a really talented author, you could make SNEEZING capture the attention of your readers. I was going to say that I can see the point about the weather, but as a reader I'd be engaged right away if it were a dark and stormy night, lightening and thundering, and all that. Guess it all matters what comes after that, huh?!

Jennie Bennett said...

That last one was hilarious! I think more than saying what we shouldn't do to start a book is what we should do, and that is to set up the scene and the characters then take off into the story.

Kimberly Krey said...

Great things to avoid, for sure. I don't even like movies that start off with explosions; I don't know anyone yet, so - like you say - I don't care what's happening to whom, even if it does involve a Sasquatch. :)

Unknown said...

My genre--crime fiction/mysteries--usually starts the same: with the murder of the first victim. So, usually that's how I start. In the middle of the action.

M.J. Fifield said...

I am pleased to report I didn't start my novel with any of those no-no's.

I really love Mary and Terry's opening paragraphs. They're all kinds of awesome.

Krista McLaughlin said...

Those are hilarious! Oops, one of my books breaks rule #1. Off to fix that! :) My current WIP starts with a woman screaming in labor. Definitely starts with the action.

Golden Eagle said...

LOL. Those are definitely bad sentences.

I've been guilty of #5. I don't actually mind action scenes at the beginning of stories--probably an extension of the fact plot is more critical than characters to me when I'm reading--but I know a lot of people say it's bad practice so I try to fix it.

The Golden Eagle
The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

Jemi Fraser said...

Love those sentences!!! :)

I've heard not to start with dialogue too. Seems most people want to know a bit aobut the character before they hear her/him speak :)

Daisy Carter said...

I have trouble with beginnings - I have to rewrite them SEVERAL DOZEN TRILLION times before they're right. This is a great post - I need to post the list up on my fridge. I've also heard an editor say never to start with a funeral because what do we care about a corpse we never knew while it was a person, and everyone knows how grief feels, anyway.

Linda Fischer said...

HIlarious! Thanks for making me smile!

I haven't looked at the beginning of my novel for a long long time! I can't even remember my first sentence! (That is soooo sad!)


Unknown said...

I start with dialogue!! Cause that's my strength! :) I love those "fake" openings. hahaha.

mooderino said...

I think in most cases the first thing you need to do is introduce your main character to the reader. Usually an inexperienced writer will resort to backstory to do this, whihc is tedious. You can actually show someone's personality in whatever they're doing, even how they eat cereal, it just takes knowing who your character is and then giving them something to do that demonstrates that.

Moody Writing
The Funnily Enough

Cheryl B. Dale said...

Love the Bulwer-Lytton first sentence contest! Some of them make me LOL!

E.B. Black said...

I agree with this list, but I read a novel recently that broke rules one and two and did it excellently. I never thought a novel starting out that way could be good. I've read so many people try to do it and do a bad job, but this person is just amazing at writing (and it's their debut novel as well!)

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