6 Reasons Your Novel Opening Doesn’t Work


Flickr photo by Myk Martinez

We all know how it happens. You decide to stop by a bookstore on the way home and you tell yourself, “I’m not going to buy anything.”

I also find myself browsing through Amazon.com and thinking, “I’ll just read a few samples, but NO buying tonight.”

My “to read” list keeps getting longer and longer.

But then…

You open that first few pages and the author’s words GRAB your attention. You want to know from the beginning what is going TO HAPPEN NEXT.

There is a trigger followed by a heap which leads to the next action that causes the next trigger and on and on and before you know it you’ve purchased the book and have finished it instead of correcting all the papers that you were supposed to be correcting.

Triggers and heaps come from the language of thrillers. Someone pulls the trigger of a gun, and someone else falls into a heap. With a story, your main character does something (pulls a trigger) that causes something else to happen (a heap). The story progresses through these triggers and heaps until the last one is cleaned up. If the first trigger doesn’t grab our attention, though, we stop reading and move on to the next story.

I was reading a post by Julia A. Weber over at her blog Pub Hub on Blogger.com and she talks about ways to NOT BEGIN your novel. These are her personal pet peeves and I want to talk about why they might be making her a bit peevish.

Some of things she mentioned are:

  1. Your character wakes up, which is followed quickly by your character having a dream and then waking up.
  2. Looking in a mirror and describing yourself.
  3. Any kind of lengthy description.
  4. Backstory logorrhea.
  5. Just being confusing.
  6. Nothing happening at all.

Most of Julia’s pet peeves come from the character not being in any kind of ACTION or dealing with any kind of CONFLICT. Most of us want to read about how a main character overcomes some difficult situation.

When a character simply wakes up there is nothing really happening except a “coming to consciousness.” Try having the character being in some kind of action from the beginning. We might sometimes read to help us sleep, but reading about characters sleeping and waking up will certainly put us to sleep faster. Your character could be driving, mowing the lawn, having sex, farming, shopping, jumping rope, so many great activities to choose from, why choose “waking up”?

The “waking from a dream” trope has been so overdone that I could read a hundred books and hope to never read it again. I want to see the protagonist DOING not BEING. I’d rather see a character picking their nose (but just slightly more) than read about them “waking suddenly from the dream and finding that they are in their own bed” ugh.

Although it is good to see what your main character looks like, we don’t need to see them seeing themselves as the opening of your book. How are going to CAPTURE my attention? Probably not with a lengthy description of your character’s “full lips and straight nose, slightly upturned” that seems to be a staple of bad romance novels. If your character is gardening perhaps they could brush a strand of hair out of their face noticing the graying tips or if your character is driving and keeps checking the rear view to see if the bad guys are still in pursuit, the character could notice that their eyes look dull and glassy from too much coffee and cigarettes and not enough lounging by the pool.

In fact, any kind of lengthy description should be done in your notes and not necessarily make it into that final draft. When we are world building we might want to be verbose about locations and appearances, but when we start our novels, let’s get to the good stuff, those triggers that are going to get our characters in trouble.

Some thing with backstory. If we talk too much (logorrhea) about what happened in the past right at the top of the novel, we haven’t given our readers a chance to get to know who the characters are through their actions and we don’t really care that much about their backstory. What is the essential information I need to know as a reader? Then start throwing slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at your character and watch them dodge and weave.

I keep trying to convince myself and others that the best way to get a first draft done is by making a big mess. I am sticking by that. I am failing at it miserably right now, but I am sticking by it. The problem sometimes comes when we don’t go back and clean it up. If we lose track of what is going on right from the top of the story, we tend to stop reading completely. If you have a bunch of dialogue and we don’t know who is talking or why they are saying what they are saying, we’ll get confused and just stop.

The last point Julia makes is that it just doesn’t make sense to not have anything happening at all in that first chapter. I know I want to read books about people engaged in life fully in a way that is unique and interesting enough for me to want to spend my time with them.

Like Julia, I think the best way we can learn to do this is by looking at the books we admire and seeing how other authors have accomplished this. What are your favorite opening lines or chapters? Send me a few.

2 thoughts on “6 Reasons Your Novel Opening Doesn’t Work

  1. Seriously, preach it. These annoy me more than I could probably describe. Although they are fun to use on an occasion, it should at least be spiced up with a little pizazz, if ya know what I mean.


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