In keeping with last week’s post on querying in preparation for Pitch Wars, I thought I’d revisit this post from the archives on common issues with novel openings. Enjoy!
I’ve written a lot about novel openings before on this blog, but after reading submissions recently, I noticed something I haven’t covered before: beginnings that are very common. There’s nothing wrong with these openings, necessarily, but I see them so often that they don’t entice me to keep reading—and that’s the number one thing you need your opening to do.
To be clear, it’s not always bad to use a common opening. For example, writers are often told to avoid beginnings where a character is waking up, since they’re done often. But in the MG novel I’m working on now, that’s exactly how it begins—with the protagonist waking up. Because I knew this was a common opening, I emphasized a lot of things that make this scene feel different and wrote a hook-y opening line. Ultimately, I think this scene is where the story needs to begin (and luckily my editor agrees). All this is to say that you can use one of these common openings, but it helps to be aware that you’ll need to make it feel truly unique, especially if you’re querying.
So, here are several common openings I’ve seen recently:
- Waking up
Yes, I know I just mentioned it, but this is the most common opening I see, so I think it’s worth discussing in detail. I see so many openings where the alarm clock rings, the character wakes up, gets ready, stumbles downstairs for breakfast, etc. This may seem like an obvious place to begin, since it’s the beginning of the character’s day. But it means that it’s going to take awhile to get to the unique and interesting part of your story. How your character eats breakfast isn’t all that interesting to your readers; the story hasn’t started yet.
Now, as I said above, it is possible to make this opening work. I did it by emphasizing all the ways in which this is not a typical day for my protagonist and skipping over the mundane details to get to the story. A great example of a book that does this is The Hunger Games, which opens with the line, “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” Collins then goes on to establish that this isn’t just any day—this is in District Twelve, and this is the day of the reaping. In other words, she makes it distinctive and compelling.
Another example of a book that uses this opening in a unique way is David Levithan’s Every Day, which opens with these lines: “I wake up. Immediately I have to figure out who I am.” This is a great hook that also clues us in to the premise—the main character wakes up in the body of a different person every day. So that moment of waking is hugely significant, not just an easy place to start.
It’s best to avoid these kinds of openings if you can, but if you can’t, make sure that yours is both original and compelling.
- Action scenes
Writers are often advised to start with action—that is, to start where the actual story starts. But many seem to interpret this as a need to start with intense action scenes—car chases, swordfights, someone getting shot or dying, etc. These openings are clearly an attempt to grab the reader, which is good. But the problem is that you’re starting too far in the middle of things—the reader doesn’t know yet what’s happening or who these characters are or why they should care, so this scene isn’t as compelling as the writer thinks it is. Worse, many of these scenes are simply a prologue, followed by a slower first chapter that’s just a “character waking up” opening or something similar. Essentially, this is an attempt to trick the reader, to shock them into paying attention. But readers aren’t so easily deceived, and these kinds of beginnings are usually more frustrating than compelling.
I see a lot of openings where the first line is dialogue, and the scene begins in the middle of a conversation. But, as with the action opening above, this often isn’t compelling to the reader, because they don’t know yet who these characters are or why they should care about this conversation. These openings can sometimes work if the reader is given enough information to ground them in the scene, but that’s difficult to pull off. Dropping the reader into the middle of a conversation between characters they don’t know isn’t the best way to gain their attention.
I see a lot of issues with info-dumps and telling-instead-of-showing in beginnings. It’s so difficult to establish information about the characters, story, and world without overusing exposition—this is something all writers struggle with, I think. And it’s most difficult to do this in the first chapter. But using exposition in your opening is one of the quickest ways to lose your readers’ interest—after all, why should they care about all of these details yet? You have to present them with a hook—a reason to care—and then gradually introduce details as they become relevant to the story. Don’t use description that doesn’t move the story along. Get the reader into the story first, and then show them what they need to know as they need it.
This is one that I see in YA books a lot, though not as much in other categories. The protagonist is moving or traveling to a new place—going to Europe for the summer, visiting a parent in a new city, moving across the country, etc. And usually the protagonist doesn’t want to go. (For some reason, these protagonists are almost always girls, and they almost always change their mind about the new place once they meet a cute boy there…). This isn’t necessarily a bad opening, just one I see quite often.
There are, of course, some YA books that do this well—Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins is a great example. Not to mention that Twilight starts this way. But because it occurs so often, I’d recommend altering it however you can—maybe you can start a few weeks after their arrival in the new place? Or maybe the protagonist is actually really excited to be going there, but then it turns out to be completely different than they expect? And how can the unique, compelling premise of your book be included in this opening?
What do you think? What common openings have you seen in books? Have you used any of these? How have you made the beginning of your book feel different? Let me know in the comments!
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