Advice On Story Openings
By Theresa Rizzo
Novel openings are tough to get right. No denying it. They are often challenging, subjective, and critical. But crafting compelling openings can be learned.
I always tell beginning writers openings must do three things. 1) Introduce the main character, 2) Show us what she wants (goal), 3) Why she can’t have it (conflict). And in most cases this can be (should be) achieved in the first couple of pages. You do that and you’ve got a solid start.
Here are some tips of what make or break story openings. Subjectivity is an undeniable dominating element in this business and rules definitely can be broken (if one is skilled enough to do it v-er-y well), however dynamic openings are pretty unanimously recognized—just as problem openings are.
And one thing to always keep in mind, is your reader’s expectation. What do readers of the genre you’re writing in expect in your opening? If it’s a mystery, it’s a dead body in chapter one. If it’s a romance, the reader wants boy and girl to meet fairly quickly. If it’s a historical, the reader wants to be immersed in accurate setting, dialogue, and facts immediately—and stay immersed. If it’s a fantasy, magic must be present. And so on.
1) Start with action. Avoid starting your book at the beginning, start when something is already happening. Keep in mind that the action MUST have context and be grounded with a character we care about, otherwise the reader is thinking why the hell do I care about this?
2) Offer a sympathetic character. We need to care—or at least be interested in or curious about the point-of-view character. And Please. Please. Please. Start with the character whose story this is—or introduce him very quickly. We need to know up front who to bond to and root for, right from the get go.
3) Take the time to introduce the character and ground him in his everyday life before throwing him into conflict. This should be accomplished quickly--a paragraph or a page or two.
4) The opening situation needs to be rife with tension or conflict—give us a character we care about who is not getting what he wants or meets opposition.
5) Make sure the tone reflects the genre to help set the readers expectations and ground them in the story.
6) No back-story information dumps! Very little back-story should be included in the opening chapter. It must be skillfully sprinkled throughout the book. Not only is it clunky, boring, and a pace-killer to dump a bunch of bask-story in the opening chapter, but withholding some back-story can be an effective tension device. Keeping the reader wondering what in her background traumatized her so that she would act that way, helps keep the reader turning pages. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by giving away all the good stuff up front.
7) Do not use dialogue to give reader information she should be showing the reader.
Agent/Editors have very little patience for slow openings that are bogged down with lots of back-story or character or setting descriptions. They find perfect characters boring, yet they don’t care for characters who are jerks either. No matter how large the character arc—you’d better give overly flawed characters some redeeming traits right up front, so the reader is at least interested in the character. Agents and editors have a low threshold for poor mechanics (grammar and spelling), so enlist the help of a great proofreader or study Strunk and White.
Follow these guidelines and you’ve at least got a shot at scoring well in a contest or getting a request for a partial or a full manuscript from an agent or editor.
Agent Pet Peeves reprinted from Guide to Literary Agent Blog:
Agents Chapter 1 Pet Peeves:
"Anything cliché such as ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ will turn me off. I hate when a narrator or author addresses the reader (e.g., 'Gentle reader')."
- Jennie Dunham, Dunham Literary
"Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player. Other annoying, unoriginal things I see too often: some young person going home to a small town for a funeral, someone getting a phone call about a death, a description of a psycho lurking in the shadows, or a terrorist planting a bomb."
- Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency (formerly Ellen Pepus Literary)
"I’m really turned off by a protagonist named Isabelle who goes by 'Izzy.' No. Really. I am."
- Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management
"I dislike opening scenes that you think are real (I rep adult genre fiction), then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated. And so many writers use this hackneyed device. I dislike lengthy paragraphs of world building and scene setting up front. I usually crave action close to the beginning of the book (and so do readers)."
- Laurie McLean, Larsen/Pomada Literary Agents
"I do in fact hate it when someone wakes up from a dream in Chapter 1, and I dislike an overly long prologue. The worst thing that you can do is let that crucial chapter be boring - that’s the chapter that has to grab my interest!"
- Michelle Brower, Folio Literary Management (formerly Wendy Sherman Associates)
"I don't like an opening line that's 'My name is...,' introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. I might be prompted to groan before reading on a bit further to see if the narration gets any less stale. There are far better ways in Chapter 1 to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader. I’m also usually not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page 1 rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it."
- Michelle Andelman, Lynn C. Franklin Associates (formerly Andrea Brown Literary Agency)
"I hate seeing a 'run-down list:' Names, hair color, eye color, height, even weight sometimes. Other things that bother me is over-describing the scenery or area where the story starts. Usually a manuscript can lose the first 3-5 chapters and start there. Besides the run-down list preaching to me about a subject, I don't like having a character immediately tell me how much he/she hates the world for whatever reason. In other words, tell me your issues on politics, the environment, etc. through your character. That is a real turn off to me."
