Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Story Openings: How not to

I see that agents Kristen Nelson and Angie Hodapp have been writing a series of posts about how not to open your novel. I presume these are types of openings that they find many aspiring writers seeking representation don’t quite pull off. I’m sure there are examples of all these kinds of story openings that work beautifully. In fact, they begin the series of posts by saying:

If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can get away with any type of opening and make it work—even one of the nine types we are going to suggest that you avoid! So much depends on a writer’s mastery of voice, style, and scene craft.

Indeed, this is obvious. But they go on to add: We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the nine types of openings we’re going to share with you here don’t work simply because we see them so often that they’re no longer fresh or original.

Which implies that these types of openings may work better for readers than agents; readers almost by definition do not see the sheer number of story openings that agents see, nor (generally) as many potential novels that haven’t been through some sort of gatekeeper process.

Here is their first post on this topic.

Here is the second.

Here is the third.

Here are the types of ineffective openings, briefly; for the full comments, obviously, click through.

#1) Your novel opens with your main character alone somewhere thinking.

I can think of one that works great! The Breach by Patrick Lee is my go-to novel for a beginning that breaks this advice. Naturally this depends on the writer’s skill.

#2) Your novel opens with White Room Syndrome.

This one is a definite problem for me as a reader. One of the workshop entries at WorldCon struck me as opening in a setting so undetailed and undescribed that it was practically nonexistent. Nor is that the first time I’ve seen this particular issue at a workshop. For me, one brilliant opening that places the protagonist in the setting right off is Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane.

I should add that other workshop participants did not seem to have as much trouble with this opening as I did.

Nelson and Hodapp have a lot more about this issue, and the types of beginnings that imply your protagonist may be in a white room rather than a real setting. They also discuss creating atmosphere with the setting, which makes me think of that opening of Silence by Michelle Sagara. Wow, was that the epitome of atmospheric or what?

#3) Your novel opens with what we call the “mindless task” or the “everyday normal.”

This is the protagonist-waking-up type of beginning. Nelson and Hodapp argue that beginnings such as “Monday started like any normal day…[followed by pages of details about Monday morning]” probably are not going to work for them. This type of beginning postpones the revelation of the initial conflict (“the good stuff”) and asks the reader to wait for a while before getting interested. I agree that sounds like a pretty risky storytelling strategy.

I bet there are some good examples of this type of opening that work really well, but in fact I can’t think of one right this minute. Maybe one could argue that the opening of the first book of The Sharing Knife series starts kind of this way? The interesting part of Fawn’s life doesn’t start till later. Of course the initial conflict Fawn faces is clear right up front, so that’s a bit different than revealing the problem in chapter two.

I also wonder whether this kind of opening isn’t more likely to work in SFF, because the mundane world is unfamiliar and therefore less likely to be boring to the reader. Even so, I can’t think of really good examples of successful openings like this.

Lots of good stuff at the links, and this is a series in progress, with six more iffy types of novel openings coming up.

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3 Comments Story Openings: How not to

  1. Elaine T

    How about LOTR which opens with an announcement of a birthday party? Or The Hobbit, which opens with Bilbo opening his mail while sitting on the front porch?

    Other than those, though, can’t think of any examples. Even Riddlemaster brings in the trade ships in the first sentence. OK, the next few paragraphs are pretty mundane, but there’s a sense of something arriving , changes just from that opening bit.

  2. Megan

    Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is a pretty good #3–a short (two paragraphs?) but intense hook and then most of a chapter devoted to explaining why the main character was so eager to escape her life. But her sense of voice is so good it just sucks you in.

  3. Rachel

    Megan, yes! That’s a wonderful example of opening with normal life, and totally pulling it off.

    Bilbo’s example is also good — though I never much cared for The Hobbit and love Sunshine.

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