It’s November and that means it’s NaNoWrimo time and that means many, many people are beginning their novels. Of
course NaNoWrimo is all about quantity, rather than quality, so Wrimo writers won’t be agonising over their opening, but once they go back and try to make sense of their 50,000 words they’ll want to hone it to create a killer opening.
You want to create a beginning that makes the reader turn from page one to page two. If they give up, then you’ve failed to hook your reader, who could be your potential agent or editor or publisher.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at how not to open your novel…
- The character wakes up… I know this is a real bug bear for agents. Books that open with the character waking up with an alarm clock and then brushing their teeth and getting dressed. We all do this every day and it’s not interesting. Even if they’re toothbrush blows up, this is a weak way to start a novel. First day of school also falls into this category, as does opening with a dream, which is a false start and frustrates readers. Edit out the boring bits and get to the conflict or action as soon as possible.
- Travelogue intro to your world… This one can depend on your genre – if you’re writing epic fantasy, some readers may expect a long description of the world – but generally this isn’t the best idea, unless you’re John Steinbeck and you’re not. You’ve spent months world building or researching an era or setting and now you want to get it all down in the page, but it slows down the narrative. Better to introduce your character and conflict and then drip-feed the world and setting information by showing, not telling – sci-fi and fantasy writers, especially need to watch this.
- Your protagonist looks in the mirror… This is a classic in romantic fiction, which usually has the heroine gaze at her green, almond-shaped eyes and screw her face up at the tendrils of auburn hair and sigh. Urgh. If you’re writing in first-person, then you’ll have to skip the character description. Just get over it. I don’t tend to describe characters, unless the way they look is vital to the plot, such as the scar on Harry Potter or Anne’s red hair in Anne of Green Gables. If the most interesting thing about your character is the way they look, you may be in trouble. Get on with the story already.
- Prologue… The trouble with prologues is they’re out of fashion and agents hate them. I’ve read so many articles about agent pet peeves and prologues is always on the list. One of my favourite books, The Secret History, has a prologue, so I don’t agree with the charges against them – that they’re a lazy hook, when a flashback or some other technique, mid-novel, could work. I like them as a teaser, but if agents hate them, then I’m going to steer clear. If you’re a new writer, ignore this don’t at your peril.
- Begin at the beginning… New writers often think they need to start their story at the beginning, but that’s a big mistake. We don’t need th build-up, we just need the interesting bit. Write your novel from the beginning, finish draft one and then cut the first three chapters. I bet it starts in a much more interesting place now. This is called ‘in media res’, which places your protagonist in the middle of some action.
- Explain everything… Some people think that readers are stupid. They think that readers need to be spoon fed, otherwise they just won’t geddit. They won’t understand that this is set in the future, unless I tell them or that we’re in 1930s Paris, unless my character reads a newspaper and remarks on the date. Wrongo. Readers are clever. If your character is interesting, your writing is tight and the setting is interesting, with some immediate questions, then your reader will stay with you. Consider the opening of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen”.
- They die… Don’t start a novel with someone who dies, unless the story then goes into flashback about their life and even then it’s dodgy territory. Why have your reader invest in someone, only to kill them at the end of page two? Get your protagonist on page one and make them interesting.
- Too much action, not enough character… Avoid throwing your character into battle or having them defuse a bomb on page one, unless they are James Bond and this is a sequel. These scenes are supposed to represent peril for the heroine, but if we don’t even know her, then we don’t care about her and if we don’t care, we get bored. You see where I’m going with this. When I say start with the character in action, I mean something should happen to disturb the status quo – a phone call, the police knock on the door, a power cut or a new boss.
- Weather report… “It was a dark, stormy night…” is famous for all the wrong reasons. The worst opener, everyone knows. So why do people still insist on opening with weather reports? Don’t tell us if it’s sunny or windy, just tell us who the character is, what they’re doing and why we should care.
Rules are there to be broken, but first we need to understand the rules and why they are the rules. If you’re a first-time writer who wants to go down the traditional publishing route, then stick to the rules. Agents are busy and they have key things they look for to sift through the junk. Don’t give them an excuse to bin your manuscript on page one, by using one of these corny openers. You’ve been warned.