Saturday, September 21, 2013

The 10 Worst Story Openings



*disclaimer* I did not come up with all this all by my lonesome, it kind of evolved from things I read by other people when researching how I should start something I was writing, and I noticed a lot of people were saying pretty much the same things. I know I’m cynical and I know there are bountiful exceptions to these “rules.”

1. Waking up.
BEEEP BEEP RIIIING RIIING, the alarm clock jerks 14 year old Jessica Parker out of a sound sleep. She groans and fumbles to shut it off. Her mom calls from the next room, ‘Hurry up Jessie you’re going to be late!’ Jessie wills herself to get up, and get ready for school. She looks into the mirror at her frizzy red hair, which always turns into a rat’s nest after sleeping. As she begins to brush out her tangled locks, her annoying little brother comes running into the room making noises and holding Tonka trucks above his head, yelling ‘Jessie, Jessie! Look at my trucks!’ Ugh, thinks Jessie, why me?”
Yeah. You get the picture. That actually hurt a little bit to write. Don’t use the alarm clock, just don’t—unless you want your story to sound like it was written by whoever made the opening to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” music video. It won’t grab anyone’s attention. Did it work in Groundhog Day? You bet. Will it work in your story? Probably not, unless it’s extremely original, like the alarm is set to specific song or sound (like a Barney song waking up a 40 year old man, or a person’s voice saying a specific sentence) that is somehow relevant to the character or story. I don’t know, even that is risky. This type of thing is just so overused, I’ve seen it a ridiculous amount of times. In my  own naivety I’ve used it a ridiculous amount of times, (though I must say, I usually do it in a creative manner). Is a waking up scene possible to write in an engaging attention-grabbing way? Absolutely. I’ll probably even do it again some time. Just be really careful with this one... it’s so easy to be cliché! An article entitled “11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel” from darleyandersonblog.com lists specific clichés you should avoid:
A dream. Particularly a dream that starts out like a normal scene and then weird things begin to happen before, oh twist, it turns out it was all just a dream
Anyone ‘sitting bolt upright in bed’, ‘burying their head deeper into the pillow’ or the sheets being ‘drenched with sweat’
Onomatopoeia. Alarm clocks, ringtones, knockings on doors – leave them out
Any of these phrases: ‘Breakfast is ready’, ‘you’re going to be late for [x]’, ‘sleepy head’, ‘wakey wakey’, ‘rise and shine’, ‘up and at them’, ‘just five more minutes’ and any variations thereupon
The smell of breakfast rousing your protagonist from their slumber/bed
Your protagonist getting out of bed to look at themselves in the mirror (assuming they look the way they would on any other day and haven’t, say, aged several years from the last morning they remember)
Your protagonist being even slightly hung-over
Your protagonist waking up on the first day of anything in particular


2. Weather/landscape description.
These used to bore me to death when I was younger. I’d crack open a book, see a description of rolling hills with mountains in the distance and purple mist, and slide the book back on the shelf. Essentially, you should avoid anything like this:

“The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”


3. Clichés like “once upon a time in a land far away.”
This is an obvious one, but apparently people still do it. Heck, *I* used to do it when I was way younger. Unless you KNOW it’s a cliché and you are doing it to be witty or funny, skip it!


4. Description of the town/kingdom/planet/etc.
World-building can be fun, but in general it’s too early in the story for readers to care about the kind of cars people drive in your world, and their system of government, and how the town got started, or the races of people that live there. Don’t slam a Wikipedia page about your setting at the reader, it’s your first page for heaven’s sake!


5. Detailed character descriptions or back-story.
Don’t clutter the opening—the most critical part of your entire book—with unimportant details. In all honestly, how important is the color of the characters eyes or hair? Does it tell us anything about her desires, struggles, or personality? Not likely.

“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress—with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves—sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.”
- Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

Hinting at back-story is fine, but do not delve into a lengthy description of what happened before the story started, we want to know what is happening now. Don’t start with a biography—telling where your character was born and where they went to school and who their best friend was and how they grew up with so and so, and then got a job doing such and such, and became emotionally scarred because of this or that, etc.


6. Prologue.
Maybe I’m the only one, but I always used to just skip prologues and then read them after I was finished with the book. Prologues are just another cheap way of stuffing a bunch of back-story in. However, I know a lot of successful famous books have used prologues, so they’re not always unacceptable, but if you can, work in the information somewhere else—maybe even if you need to have a flashback later on. Readers are put off by prologues that they don’t understand and have visibly little to do with the actual first chapter.


