How not to start your novel

Here’s a post from Anne R Allen: How Not to Start Your Novel: 6 First Page No-Nos

And here’s the comment thread at The Passive Voice blog.

Here are the nine, not six, openings Allen targets:

1. It was all a dream. I must admit that I would not generally be super-keen on opening with a dream, though that strikes me as far less of a cheat than closing with a dream. And like virtually all other openings, I’m sure a dream can work just fine. But I gather bad opening dream sequences are such a cliche that they turn a lot of agents and editors off.

I wonder if it counts as a dream sequence to start, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again.” I mean, the narrator goes on to describe the dream. I wonder if today agents would wince from an opening like this? It still seems to work just fine for me.

Can anybody think of a more current-day novel that opens with a dream sequence or a reasonable facsimile thereof?

2. The beginning where the story opens and then jumps forward a hundred years or so. Hmm. That is basically a lot of prologues. I mean, that’s one major thing a prologue is for: to open with a scene that takes place before the main story. Label your beginning “Prologue” and there can hardly be any confusion about the timing when you suddenly move forward.

I expect Allen might as well be saying “Don’t open with a prologue,” and of course lots of agents and editors and readers hate prologues on principle, but it depends. A prologue can be perfectly fine. Even one that is set well before the main story. Winter of Ice and Iron opens with a short chapter (three pages, I think) that sets the scene twenty years before the second chapter, and then the third chapter jumps forward another seven years. I fiddled around with the order of the chapters a good deal, and the timing of events, and whether to start with that very short prologue type of chapter, and that’s how it came out. I’ll be interested in seeing if any readers comment. If I did a good job, it should read pretty seamlessly despite the jumps in time.

3. Dead Man Walking. Allen means the kind of opening where the story opens with its focus on one pov character who is then killed and the pov changes over to the real protagonist. I will add that unless I am reading a murder mystery, I hate this kind of opening, especially if I have quickly become emotionally attached to the initial pov character. The SF novel Defenders by Will McIntosh, had this exact kind of opening. We open with a small military unit trying to heroically achieve some kind of objective and then they all get killed and I don’t know what happened next because I DNF at that point. So when I say I really dislike this kind of opening, I mean it.

However, in a murder mystery this kind of beginning is so typical that I don’t even notice it. Mysteries have totally different conventions when it comes to stuff like that. It’s all about not provoking the reader into feeling betrayed, so when genre conventions are different, openings can be different.

4. Nature walks. By this Allen means thorough detailed sensory-loaded scene setting. Which I generally really appreciate.

I hate white-room openings. It’s quite possible to infuse a description-heavy opening with character development. But even if the author doesn’t do this, I am pretty likely to appreciate a descriptive opening. I’m thinking here of Hild by Nicola Griffith. There’s a very description-heavy beginning. Totally works, at least for me. That was my favorite novel of all the ones I read that year.

5. Robinson Crusoes. Here’s what Allen says about this: “Your protagonist is sitting on a plane, or driving a car or lying in bed on Disney Princess sheets…and musing about stuff. She’s thinking about the dragon she just killed, or who she’s going to meet at the mall, or recapping the catastrophe she’s escaping from. But nothing happens on the page. There is no interaction with other characters, so nothing happens.”

That is all very well, but the novel I always think of first when I hear this “rule” is The Breach by Patrick Lee. It opens with a guy driving and thinking and then, whoa, nonstop ride from there. But the opening is slow, thoughtful, and extremely well done.

6. History lessons. Okay, here I pretty much agree. I personally really dislike prologues that are history lessons, the kind that dump all the worldbuilding on top of the reader in one solid brick. Really awful — for me, at least. Anne Bishop did this in her “Others” series and I hated it there and pretty much skipped over it so I could start the story. Peter Jackson did this with the opening of the LotR movies and I actually hated it there, too, and would gladly fast-forward through all the history-lesson part if other viewers didn’t object too vociferously.

Pretty sure no one is going to think of an example of this kind of opening that works for me. But how about you, does this kind of opening work for you?

8. Crowd scenes. Allen says “Lots of new writers are led astray by the rule that you should start a book “in media res” (literally, “in the middle of things”.) So they start the story in the middle of the battle between the Trolls and the Orcs and we see four different hand-to hand combats going on and gallons of spurting blood and we have no idea who to root for because all these people are so frenzied, and awful things are happening to every one of them and…who is this story about, anyway? As I said above, every story needs ONE protagonist. Yes, books can be about groups, but one of them has to be the hero.”

