What works for some doesn’t work for others. Ultimately it’s the whole book that makes the difference, but you still need to get the audience past the first chapter.
Writers dream of the day their book gets published. It marks the end of a long journey full of hard work, disappointment, and finally success. Unless you’re self-published, all writers must get their work under the nose of a literary agent, who will then determine whether or not a particular story will make it to final publication. So the first person to please, really, is the person who will unwrap your manuscript and determine it’s fate. Literary agents have their likes and dislikes, preferences that are personal and ones defined by their publishing house. And there are some strong opinions out there on what NOT to do at the beginning of a story.
One common theme in all of these suggestions is to not start off too slow. Spending too much time in a description of setting, character, and conflict may result in the loss of your audience at a critical point: the very beginning of the story! To be fair, many of these “worst” ways to start a novel were done by great writers in novels that went on to become classics famous for these particular techniques. For better or for worse, reading audiences have changed, and whether that’s because of publishing demands or because of general interest, who knows. We’re not here to tell you what to write; your story is yours to tell. But if the endgame is to get published, knowing what works and doesn’t work might help you get that big publishing break.
These are considered some of the “worst” ways to start a novel:
- No prologues. Gone are the days of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Literary agents, in particular, want the story to begin, not languish in a long introduction.
- Avoid purple prose, which is writing that is too wordy, flowery, full of unnecessary figurative language that is either irrelevant or off topic.
- Information dumping. Don’t tell the audience everything right away. Leave a room for appropriate exposure of a character’s life as it is relevant to a particular moment in the story.
- Don’t open with a dream or an alarm clock. None of us like waking up to our alarm clock; it’s jarring and unpleasant, much like it is for the character too. But the audience shouldn’t also have to suffer from the “shock” of a blaring alarm. This was funny in the movie “Groundhog’s Day” but not funny in a book. As for dreams: the opening line of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is famously about a dream, “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” While this dream-status helps to mirror the novel’s haunting tone, starting with a dream sequence or jarring alarm is often considered cliché. The goal is to keep readers awake and engaged, not to put them to sleep.
- Don’t get caught up in the internal monologe.The main character should not open with a lengthy monologe before readers have a chance to know who the character is and what they’re conflicted about. Again, this is not to say that it hasn’t worked in the past. If you feel strongly about an inner monologue at the beginning of the story, use it as a way of establishing an objective without revealing too much.
- “If I knew then what I know now…” then you wouldn’t have a story to tell! Not knowing ahead of time the story’s end result is the whole point of telling the story, so don’t set yourself up for some kind of clichéd journey.
- Avoid the weather. Why? Because as much as the temperature or barometric pressure might play into creating a scene, setting tone, or act as a foil to a character, it’s a super big YAWN for your audience. Rain is rain, sun is sun, clouds are clouds. Unless the novel is about a storm, and there are – for the sake of drama – intentional moments of weather-related descriptions – skip it altogether.