7. Addressing the reader directly.
Something I’ve noticed a lot of people say is that you should not start off by addressing your reader, like “Welcome to my story. If you’re reading this, you might be wondering...blah blah blah...”. I would agree that most of the time this is a bad idea, for one, because it puts up a barrier of self awareness that keeps the reading from being drawn into the story. However, I think there is definitely some potential to have some fun with this kind of opening if it’s done in a creative way.


8. Telling the reader your work of fiction is a true story.
Do not tell us it’s a true story, we already know it’s not. Acting like it’s a true story is fine, but don’t outright tell us, like “This really happened many years ago” or “this is the true story of how I became...” Trust me, telling us your fictional story is true is only going to remind us that it’s not. Your readers probably aren’t five year olds. In Rick Riordan’s series, The Kane Chronicles, he acts like the story is a factual account of events that really happened, even saying it’s a transcript of a digital recording. And it kind of works for that story, but you’ll notice he never outright claims it to be true—this makes it more believable.


9. An outlandish shocking zany hooker.
Everyone tells you to write an attention-grabbing opening sentence, right? This leads many beginners to start with things like, “When I woke up that morning, I had no idea my little sister would turn into an alien and try to kill me” or “‘I shall kill you all!’ cried the ghastly bat-like creature as it rose above my school’s football field.” It’s crazy, it’s out-of-the-ordinary, it’s sure to hook a reader, right? Wrong. It’s boring. It’s red flag amateurish and sounds desperate.
Note that this is not bashing the sci-fi, fantasy, or horror genre. I’m all for creepy stalkers, magical water dragons, and starship battles—but aliens that turn into flying pigs with glittery blood shooting out of their eyes is not creative, it’s stupid. Guess what? Just because your story has some supernatural happenings doesn’t mean you don’t have to be realistic. As a reader, I truly want to believe that what is happing is real, but if it starts off as too crazy without easing into the whole supernatural fantasy world thing, I will have a hard time doing that.
Although, to be honest, I’m grateful when people do open this way, it allows me to instantly know I shouldn’t waste time reading it. If your book actually is about that crazy uncreative stuff in you mentioned, you’ve probably got more problems than a bad opening line.


10. Things the reader does not understand.
One of the main offenders of this is rule is when people start off with lengthy unexplained dialogue. Don’t have a bunch of dialogue with no tags. Sometimes even one sentence is too long with no context for the reader to understand it in. We want to know who is speaking, where they are, and who they are speaking to.
As a general rule, don’t start us off with things we don’t understand. We won’t be curious and want to solve the mystery of what the heck you are talking about, we will be confused and bored and look for something that doesn’t seem like it needs a prerequisite to the first page. It is like when you’re in a class that’s way over your head in school and you don’t understand a thing, so you’re really bored.



Something I’m fond of quoting when it comes to art is—and writing is certainly an art—once you know the rules you can break them. What this means is, if you already know the “right” way of doing something and know you could do it well if you wanted to, but you still want to deviate from the standard, go ahead. But you’ve got to be honest with yourself: is your use of a cliché so much better than anyone else’s that it hardly counts as a cliché anymore?
Rules are made to be broken; it is in the nature of writing. Do what you want, do what you like the best, and chances are other people will like it too. Or maybe you don’t even care if anyone else likes it! Just don’t get stuck with a lousy opening just because you were lazy or didn’t know you were sabotaging yourself.

Think about it, what would get you to keep reading? Do that. Not sure what would keep you reading? Try this: go to your bookshelf, and look at the first one or two sentences of your favorite books. What are their strengths and weaknesses? How could you do something similar with your story?

Wanna learn how to hook a reader and see examples of GOOD opening lines? Click here!

53 comments:

  1. Hi! I just found your blog through Pinterest, and I thought this article was really well written (I have done a few of these opening unknowingly), and one of the first things I happily noticed is that you're a Christian, and besides that, a writer, an artist, and you're interested in *happy squeak* cinematography! And then Do Hard Things and Eragon and Percy Jackson and The Hobbit... and do you really do screenwriting? :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey there! I'm so happy you liked the article :D And yeah, I'm into all that, haha! Alas, a kindred spirit! And yeah, I've actually got a screenplay I've been on hiatus from working on, but it's 75 pages so far. And I took a screenwriting class for my online college.

