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Writer’s Craft #29 – Never open with a ?

July 18, 2011

Are there no-nos for how to start a novel? And can you break the ‘rules’?

Part 1: Courtesan Prince in my Okal Rel series starts with a recruiter springing rel-pilot Ann from a group home to go meet some crazies called Sevolites. It takes place on a beach. But at least Ann wasn’t being sensitive on a beach. Starting with a dream is another no-no. Don’t think I’ve been guilty of that one, although I have committed more than my quota of flashbacks. Authors are also discouraged from starting a story with someone waking up in the morning. I’ve never started a novel that way, but I nearly did, once. (Draft Excerpt: Ranar and Di Mon an unpleasant wake up call )

Should a writer steer clear of the ‘no-no’s? Do we even agree on what those are? When might it be unwise to ignore such advice, and when should you get stubborn?

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41 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2011 6:24 am

    I think the only true “rule” of beginning a story is “Start as close to the inciting incident/action as you can.” Everything else depends on the skill of execution. If it’s done very well indeed, you can get away with pretty much anything.

  2. July 18, 2011 8:00 am

    I’ve heard that there are no rules in writing — just guidelines. The examples you listed are no-no’s becuase they’re cliche’s, but if a writer can find a way to write them in a new, fresh way, they wouldn’t be cliche’s at all.

    For beginning with a dream, for instance, maybe this character’s dreams are always prophetic, and by detailing the dream, the writer sets up the core dilemma the protag must face for the rest of the book? If she knows that the giant, scaly green mosquitos will be real and that they’ll destroy the city, her mission becomes stopping the invasion before it gets started.

    Almost any of the opening cliche’s can be written in a new and different way, and at that point, who cares about the so-called rules? The real rule is, “don’t be boring.”

  3. July 18, 2011 8:44 am

    “Don’t be boring” sounds like a good rule. :-) What’s boring, folks? Any pet peeves?

    • J Hatfair permalink
      July 18, 2011 12:25 pm

      My pet peeve? Throwing too many new, foreign words at the reader in the beginning of a story, causing a struggle to comprehend what the writer is tring to convey. If the book starts with “Daniel threw the gitfer on the clatfin, hoping they wouldn’t catch that he was a hajini.” Now maybe Daniel is throwing a saddle on a horse, hoping they don’t recognize he’s a newbie. If you’re going to write of a strange alien world, I need to know as a reader how this world’s people are like me and relatable, not how strange and alien they are- I can take that as a given.

      • July 18, 2011 3:13 pm

        Agree with you about that one. Sometimes fret that I’ve committed the sin in later books in my series. Maybe that’s a topic for a future post: at what point in a series can you expect the reader knows what a Sevolite is? Or a “gifter on the clatfin” for that matter. :-)

  4. Kari T permalink
    July 18, 2011 9:40 am

    Oi, Lynda.. here is how obsessive compulsive I can be. I was so caught up in this very issue that I would go to bookstores and pick a book off the shelf, read the first paragraph, and then move on to the next one. why? Because I wanted to see what grabbed publisher’s (and my, a potential buyer’s) attention. I think I’ve read over a hundred opening paragraphs this past year.

    A list of favorites: “Mariam was 5 years old when she learned the word harami” (From a thousand Splendid suns by Khaled Hosseini, my favorite modern author).

    I also liked the opening from White Oleander, which I can’t recite off the top of my head, but it opens with a breathtaking description of the santa ana winds.

    My beloved Garcia Marquez always opens with an off the wall comment, like: “It was inevitible, the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of unrequited love.” (From Love in the time of Cholera)

    So for me, a good opening comes from left field. Unfortunately, after 1 1/2 years I still can’t get my opening sentence right, which I”ll include here out of sheer embarrasment: “The tide had just begun its retreat when Pieter Grenwold realized the flaw in his well laid plans.”

    • July 18, 2011 3:17 pm

      And I’m betting Pieter, like my Ann, is on a beach! But sounds like he’s about to get in trouble, not be sensitive. I don’t know if that sentence is all that bad! I know he’s got a plan and it is about to go wrong and he’s on a beach. Quite a bit of work for one sentence. PS I love Garcia Marquez too. Particularly Love in the Time of Cholera. He makes it real and yet we have compassion for his flawed human beings busy hurting themselves and each other as they simultaneously give each other joy and live among life’s cruelties and beauties.

