Wednesday, August 7, 2013

IWSG: Killer Openings

Firstly, I would like to apologize, and apologize in advance, for my busyness, for not posting regularly or visiting my buddies' blogs. I've been moving to a new place, looking for a second job, and working through various other life issues. I may need to take a blog break soon (but hopefully not for too long and definitely not until after I'm done the Game of Thrones read-along!).

Now, down to business. I want to talk about killer openings in novels. And when I say killer openings, I don't mean awesome beginnings, I mean the kind that will kill your novel because readers will stop right there and move on to something better.

Here's a top 10 list I've compiled from some writers' and literary agents' opinions (combined with my own). Some of these are general and some specific to sci-fi or fantasy.

1. The dream
Starting with a dream is not shocking any more. It's been done and people expect it. If you're going to try to toy with my mind, do it in another way, I beg of you!!

2. The backstory
There's nothing that will make me shut a book faster than the info dump. I want to be thrown into the action, not have the world explained to me.

3. The looking in a mirror
There has to be a more creative way to explain what your main character looks like.

4. The dialogue
Too many people talking at the beginning just gets confusing, and it can be boring if I'm not invested in them (which I'm not, because I just met them).

5. The getting sucked into a portal
Narnia did it, and it was neat. Do it in a new way and I'll be impressed.

6. The gathering herbs in a forest
I remember a literary agent I'm familiar with complaining about how sick she was of reading fantasy stories that start this way. Don't. Just don't.

7. The educating
This a no-no particularly in YA and MG, but I'd argue for adult too. I don't want to be aware that I'm being taught something... I want to read a good story! Take me straight to the action.

8. The battle scene
This is a problem because, once again, I am not invested in the characters yet and I don't know what's at stake. Why should I be interested?

9. The distant, third person narrator
In fantasy, often the Boy or the Old Man. I also dislike the narrator we first meet disappearing after a chapter or two to be replaced by the main character. Just start me out with the main character!

10. The prologue
Vastly debated among amateurs and professionals alike, I am definitely on the con-prologue side. I've never read a book that had a prologue and couldn't be started at Chapter 1 without missing ANYTHING important.

And there you have my list. What do you think is important to avoid and important to get right in a first chapter?


  1. Crap, sorry, my first book has a prologue, and it was at my publisher's request...
    Getting sucked into a portal - that one made me chuckle.
    If you need to scale back because of life, that's cool. We'll still be here.

  2. It was Kristin Nelson (I cannot believe I know this) complaining about the protagonist gathering herbs in a pastoral setting. I had NO IDEA this was a thing, but apparently it's super common in the fantasy-query world.

    I have no strong stance on prologues. I feel like there are times when they work (like the Belgariad) times when they don't (Eragon) and times when they're dressed up as first chapters (Harry Potter) and still work. But yeah. Way too many of them get pushed through and have no purpose being there.

  3. I agree with Gina about prologues. As a general rule, I dislike them, but there are always exceptions. I understand the life bit. My blog is about to get a lot more attention but I've been bad at letting life get in the way, too.

    I also like being tossed into the action, and there are books on my shelf that have remained there, with a bookmark leaving a permanent impression to some page in the first chapter because they are taking too much time to dwell on the life their character is about to leave.

    I kind of don't like the "orphaned suddenly" in the first chapter. The hero that suddenly loses family and is destined for the vengeance quest. I think it is a little overdone in fantasy. Variations on that, however, I will like, a lot. But that's a narrow line.

  4. I would have to agree about the gathering herbs bit in fantasy. So very boring. And the heavy battle scenes where you don't know what is going on seems like overkill and unnecessary since I have no idea what is going on, who the good guys are, who I care about or want killed, or anything else as I have just begun the book.

    I have a thing against beginning stories with the end. I just don't like it, grates on my nerves the whole beginning with some terrible ending event and the character spending the book going back through their memory telling you the whole story and how it happened.

  5. Don't apologize for your life off-line; but do share when you have the time. My day life is so boring - work, home, fight with kid, wish I was back at work . . .

    Good luck with the move and job hunting. I've gotta move in a couple weeks too, and I'm not looking forward to all that packing and unpacking.

    Your tips are extensive, and I agree with them mostly. There is always the rare occasion. Have a good week Allison.


  6. Ha; one of the first short stories I wrote had the MC gathering herbs in the forest... oops!

    I'm a fan of prologues but then I'm a sucker for worldbuilding so it's all good with me :)

    Good luck with the job hunt and house moving too!

  7. I was once pulled out of a novel because in one of the later chapters it suddenly had a girl looking in a mirror and describing herself. She'd got almost to the end of the story without being concerned about her appearance but felt the need to do it while being arrested!

    Although I did once write a short story about a mirror - there was lots of looking into it!

  8. I understand about taking a break. I've been doing that for 2 months. My 1st book had both a prologue and a dream opening, but now I know better. Great list.

  9. Most of these I've heard before, but #6 is new to me. Good to know! Thanks for all the tips!

  10. I can honestly say I've never read (or don't remember reading) a story that began with gathering herbs in a forest.

    Why the hate on prologues? What if it's a character that you want to introduce, but won't show up until 10 chapters in? They're not the main character, so you introduce them to set things up, and then the Main Character shows up in Chapter 1. Not saying it's perfect, but putting out there.

  11. I'm going to post these on my wall :-) Great List!

  12. I agree, a great list. I might have to put these somewhere as a reminder of what to avoid. Thanks.

  13. I read your list with a sneer, "tsk"ing at any foolhardy writer to fall in such obvious cliches. Then I read #6 and the smile fell from my cheeks. My book doesn't actually open with a character (named Brandal) gathering herbs (particularly frostroot) in the forest... But that is the second scene.

    I kind of hate prologues. They're good for a reread, once I care. But first go-round, don't tell me about how Smorgis killed Blupto and dried up the ocean, forever making Fareoiugahsdsfljak a dry planet.

  14. First-time visitor from ISWG and I'm glad I found your blog! I agree with so many of these and I admit my novel hit at least three of them right off - before I realized I should change a few things. It's as if my newbie writer self was going "hmmm, let's see how many opening no-nos we can commit today". If you can put a new spin on one of them to make it work, it can stay, but otherwise, think of a new way to open the chapter.

    Somehow I've missed the 'gathering herbs in a forest' bit with the fantasy I read. Dodged a bullet there! It's good to see another gaming writer. ^_^