      Delete
  2. Hi,
    I found your blog on Pinterest. I have read several of these openings. I do read the prologues because I am aware books will expect me to know what happened in the prologue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you happened upon my blog! Now that I'm older I don't skip prologues the way I used to, but they can still feel too slow to me if they are lengthy prologues. I'm the kind of person who like to jump right into the story ^_^

      Delete
    2. I love prologues! I don't know, I just find them to be cool. I always read them.

      Delete
    3. Really? What do you think is cool about them? I mean, I know they DO have useful purposes or people wouldn't use them!

      Delete
    4. I'm working on a story at the moment that opens with a prologue so I kind of grimaced when I read that. It takes place two weeks before the main story and I did it because I want the story to be from ONE character's point of view, and she was not present at the event in the prologue, but it's important to understand the motives of the main characters and antagonist...arghh, even writing this, I sound like I'm making excuses to not come up with a way to incorporate it creatively into the main narrative...

      Delete
    5. My sister's novel starts out with a prologue too...And even though I actually loved her prologue (because it has an exciting action sequence) I kind of worry about it, because it starts with someone who is not the protagonist, and it's set years in the past. It could be a bit of a problem if your prologue doesn't start out with the protagonist, IF that causes the reader to misunderstand who the story is about at first. I'll give you this though, a prologue that starts only two weeks from the start of the main story doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem for some reason. You might want to try working in the event into the main story, like hearing about it from someone who was present perhaps? But if your prologue isn't overly long and the reader doesn’t' mistake the main person in the prologue as the protagonist, I bet it's fine.

      Delete
    6. I've seen a few prologues that have left me confused for awhile but I've also read ones that I really love. Most of the later are in the Redwall series, sometimes they're about events that happen before the story starts and other times they're notes from the Recorder of the story.

      I'm also using a prologue in my story so I also cringed a bit at that but I don't think there's another way for me to do it. It would be way more confusing with out it I think, but who knows, I might change my mind in editing :)

      Delete
  3. I teach creative writing, and one opening I often see in student manuscripts is the "character alone in the car, driving and thinking." This is a really static opening. Put your character in conflict with another character. And by conflict I mean one character wants one thing and the other character wants something different. Conflict is not the same as violence, which leads me to the other opening I hate: "Oh look, a dead body!"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is awesome you teach creative writing! I'd love to give that a try someday. I think you're right that having some sort of conflict is really important, it helps gives tension and hold the reader's attention. Haha, "Oh looks, a dead body!" falls under the "An outlandish shocking zany hooker" catagory, in my opinion. Not that I'm against violence in books, but anybody can throw in a dead body or some blood to pretend like it's an exciting story.

      Delete
  4. Great post! Very interesting, helpful, and well-written. :) Figuring out how to start can be tricky, so this is really great advice.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Why thank you! I'm so glad you thought it was helpful ^_^

      Delete
  5. I can agree with you on a few of these, but some of these I also disagree with. I mean, of course, in the fact that many famous or beloved authors have used these sorts of beginnings, yet the books still sold and are still so precious to our hearts. From prologues to landscapes to the description of the location and its people - Yet, are we to say that they're wrong? Are they the "exception to the rule"? Rather, is there even a rule to begin with, when writing fiction itself is a way of letting your imagination roam on paper?
    Now, I've used plenty of these in my own experience as an author. Looking back on my writing, I see where some of them were VERY bad choices. Prologues, while can be used when necessary, are certainly slow starts to any book. Especially when paired with "this is my story". I also once used waking up (paired with sound effect) for a casual short story I was writing for myself, but it certainly wasn't one I enjoyed. I found it tedious, but I wanted a glimpse of what living with the one character would be like for my main character. (It certainly made its point. MC is a saint for putting up with him. Ha-ha!)
    Landscaping was the one I had the most problem with, on your list. Personally, I like reading of the landscape right off the bat. It sets the scene, which in my opinion is very important for a beginning. While "the golden sun set on the tiny town of sleeping villagers" may be a cliche (and a bit wordy), there are many 'scene setting' beginnings that could be good to start a story with.

