Bad Beginnings

I’ve been talking about writing beginnings. It’s hard to say what kinds of opening scenes you should write because a lot of that depends on the story you’re telling. It’s a lot easier to list the kinds of scenes you should avoid. Yes, you can probably point to successful examples of each of these kinds of scenes, but generally you’ll find that those are done by bestselling authors who could probably publish their grocery lists and hit a bestseller list (and, usually, those authors have learned how to do even these kinds of scenes well), are examples from decades ago when there were different expectations, or are done so skillfully that they work. If you’re just starting out and trying to break in, starting a book with these kinds of scenes is really risky.

1) The main character wakes up in the morning and starts the day
You’re better off starting the story when the action begins, not when the character’s day begins. There are exceptions, such as the character waking to a frightening situation, coming out of a coma, etc., if the normal daily routine is an important part of worldbuilding (in a fantasy, say, if a flock of fairies washes and dresses the main character that might be different enough from the normal to be interesting), or if there’s something about that “normal” that will very soon provide a stark contrast with the rest of the world. But you have to know what you’re doing to pull off those exceptions. If your story starts with a character waking up in the morning, look at where the action in the story actually starts. Would your story lose anything if you skip to that point and let the reader assume that the character woke up, got out of bed, and dressed that morning?

2) The story opens with an exciting action sequence with the character in peril — and then the character wakes up in the morning and realizes it was just a dream
This is a cheat — a way to open the story with a bang and then go back to that “normal” life beginning. Most editors and agents are well aware of the tactic and will eye it with suspicion. Again, there are ways you could possibly make this work, such as if the fact that the character has that dream actually is the inciting incident, but it’s a risky move for a beginner. Unless it’s handled really, really well, the action of the dream may seem like a bait and switch for the reader, especially if it leads into the waking up in the morning and getting dressed kind of scene. In a way, it makes the start of the book even slower because that action fake-out further delays the real start of the story. As before, look for where the story really begins. What do you lose if you cut the dream and the waking up part?

3) The story opens with an exciting action sequence with the character in peril, ending on a cliffhanger — and then cuts to “3 days ago” (or whatever time period)
Again, it’s a cheat, a way of squeezing in something exciting in the beginning. It’s like admitting that you don’t have a lot of faith in the opening of your story. This device is frequently used on TV series, and I think it’s a cheat there, too. At least with TV series, they can play with audience expectations because they have established characters and situations, and the opening is usually some action or situation that’s unusual for the show, with the flashback working to explain how these characters came to do something they’d never do. You don’t have that with a novel unless it’s a later book in an established series. Readers won’t know that this opening situation was odd, so they won’t care about how it came to be. This opening gives the same effect as the dream, in that it may open with a bang, but then there’s a big letdown, so it affects pacing and delays getting to the start of the real story. With a book there’s also the problem that readers can just flip ahead to the part of the book that opening scene comes from and see the resolution of the cliffhanger. You’re better off finding an interesting way of starting your story rather than turning your whole book into a flashback.

4) The story starts with the main character thinking about her backstory and how she came to be in her present situation
This is a deadly way to begin a story. For one thing, there’s not much happening if the character is able to just sit (or stand, walk, etc.) and think. For another, it tends to be an infodump — a block of information dumped on the reader, who doesn’t yet know enough about the world and the characters to know what parts might be relevant. You’re better off revealing that information by showing the character interacting with her world. She can have thoughts along the way as they’re relevant. Is there something in the character’s thoughts that you can dramatize? For example, if she’s thinking about how she doesn’t really fit in, instead of her thinking that, show her trying and failing to fit in — she can’t find a place to sit in the cafeteria because everyone turns their backs to her or glares at her, so she goes to sit outside, where she has a thought about it being like this every day. It doesn’t improve matters if the character has a conversation about the backstory instead of just thinking, especially if the person the character is talking to already knows the story and there’s no real story reason for the character to be telling the story.

