Wednesday 25 January 2023

Writers’ Questions: How shouldn’t I begin my novel?

Happy January, everyone! Many of you might have made writing a novel (or another novel) one of your New Year’s resolutions for 2023, so, in this latest post in my Writers’ Questions series, I’m covering what not to do at the opening of your book. I’ve already talked about the top mistakes beginner writers make when embarking on a fiction project. This time the focus is on what not to do in those crucial first few pages.

Of course, there are some caveats here. You may be able to think of wonderful novels that start in the ways I critique below (although I bet most of your examples are from before the year 2000…). And you might, of course, be a writerly genius who can pull any opening off. If so, good for you! But if your new novel starts in any of the following ways, it might just be worth rethinking your beginning…

Dreams: Readers are trying to orient themselves when they first pick up a new novel. Throwing them into a new world and then revealing it was all a dream is a sure-fire way to confuse them. Plus, dreams are boring unless you care deeply about the person dreaming. Have your eyes ever glazed over while an acquaintance tells you about their dream in real life? Don’t subject your readers to the literary equivalent, asking them to care about the sub-conscious mumblings of a character they haven’t even met yet. 

Waking Up Generally: The only thing duller than a character waking up from a dream is a character waking up from no dream and pursuing their morning routine of eating their cereal and brushing their teeth. Spare us the mundanity and get into why your story is interesting, I beg you.

A History/Science/Folklore etc. Lesson: Readers read books for entertainment. A novel shouldn’t begin like a textbook. There’ll be time enough later for your world building, e.g., explaining what fuels the spaceship or how your novel’s magic system works. For now, get into the action.

Too Much Action: However, don’t give us too much action. A James Bond style car chase works well at the start of a movie—on page one of a novel though, not so much. Action is hard to write, even after you’ve established characters, setting, and stakes. Beginning mid-battle or fist fight, it will be difficult for readers to understand what is going on or why they should care.

Unattributed Dialogue: One arresting line of dialogue might be a good opening sentence, but please establish who’s talking ASAP or readers won’t have a clue what’s going on. If your novel starts with back-and-forth conversation between two unnamed and un-described characters, you’re not doing yourself or your readers any favors.

Do you agree or passionately disagree that these are among the worst ways a writer can start a novel? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

1 comment:

  1. Catherine Siemann1 February 2023 at 09:50

    Interestingly, in mysteries and thrillers, agents and editors are pushing for the body to drop or some other dramatic moment right in the first few pages. It's hard to set up what's at stake in that situation, but I hear it many places.