    Personally, I would have liked to see you give some examples on what a good beginning is, by your standards. It would have been interesting to read, and it might help your readers/beginning authors understand what would be a proper beginning for their story.
    However, I did find your blog well written and you certainly made a few good points. Your examples, when used, were used at the proper time and made their point well. I also found this an interesting read, to say the least, and certainly put enough thought into my mind about my current and past story beginnings as an author. I will definitely be pondering this through the night.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I started writing this because I was trying to figure out how to start my story, and I discovered that all three openings I had written for consideration were advised against by various people. Writing is ultimately a subjective art, which is why I suppose an author really has to pinpoint what the purpose of their story is, and who the audience is. Like I said, “Rules are made to be broken; it is in the nature of writing.”
      I agree that it is important to set the scene early on, but it’s hard not to be cliché with a landscape description. Of course, setting the scene does not always have to be the FIRST thing, it could come in the next paragraph, or next sentence of the opening, after the “hooker.” I should probably also note that my mindset is that of a YA writer and reader, whereas older readers may have different tastes.
      Perhaps I will take your advice make a post in the future with some suggestions as to how to write a GOOD opening. Though I better be careful or I may end up praising types of openings I just bashed, haha. But I think it would be a good learning experience, for me and my readers. I’m so glad you found it well written, and I appreciate your comments!

      Delete
    2. I'd be interested in reading that post :)

      I agree that a lot of my favorite books and authors have used these openings and they work. Lemony Snicket for instance talks to the reader all the time and starts his books by telling you not to read them, he also tells you that its a true story. As I mentioned in my other comment Brian Jacques used prologues all the time in his Redwall series.

      I think maybe its just harder to make these openings work and most of us beginners make a mess of them. We see them in books we like and then try and use them without really knowing how.

      Delete
  6. I should have just put all my thoughts into one comment but I guess I'm a bit scatterbrained tonight.

    I think #5 was the one I've seen the most, mainly in Fanfiction (something I read way too much of) one of the things that will make be leave a story without finishing even the first page is a character description like that. Especially if its a female character with RED hair. For some people try and make their characters original and interesting by giving them unusual hair/eyes/skills so much so that it has become common.

    What your character looks like really isn't that important, I can't remember what most of my favorite characters looks like, its who they are that makes them memorable.

    Okay, sorry, my rant is ended now. Oh great post by the way :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for your insightful comments Rita!! Haha, you are so right about the character with RED hair. Especially if she is gangly, with green eyes and freckles, haha.

      Delete
  7. Oh, I hate prologues! Never read them. I am struggling with the opening to my Children's book right now... thanks for the great article.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, haha! I've kinda learned to read them myself, but I'm so tempted to skip them!
      So glad you liked the article, and best wishes with your book!

      Delete
  8. I had to laugh at these. Reading fanfiction gives a girl experience with every single one of these openings, sometimes even all at once. Those are the stories that make me want to stop reading fanfiction, before I find one that renews my faith. I know I'm guilty of #6. But it's a prologue disguised as a story within the story, so I think that makes it a little bit ok.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I say learn them all and then break em, just like any other rule. Being aware that your story opening is somewhat of a cliche can be empowering if used correctly.

    But a well put together list although my own short novel starts with the main character waking up with a slight hangover, laugh out loud, what can you do.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would probably agree with you Ray, "learn them all and then break em".
      Thanks for your comment!

      Delete
  10. This article pretty much sums up everything we learned at Critique Night during a writing conference I attended -- we had agents, editors, and authors in a panel and they'd read one page from someone's manuscript and explain why it didn't work. We didn't have any giant bats or alien sisters, but everything else you mentioned was featured in someone's work! Nice job of summing everything up in an easy-to-read article.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Really! That's great, thanks so much for commenting! That is really awesome, even though, of course, I'm not nearly as experienced as those people, haha!
      I'm so glad you liked the article and it's good to know I went over the same stuff as the editors and agetns and such!

      Delete
  11. So helpful =) Thanks for posting! I totally agree about the alarm clock thing! So many books start out with that and it is just so old and boring I never read books that start out like that or with a lengthy landscape scene.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. haha yes! i think that is the MOST overused opening!

      Delete
  12. Fantastic post! I'm pinning this one :) Alex

    tobebeautifulingodseyes.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great! Thank you so much for pinning it! :D
      I'll follow your blog it looks cool ^_^

      Delete
  13. Beautiful site and I really enjoyed this post!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Great text! I found some of these boring things in many good books, the kind you need to give some effor to go throught the end. But it's helpfull for me anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Great text. I like to read the begine of famous books to know how the story starts. Many of them have those cliches all over. I adore your blog, we have a lot in comom. Gonna visit it more. And sorry for my bad english.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, you are right that sometimes good books have boring openings....hopefully that doesn't stop too many people from reading them! Glad you found this helpful and thanks for your kind comments! Your english is great ;)

      Delete
  16. I also stumbled into your article through Pinterest and really enjoyed it. I have had a story in my head for years, but I just haven't been able to get it out. I have no idea how to start it, now I have some ideas how not to start it. Lol! Thank you for your article.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I also stumbled into your article through Pinterest and really enjoyed it. I have had a story in my head for years, but I just haven't been able to get it out. I have no idea how to start it, now I have some ideas how not to start it. Lol! Thank you for your article.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yay! I love when people find my stuff on Pinterest ^_^ Glad this gave you some ideas! Don't be afraid to write a draft of your story, I bet it's awesome and well developed if you've been thinking about it for a few years!