This is an interesting comment because (a) I kind of keep thinking I prefer novels where there is just one main hero, but (b) there are so many counter examples that I can’t honestly say that is even a vague rule, and (c) I generally put two or more equally important protagonists in each of my books, which only goes to show.

Honestly, I think Allen should have stopped after her (quite accurate imo) comment about opening with a complicated battle scene.

9. As-You-Know-Bob openings. Allen is maintaining here that opening with dialogue is tricky because of a tendency to try to work in too much clumsy workbuilding via that dialogue. I wouldn’t know. I actually can’t think of any examples of this kind of opening. If you can, feel free to drop an example in the comments.

I must admit I like the comment thread at the Passive Voice better than the original post, which is why I linked to it above. Here is the most on-point comment:

#2 is pretty much the norm in most popular novels I read; even Lee Childs typically spends 500-1000 words establishing the setting before Jack Reacher beats someone up. But it has to be description that’s relevant to the character and situation, not just the writer typing every detail they think up.

If anything, I’m more likely to drop a book because it throws me straight into characters I know nothing about in a setting I know nothing about.

#4 is basically the summary opening, where you start with the world and zoom in to the character. Which works fine so long as you keep it interesting and short.

So I think the point is not that those are bad ways to start a story, but that they’re easy for new writers to do badly.

And of course that is true. Several commenters pointed out that instead of prescriptive and proscriptive rules, what works better is providing good and bad examples of various types of openings. I agree, so that is what I tried to do above, though I couldn’t think of examples for just everything.

I suggest that if you’re interested in what works and what doesn’t work and what agents consider cliched in story openings and all that, you check out Kristen Nelson’s series on story openings to avoid. Here is part six with links to parts 1-5.

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5 thoughts on “How not to start your novel”

  1. How about Tolkien’s prologue, which is a whole bunch of world building, if not exactly the history the story deals with?

    I recently dumped a sample for a couple reasons, one of them being the dead man walking opening. Somehow it had felt like that was what it was going to be, too. On top of that, it read like a mediocre pastiche of GGK’s Arbonne. I often have trouble with GGK’s opening, BTW, especially his earlier work. They just don’t grab me – I’m sometimes amazed I plowed through to where the story takes off.

    LeGuin’s example of the dialogue heavy opening is War and Peace which not only starts with dialogue, but a foreign language. From memory: Eh, bien, Mon Prince. And it’s the middle of a crowded party, too! a double offender. :-)

    Does “Lymond is back” count as dialogue? IIR it then goes into description/summary, so probably not.

    Some CJC starts with history, doesn’t it? Alliance Union set books? I think the Mri trilogy did, as well as Cyteen, but I haven’t actually looked at the openings of those in … well, a very long time. Oh! FORTRESS starts with history. not as-you-know, but definitely a history lesson.

    Skimming through my Kindle samples I see a couple that open with maybe a line or two of dialogue then give us some character and description. I wouldn’t count those as opening with dialogue or as-you-know.

  2. The Alliance Union stuff is more like that infinitely repeated preface in the McCaffrey Pern series. Annoying, but nothing you have to read. I agree this is more of a problem in the world of Kindle samples.

  3. Why, yes, true, there are those historical prologues in some of Cherryh’s books. It’s been so long that I read them for the first time, and when I re-read I skip over all that, so I completely forgot about those.

  4. Catching up on posts I missed, I recently decided no on a sample for a problem not listed above that’s related to Dead Man Walking: when the story starts out with how happy a protagonist’s life is surrounded by family and/or friends and/or a happy community that I already know are going to die in the first chapter or two because it’s mentioned in the blurb.

    (I dislike this even when it’s not mentioned in the blurb too because it’s usually painfully obvious. Entirely too many stories rely on death of loved ones to set things off for my taste, especially wives and mothers.)

  5. Sandstone, yeah, I have to say, I hate waiting for a tragedy to crash over a protagonist. Ugh. I would probably back away from a book that started that way, too. In fact I think the Elisa Barber series might count as starting that way, though I don’t know that the main character was all that happy to start with. So this kind of motivating tragedy doesn’t work for me generally, regardless of how the protagonist is doing right at the beginning. I deleted the sample right after the tragedy struck.

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