      • Kari T permalink
        July 18, 2011 6:36 pm

        Lynda what a beautiful summary of Love in the time of Cholera. Ah, only a true writer could sum it up so compassionately :-)

  5. July 18, 2011 10:19 am

    I’ve heard one shouldn’t open a novel with dialogue, because the reader is immediately faced with a disembodied, genderless, toneless voice. However, more than a few novels I’ve found engaging have done so. It makes me wonder how much a reader actually attributes a particular “voice” to a given character, vs simply relying on that nebulous “voice” inside his or her head. For instance, when I read the Lord of the Rings, I honestly don’t think I had separate, specific voices for Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. They were all just “that voice” in my head. OTOH, after the movies, I now do have particular voices for these characters (that sound suspiciously like Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, etc.) That’s an aberration, though. I wonder how many readers really do have or need a specific internal voice for a character, such that opening on dialogue is really that off-putting.

    • July 18, 2011 3:18 pm

      Opening with dialogue has never put me off. Like you, I take the words as they come and look forward to filling in the characters as I learn more about them. Not knowing what they sound like or look like to start is sort of a plus. Maybe it depends on how people’s heads work.

  6. July 18, 2011 12:09 pm

    Here’s my opening for Elegy: The Black Diamond. I’m still shopping for an agent for this one.

    Stones endure. People die, parents abandon children, friends become enemies. But stones are timeless and eternal, the solid bedrock that supports the world.

    He needed the stones. They called to him, touched a deep place hidden within him that he rarely exposed.

    • July 18, 2011 3:23 pm

      Interesting. Would you consider starting with “People die…”? Then “But stones are timeless …” and the follow through into “he needed the stones”. That sequence, without the opening warning me this is about stones, pulls harder on the reader. At least it does for me. People -> stones -> he needs stones (ok he’s different) vs. Stones -> people -> stones -> he needs stones (which leaves me thinking about stones more, somehow, or feeling less surprised/intrigued.)

      • July 18, 2011 4:06 pm

        Lynda, I will definitely consider that! I’m looking for a way to show this man’s reliance on the gems and non-gem stones that are his livelihood and life’s work, in lieu of a lot of reliance on people — except his wife and children. I think I’ll like starting it where you suggest, for greater impact. Thank you!

  7. July 18, 2011 12:22 pm

    Here is my pet peeve (and, boy, is it petty, but, boy, does it peeve me):

    Story begins with introduction of character. Author shows reader interesting things about character. Character is compelling, perhaps quirky. Reader begins to like character.

    Character discovers corpse/secret military base/downed alien craft. Character alerts proper authorities, who arrive and take over.

    Character is *never heard from/of again*.

    This is different from an interesting character who gets killed, deported, or trapped in a stasis field in the opening sequence. *That* character, although we may not see them in the flesh again, is still present in the story. People will talk about them, perhaps try to determine what happened to them. We will continue to learn about and, in a way, interact with them, even in absence. No, I’m talking about a character whose *sole* purpose in the story is to see something they shouldn’t, tell someone who can do something about it, and then vanish.

    Call it economy of emotion. If a character won’t matter to a story later, I don’t want to invest the effort in getting to know them now.

    • July 18, 2011 12:46 pm

      I hate that one. I read a novel that started with a five-year-old’s first day of school. Went through her whole day, her POV. Then school ends, she crosses the street…
      …and gets hit by a car!
      The rest of the novel is about mom’s guilt, but frankly, I didn’t care because the author got me interested in this little girl then ran her down so mom could angst for 20 more chapters. However, she had plenty of readers who loved it and felt all the sadder for the mom because they loved the delightful little girl.

      I’ve heard the dream taboo, too, along with “don’t have a prologue.” I broke both in my latest novel, Mind Over Mind. In the prologue, Deryl wakes up from a nightmare that’s not his own. You can read it at http://www.karinafabian.com/index.php?name=Content&pid=46. Frankly, it was the best way for me to show Deryl was psychic, not in complete control of his abilities, and committed to a mental institution, long-term.

