In the beginning . . .
It’s the first page of a brand new novel. Will it be a good beginning or a bad one? Within reading the first two sentences, you’ve already made a decision on whether or not you’ll keep reading. Your reader has too. If they have picked up your novel, they may be turned off by what they read if you have one of these eight awful beginnings.
Your main character is asleep, dreaming. Why is this bad? Sleeping is passive. Unless the action of the entire novel is based in dreams or sleeping frequently, this is an amateur move. Take out the dream sequence completely and start the story with action.
Your first two pages are filled with bizarre landscape description. Why is this bad? Your reader needs a reason to care about this world and they can only do this through the eyes of the character. A description of a foreign world may be fun to write, you may even do it well, but give it to the reader after they’ve fallen in love with the story.
You have a prologue. Why is this bad? A prologue assumes that a reader needs to know some back story to fully appreciate what happens in chapter one. If the author believes this, a better way to put back story in is to add it in with a delicate touch, somewhere between chapter 3 and the midpoint of the book. Start the story when the action begins and have faith that your reader can figure it all out.
You describe your character with a long list. Her eyes, her hair, her Grecian nose (what is that, anyway?) Her smile, her scar that she got falling off the skateboard when she was 11, all this detail can be off-putting! Why is this bad? Your reader may have trouble keeping the details straight in their head. It may be too much to ask that they remember every single detail. Yes, you adore your character and you’ve thought long and hard about how they should smirk in the right place, but your reader should have freedom and ease in picturing the characters in their heads. Keep those descriptions simple so that the reader can move on.
Your character thinks. Often they think when they are looking out the window. Or they may think when they are viewing a sunset. Why is this bad? For the same reason that dreaming is bad: no action. Sure, all of us need to contemplate what we want and why we want it, but not in the beginning of a book. Save the navel gazing for later in the second act when the hero questions the quest in the first place.
Your character begins their day. The alarm goes off and they are late. They make the coffee and catch the bus. They go about their business and the reader is bored out of their mind. Why is this bad? The first scenes of a book should set the stage, but it should reveal a purpose for the main character not the unnecessary details. If the action starts at the office, then start it at the office. Start the story full of action. Your reader will be more likely to join you.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man of good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
You show off your vocabulary. Smugly, you use words that require a dictionary. Maybe you secretly hope an former English teacher sees it. Why is this bad? In your effort to impress, you may have sacrificed clarity. Good writing is writing that communicates. While this may seem obvious to some, for others good writing is adding syllables. Your reader wants to know what’s going on. Don’t make it difficult. Readers will come back to you if you don’t make them feel stupid.
You shock. The opening scene is so brutal, so violent, so gory or so offensive, you congratulate yourself on your graphic description. Why is this bad? You’ve turned the reader to 11 right from the beginning, so there’s no place to go. Even if the point of the story is to solve the gory murder, you’ll have to tone down the imagery and emotion just to tell the story. It’s a good idea to “open with a hook” but “hook” your reader, don’t drag them in kicking and screaming.
So how do you avoid bad beginnings?
Study, maybe even collect, the beginnings of great novels. Examine them for their simplicity, their action, their concise description, and how they all lead up to the inciting incident.
Practice writing them. Wait until you have a solid complete draft before you tackle your beginning, then write several of them. Analyze their strengths and weaknesses and take your time in choosing them.
Don’t be afraid to start late in the story. Experienced novelists know the first chapter will probably be cut out anyway. Often they draft it, get it out of their system and unceremoniously cut it out.
Think action. Put your main character in a fix right in the beginning and show him doing something that is consistent with what he’s going to tackle later.
Think theme. Introduce your big idea in the first of the book. The reader may not be aware of it when they first read it, but it will tug at them subconsciously. They may even re-read the beginning to understand it fully.
Why should you care?
Twenty five gajillion books are published each year. If you want your novel to make a dent in the market at all, you need to be excellent. The first impression that your novel makes to the reader is in what they read in the first five pages. Make sure those pages are as good as they can be.
Your first pages carry a lot of weight. Make sure that you avoid these eight awful openings, engage your reader and get on with your adventure!
Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.