- Miriam Hees (editor), Blooming Tree Press
"Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition - when they go beyond what is necessary for simply 'setting the scene.' I want to feel as if I'm in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I'm feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further. It is what keeps me up at night saying 'just one more chapter, then I'll go to sleep.' If everything is explained away in the first chapter; I'm probably putting the book down and going to sleep."
- Peter Miller, Peter Miller Literary
"1. Squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief -- been done a million times. 2. A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape. 3. A trite statement ("Get with the program" or "Houston, we have a problem" or "You go girl" or "Earth to Michael" or "Are we all on the same page?"), said by a weenie sales guy, usually in the opening paragraph. 4. A rape scene in a Christian novel, especially in the first chapter. 5. 'Years later, Monica would look back and laugh...' 6. "The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land."
- Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary
"Here are things I can't stand: Cliché openings in Fantasy can include an opening scene set in a battle (and my peeve is that I don't know any of the characters yet so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn't realize how common this is). Opening chapters where a main protagonist is in the middle of a bodily function (jerking off, vomiting, peeing, or what have you) is usually a firm NO right from the get-go. Gross. Long prologues that often don't have anything to do with the story. So common in Fantasy again. Opening scenes that our all dialogue without any context. I could probably go on..."
- Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary
"I recently read a ms when the second line was something like, 'Let me tell you this, Dear Reader...' What do you think of that?"
- Sheree Bykofsky, Sheree Bykofsky Literary
"I know this may sound obvious, but too much 'telling' vs. 'showing' in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me – the first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who and how. Don’t ever describe eye color either..."
- Emily Sylvan Kim, Prospect Agency
"Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking ... Authors often do this to transmit information, but the result is action in a literal sense but no real energy in a narrative sense. The best rule of thumb is always to start the story where the story starts."
- Dan Lazar, Writers House
"I hate reading purple prose, taking the time to set up-- to describe something so beautifully and that has nothing to do with the actual story. I also hate when an author starts something and then says '(the main character) would find out later.' I hate gratuitous sex and violence anywhere in the manuscript. If it is not crucial to the story then I don't want to see it in there, in any chapters."
- Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary
Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written."
- Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
"Slow writing with a lot of description puts me off very quickly. I like a first chapter that moves quickly and draws me in so I'm immediately hooked."
- Andrea Hurst, Andrea Hurst Literary Management
"Avoid any description of the weather."
- Denise Marcil, Denise Marcil Literary Agency
"I don't like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter 1. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated."
- Cricket Freeman, August Agency
"A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say 'Open with a hook!' to grab the reader. That's true, but there's a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that's just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue. Or opening with a hook that's just too convoluted to be truly interesting."
- Daniel Lazar, Writers House
" 'The Weather' is always a problem - the author feels he has to set up the scene and tell us who the characters are, etc. I like starting a story in media res."
- Elizabeth Pomada, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents
Posted by Chuck
1. Generic beginnings: Stories that opened with the date or the weather didn’t really inspire interest. According to Harmsworth, you are only allowed to start with the weather if you're writing a book about meteorologists. Otherwise, pick something more creative.
2. Slow beginnings: Some manuscripts started with too much pedestrian detail (characters washing dishes, etc) or unnecessary background information.
3. Trying too hard: Sometimes it seemed like a writer was using big words or flowery prose in an attempt to sound more sophisticated. In several cases, the writer used big words incorrectly. Awkward or forced imagery was also a turnoff. At one point, the panelists raised their hands when a character's eyes were described as “little lubricated balls moving back and forth.”
4. TMI (Too Much Information): Overly detailed description of bodily functions or medical examinations had the panelists begging for mercy.
5. Clichés: "The buildings were ramrod straight." "The morning air was raw." "Character X blossomed into Y." "A young woman looks into the mirror and tells us what she sees." Clichés are hard to avoid, but when you revise, go through and try to remove them.
6. Loss of Focus: Some manuscripts didn't have a clear narrative and hopped disjointedly from one theme to the next.
7. Unrealistic internal narrative: Make sure a character's internal narrative—what the character is thinking or feeling—matches up with reality. For example, you wouldn't want a long eloquent narration of what getting strangled feels like—the character would be too busy gasping for breath and passing out. Also, avoid having the character think about things just for the sake of letting the reader know about them.