      • July 18, 2011 3:31 pm

        Gotta ask Karina – if his name is Deryl why is he called Ydrel in the opening? I’m presuming he’s called Gideon by the old man due to the old man’s association with someone else. Anyway, I liked Ydrel for fixing the nightmare for the old man. :-) Hope he gets out of the asylum before he’s twenty!

      • July 18, 2011 4:25 pm

        RE: Ydrel/Deryl. Ydrel is actually *what* he is to an alien race that is in psychic contact with him–kind of an oracle. In fact, they don’t even realize he’s a person until a little later in the book. His name is Deryl, but since his aunt and uncle insist on spelling it Darrel (because that’s how normal people would spell it), he goes by Ydrel. Frankly, the only time he feel needed and cared for is in his role as Ydrel, anyway. Yes, “Gideon” is his role in the fantasy he’s set up for the old man.

        He’ll get out of the asylum in Book 2: Mind Over Psyche. Of course, it’s an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation.

  8. Joël Champetier permalink
    July 18, 2011 12:32 pm

    I am obsessive over my openings. Two of my novels start with someone waking up. I still think they work. In both case waking up, and the way they wake up, says something about the caracter, the world and the story. My novel La Peau blanche starts by the narrator explaining why there won’t be any quotes before the main narrative, because he finds it irritating. I’m still kinda proud of that first page. My best first page, if I may say so myself.
    Joël Champetier

    • Kari T permalink
      July 18, 2011 2:49 pm

      Joel, can you share these lines with us? I”m curious to read them :-)

      • Joël Champetier permalink
        July 18, 2011 6:08 pm

        I’m not home: I would have to rely on memory. And by the way, those novel are in French, of course.

  9. July 18, 2011 12:56 pm

    I love a good opening, but have been burned by a great start and then bleach story. So now I read first few paragraphs and then open to middle and make sure that’s interesting as well. I think my personal favorite opening of my own books is TANGLED IN TIME when my character wakes up nose to beak with a buzzard.

    • July 18, 2011 3:32 pm

      Chuckle. Was the buzzard surprised too? Probably not. Was probably trying to decide if your character was dead yet. Do share.

      • July 20, 2011 9:28 am

        Okay, here it is (LOL!):

        Braedon Cary, Col. USAF, was used to waking up in strange places. He wasn’t used to waking up nose-to-beak with a buzzard. He stared at the buzzard. The buzzard stared at him. It dawned on him that he had a buzzard on his chest. He yelled. He may have waved his arms at it as he scrambled to his feet. With an air of offended dignity, it retreated to a chunk of rock.

        (This is from my steampunk/sfr novella Tangled in Time)

        We have a lot of turkey vultures in the area around our house and they do look quite…intimidating when I drive past them. There were about five sitting in the driveway to an apartment building and I could almost hear them saying, “I don’t know. What do you want to do?” LOL!

    • July 20, 2011 12:22 pm

      Liked the reaction – He yelled. I would, too.

      • July 20, 2011 12:32 pm

        Fun and intriguing opening! LOL!

        Would you mind a dumb question? What is Steampunk? I keep hearing that name but don’t know exactly what it is.

      • July 20, 2011 3:02 pm

        Yeah, or shrieked. LOL! I did have some fun with the buzzard, though.

  10. July 18, 2011 4:04 pm

    Not sure what all the supposed no-no’s are, having been off in my corner writing my fantasy trilogy for the past ten years.

    My trilogy is called “The Star-Seer’s Prophecy” so it starts with The Prophecy. Then an Author’s Note; Then a quote from Ramakrishna. Then a Prologue, which starts with two brothers racing down a hill. Wonder which “rules” I have broken?

    • July 18, 2011 4:10 pm

      Probably lots, Rahima. None of which matters if your readers don’t think so. Is this the first book in that triology? http://broaduniverse.org/catalog/dark-innocence-by-rahima-warren

    • July 20, 2011 2:58 pm

      Steampunk is Victorian type societies meshed with technology. Think Wild, Wild West or Brisco County Jr? Jules Verne? I did several blog posts on the topic, with links on my website in the press room. (www.perilouspauline.com) It’s very fun. I went a step further and mashed steampunk with science fiction romance. It was really fun, a bit whacky, but fun. :-)

      • July 20, 2011 3:10 pm

        Ah! Thanks! Does sound like fun. Like your website, too. Also fun, and friendly.