5) The story starts with a character traveling to the destination where the story will take place
This gets even worse when combined with the thinking about the backstory, so the character is traveling, thinking about where she came from and where she’s going and why. Unless something happens on the journey, you’re better off starting with the arrival in the place where events will happen, or even when the character is already there and things are happening. As always, there are exceptions. Things can happen on the journey that are important to the story. The last time I wrote about this, I came up with a snarky example about masked bandits robbing the coach where the heroine was sitting and thinking about why she was making the journey. I ended up getting a book out of it (though Rebel Mechanics starts with a train robbery, not a coach robbery).

6) The story starts with two characters discussing the history of their world
This one was really big with epic fantasy novels in the 1970s-80s, but it’s hard to make it work now. Even if it’s a conversation, it’s still an infodump, and readers have no reason to care about this history until they know some of the characters. Chances are, readers won’t retain much of this information, if they even read it instead of skimming. Talking heads — two characters just talking, without anything else going on around them — are also dull. And you have to have a reason for these people to be having this discussion at this time. How often do you sit around and talk to your friends about the history of your city or state? When it happens, it might be in a more contentious political discussion, not, “As you know, the railroad came through here, and several farming communities formed into a larger city as more people came through with the railroad.” Before you try writing characters giving us backstory in a conversation, think about how people really talk about these sorts of things.

3 Responses to “Bad Beginnings”

  1. Misti, a.k.a. Carradee

    The root of the bad beginnings—as with most “erm” things—seems to be that they miss the point of the advice it intends to take. This often leads to more extreme advice (like “never open with a dream”) that seeks to sidestep the problem and thereby loses sight of the core advice.

    Thanks for remembering that the “bad beginnings” aren’t universally bad. 🙂 I posit that any “bad” scene is bad due to what it accomplishes—or fails to. Parts in a story should be accomplishing at least 2 things at once, and most often 1+ on the story level and 1+ on the character level. If you look at something in your story and the only answer to “Why is X here?” starts with “I,” as in the author, something’s probably wrong.

    I admittedly have sone mirror scenes in my novels, but it’s because those fit the characters and situations, not because I was looking for a way to convey what they looked like.

    • Shanna Swendson

      I think for beginners, it’s safer to say to avoid these things. By the time you’re good enough to be able to pull them off and know how to use these concepts well, you’ll be able to make that call for yourself. But that’s generally after you’ve got an agent and/or a track record. For beginners, it’s a huge risk even if they do it well because agents get so many story openings like this that are badly done that they tend to recoil in horror when they come across them, and they’re less likely to be willing to give the benefit of the doubt. If the novel you’re submitting to try to land an agent opens with a dream, you’re just making things more difficult for yourself.

      • Misti, a.k.a. Carradee

        I know some folks do better with lists of specific things to avoid, but so often such lists get warped into “Thou shalt nots” that often ignore the original rule that started the rule of thumb, which means that when some types of folks learn “Oh, it’s a rule of thumb, not a rule?” they break it in ways that illustrate why the rule of thumb exists and then vehemently defend their choice and dismiss all who protest it as just not understanding what they’re intending to do.

        I hang around various writing communities online and work as a line editor, and I actually see folks like my description illustrate why the rule exists far more often than I see newbies illustrate it. My worst experiences as an editor have been with academics who heard “You’re misusing sentence fragments” as if I was saying they shouldn’t use them at all. No, they were overusing them and (worse, IMO) creating dangling modifiers. (This specific issue is possibly the most common one among academics I’ve worked with, where at least half I’ve worked with have done it.)

        If a potential client is described to me as an English teacher, I think long and hard about if I want to risk the 75% likelihood (in my experience) that they’ll be high-stress, high-maintenance, and probably rude. I understand how and why this happens—some features of academic writing and culture foster the problem—but that doesn’t mean I particularly want to deal with it. (It’s worth noting that my percentages are referring to 1. my experience, and 2. English teachers who seek out a line editor. A solid English teacher rarely needs a line editor.)

        That said, if folks are trying to land an agent, then yeah, good idea to avoid the stuff that’s associated with bad writing, whether or not it actually is. (For example, omniscient PoV, which is so rarely done properly and even more rarely done well.) ^_^

        If someone’s self-publishing, though, especially as a learning experience on Wattpad or some such thing… I think that ignoring such lists might actually bring the bigger education.

        [grins] Of course, I’m making obvious that the contexts I’m thinking of and the one you had in mind when writing the post are two quite different audiences.

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