      Delete
  18. I too, found this article on Pinterest. I am a 16 year old aspiring writer and I've been using Pinterest as a means of learning the ropes. I have many novels in the works, but i haven't seemed to be able to get past the first couple chapters before i dead end, or think of a new idea. However, the one I'm working on currently, defies that routine. That makes me think it might go far! It starts with a flashback but it is kind of like #1, being somewhat dream-like as the reader won't know it is a flashback until it reads "End of Flashback". I don't think there is really any other way to start it. But I am open to any ideas or suggestions! Anyways, I had no idea how cliche some of these really are! I'm glad to know what to avoid in the future. Thanks for writing this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi there! Thanks for your comment ^_^ I'm a teenage aspiring writer as well! Er, I AM a writer, but I want to be a better one, haha!

      I totally know what it's like to have the problem of not getting past the first few chapters! One thing that has helped me a bit is aiming for short stories instead of novels, which causes me to move the plot along faster and then write more if I want to. Although they turn into Novelette's instead of short stories =p Also, sometimes I'll start on a few, then determine to FINISH the one that seems most promising.

      Sometimes it might be better if you can incorperate the flashback a little bit later into the story so that's not what you're starting out with (I've seen Rick Riordan do that sort of thing). And while it's great if you can incorperate the needed info without a flashback at all, sometimes that's more nonsense than it's worth. You may want to lable the flashback a "prologue" so that the reader doesn't misunderstand the current context of the story, but that may not be needed. Don't sweat it too much, I'm sure it's good!

      Delete
  19. Thanks so much, I'm sure this will help with my own writing for years to come...

    ReplyDelete
  20. Thanks very much. I really enjoyed the post, and I'm sure this will have a positive influence on my writing for years to come.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment! I really hope it is helpful in the future :D

      Delete
  21. Good post. I enjoyed this. ^ ^ I committed some of these cliches early in my writing and I've encountered more while critiquing. There are so many more creative ways to open and I think it's funner to be more creative anyway. ^ ^

    Stori Tori's Blog

    ReplyDelete
  22. Oops, I'm guilty of a few of these. Better shape up. Good tips!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think everybody's guilty of these at some point! But hey, sometimes these openings can be done well!

      Delete
  23. These are actually quite helpful! I'm always looking for ways to improve my writing. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Thanks. That was helpful, informative, and fun! =D

    (Pinterest lead me here, btw).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Ah yes, Pinterest ^_^ everybody comes here from there, lol!

      Delete
  25. I actually don't know from where I got here! :D
    But I loved this, because it's really useful for budding writers out there, you know. I would have loved to read this 10 years ago, as a noob teenager writing her first story!
    Of course, now it's all "Whatever works for a particular story, as long as it's well written"

    Which brings me to the prologue stuff - there seems to be some discussion about that.

    I actually enjoy a well written prologue. I would rather read a great back-cover abstract and prologue and later be disappointed in the actual story or writing THAN miss out on going through with a book and with what would have been a great read, had there been something to hint at it. It really depends on what the prologue does and how well it does it - for me, the lines about the rings in the beginning of the edition of LoTR I have is kind of like a prologue. The prologue Markus Zusak does for The Book Thief is really so fantastic, and takes nothing away from the story - it gives a reader who's into that kind of narrative, an irresistible push to keep reading.

    As far as Prologues and Epilogues go, I think one really needs to see how well it fits with the story they've written. If it's doing nothing but hanging around like a fancy ornament of self-declaration, then yeah - probably not a good idea. But otherwise, a good prologue can make all the difference between someone picking up a book or giving it a pass.

    <3 :D

    ReplyDelete
  26. TY for taking the time to explain each one and not just write what it was.
    HI ROOM 8 :D










    ReplyDelete

Be sure to check "notify me" to get notification of replies!