      • July 20, 2011 3:40 pm

        Thanks, Rahima! I recently updated it using Sandvox and I like it so much better. What is fun about steampunk is that there aren’t really any genre rules yet. The genre is exploding in a lot of directions, allowing authors to just have fun with it, or go dark if they want to. Sugarland, the country group, used steampunk themes for their just concluded Incredible Machine tour. There is video on their website about it. My sister go to see it all live and said it was so fun. She’s been doing a lot of steampunk jewelry and there are LARPS built around it, also art work. All in all, pretty fun. :-)

      • July 20, 2011 5:06 pm

        Pauline, my Demish characters are neo-victorian with tech but never thought of it as steampunk before. Maybe I should. I just never did figure out what I was. :-( But that could be because pieces of the Okal Rel Saga fit in different genres? If the Demish are steampunk, and the Reetions are Star Trek and the Vrellish are attention deficit/erotica … hey, maybe I’m a mash up after all. :-)

      • July 20, 2011 6:29 pm

        I think you are! That’s the fun of it, there’s no one to tell us we can’t mash it up how we like. (evil grin)

    • July 21, 2011 8:46 am

      Rahima, I tried to reply to your email, but it keeps bouncing back. What I wrote it, link your book to fantasy, because it is familiar to readers, then add what makes your book unique, your genre your own. IMHO. :-)

  11. Barbara permalink
    July 18, 2011 4:05 pm

    So I should begin with a prologue in which a character dreams of faceless people talking, then wakes up and has a flashback?
    Also, adverbs.

  12. July 18, 2011 6:46 pm

    Hi, Lynda,

    To answer your question, the first book in my trilogy will be published in September by Rose Press. It is entitled “The Star-Seer’s Prophecy ~ Book One: Dark Innocence.” So we will see if my soon-to-be readers like how it starts. Crossing my fingers! (Author website coming soon.)

  13. July 18, 2011 8:37 pm

    As an editor, I have to recommend changes to a lot of the openings I see. The most common problem is the one Lynda mentioned — they start the story pages or scenes ahead of where the story actually begins. If the story is about the elevator cable breaking, then starting with the guy applying for a job in the building the year before is probably a mistake.

    Lately, I’ve also been getting a lot of manuscripts with totally depressing scenes in jails or hospital rooms or etc where the narrator tells us how awful everything is. Then flashback to the engaging novel that leads up to the downer opening/finale. Okay, artistically, some of these have been fine, and I tell the author, ‘artistically, this is pretty great’. But. Commercially, this opening is not going anywhere. If I could barely drag myself through that depressing opening when you’re paying me $60/hr to read your manuscript, you can be damn sure that any casual reader picking it up in the bookstore is going to put it back on the shelf — not that it is ever going to get past an editor/publisher to reach a bookshelf. Simply moving a few scenes around so that the reader hits the page on a high note, something that immediately engages them, and then after 200 pages of identifying with that character, then you can take them on the journey through the heavy stuff. That book I can sell. But its up to the author if they want to make the change. Artistically it may be valid. I think it is a mistake to hit people in the face when they first open the book, but a lot of authors seem to want to establish their creds as a ‘serious’ writer in the first sentence.

  14. Christie Maurer permalink
    July 19, 2011 9:27 am

    A writing instructor once told me: The only purpose of Page 1 is to get the reader interested enough to turn to page 2. However you do it is OK.

  15. July 19, 2011 2:48 pm

    So Robert and Christie and others here’s one that puzzles me: how do we balance the need to make page one snap crackle and pop with the need to set up something new and different that will make our work unique? Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I’m still convinced the best bang comes from investment by the reader and that takes some set up. Maybe this tension is what pushes modern novels to indulge in false advertizing with a “gotcha” opening that isn’t well articulated into what follows? Or maybe we are doomed to tell derivative stories with quick-to-recognize scenarios for fear of losing a reader in the first couple of pages. Or maybe there’s that sweet spot in between. I’m certainly happier with some of my openings than others. (For the record, I’m not the author of the prolog for my first novel which I know was an obstacle for many readers and not at all in the style of the rest of the book, so those who did like it were not apt to life the novel itself. Why was that done? Seemed like a good idea at the time. Primarily because my universe was considered different enough to need an editorial intro. And this was ancient history – 2005.)

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