Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 3

Status:

Progress! Down to 340 emails from 400 and an unexpected offer came in today. Always delightful.

Listening To:

I NEED NEVER GET OLD by Nathaniel Ratliff & the Night Sweats

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For the Part 1 of this article series, click here.

For the Part 2 of this article series, click here.

Angie Hodapp and I recently teamed up to bring wit and wisdom to writers who want to work on craft. During our workshop, we identified several story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers who are looking for representation. Thus, this series of articles was born! Here we bring you the third installment.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#3) Your novel opens with what we call the “mindless task” or the “everyday normal.”

A common opening-page snafu we often see is when writers spend too much time setting up what is “normal” for the character before leaping into what will make this story/character extraordinary.

We see a lot of opening pages that show a character performing mindless tasks, such as cleaning the house, grooming (getting out of the shower, combing hair, brushing teeth), taking a child to school, collecting the mail, making breakfast, or having conversations that revolve around the mundane. And don’t forget our all-time favorite: a character waking up. (See “The Perils of Waking Characters” Part 1 and Part 2 on my blog for more about why this opening spells trouble.)

Illustrating the normal is not dynamic. In the normal, very little can be revealed about the character or setting. Because of this, we’re also on alert for openings like these:

“Monday started like any normal day…[followed by pages of details about Monday morning].”

“If I’d only known then what I know now…[followed by pages of detail about then].”

These types of openings hint at an inciting incident. But what the writer is really doing here is postponing the story conflict. They’re asking the reader to bear with them through a few opening pages of mundane tasks and details by making a vague promise that there’s good stuff coming later. In most cases, that simply doesn’t work.

The Importance of Voice

Accomplished writers use literary voice to transcend what might be considered mundane. A terrific example is the opening scene of Gail Carriger’s Soulless:

Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.

This scene actually does open with a light touch of the mundane, but Carriger’s unique voice draws the reader in. Most importantly, the scene doesn’t stay in the mundane for very long—only two sentences, and then in the third, an unexpected vampire appears. The surprise is not the vampire. He’s actually expected in this world. It’s his attack that knocks Alexia off balance. Every vampire knows Alexia is soulless and therefore renders the supernatural powerless once touched. This persistent vampire doesn’t seem to know this nor does he seem to learn quickly when his power disappears. This is what then grabs the reader and won’t let go. Carriger takes the mundane and uses voice, wit, and a twist to engage the reader…all in the first three pages of the novel.

The Hero’s Journey and the Ordinary World

Angie here. Many writers’ first contact with story structure is the Hero’s Journey. It gets pounded into us at writing conferences and story workshops, and through books on how to plot a novel.

According to the Hero’s Journey (useful to screenwriters, constraining to novelists), we must devote our first few pages to the “ordinary world.” This is supposed to paint a picture of what the hero’s life is like before the Big Boom of the story’s inciting incident. Without the hero’s ordinary world, how will the reader recognize that change has occurred once they reach the end of the novel?

Poppycock.

What this widespread education in the Hero’s Journey has done is fill slush piles everywhere with sample pages full of ordinary worlds. Yet what are agents looking for? Extraordinary. Your best bet for standing out in the slush pile is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible.

Bonus Tip: The Chapter Two Switcheroo

James Scott Bell, the author of some of Angie’s favorite books on writing and revision, suggests that once you finish an entire draft of your novel, go back and swap your first two chapters. So many aspiring writers frontload their first chapters with backstory, exposition, and narrative, saving the action and conflict for chapter two. Sometimes, switching those first two chapters is all you need to do to fix a boring opening. Plant the hook first. Then see how much of the other stuff you really need in order to tell your protagonist’s tale in the most compelling—and extraordinary!—way possible.

Photo Credit: Sherman Geronimo-Tan


10 Responses

  1. Ulff Lehmann said:

    In my opinion the Hero’s Journey has been reanimated so many times, that it now sits in the corner, behind every other cliche, a mindless, useless zombie, raising its arms every once in a while, swatting at innocent writers.

    I believe that each and every story must be seen, by the author, as something that stands out. The beginning is a first date situation; if you don’t bring your A game, you might as well stay home and binge Netflix. Any story is character based, or rather should be character based, be it passenger or driver. There is a reason for character A being a passenger, and B a driver. And to draw in any reader, the questions need to keep coming. Who is A? Why is A afraid to act (hence the passenger)? Every bit of answer needs to pile up more questions, so the reader is involved and stays involved.
    I guess that’s why I don’t enjoy the Hero Journey type of stories, because in the end we know what’s going to happen. Frodo tosses the ring, Luke destroys the Death Star, Harry defeats Voldemort, girl gets boy. It’s kind of predictable, so in order to keep the readers on their toes, one needs to mess with preexisting opinions, make the reader realize that this story is different! Shock and awe, yes, but don’t return to the same old same old once the initial shock has subsided! Keep up the pressure! For that to work, of course, the omniscient narrator has to be killed off! The reader needs to live through the characters, live, loath, love with them and then, at an opportune moment, you do the ole switcheroo and introduce Jamie Lannister as viewpoint character and turn the entire world upside down. Bam! The premise of the narrative changes. Granted, that much should have been obvious when the obvious protagonist looses his head in “A Game of Thrones,” but still in order to keep readers interested, one needs to have the reader invested, not in the story but the characters.
    To me Boromir, in Lord of the Rings, was always the one character I could relate to, because of all the woe prophesied by the other characters, a woe that nobody can really relate to, he is the only one that thinks practical. The omniscient narrator, so omnipresent in Tolkien’s time, told us the ring was bad, and that was that. Third person limited, from Frodo’ perspective, would have given us a much clearer insight into the danger. Pair that with Boromir’s perspective, a man who only wants to save his people, who knows that his father is quite mad and who is clutching at straws to retain a glimmer of hope for his country, and voila, characters and opinions the reader can relate to.

    But in order to get readers to relate to a character, readers need to be interested in the character, the story is secondary at this stage. I might be too involved in my own storytelling (multiple viewpoints presenting different facets of the same tale) but I wouldn’t write it this way, if I did not believe it to be the strongest way to get readers involved. And if you don’t show from the get go that every cliche is just another target for your literary and narrative mortar, the reader won’t bother that much with the story. At least I won’t.

  2. Terri Benson said:

    Thanks so much, Angie, for giving us your GenreFest presentation in writing. I missed a lot in my notes! I promise when I submit, you won’t find one of these 9 in my first pages.

  3. Crystal said:

    I am so thankful to be seeing these tips before writing my first words. I’m in the planning/research stage and almost done reading a book that’s all about starting with the normal… Thank you two for putting this out there :).

  4. Melissa said:

    What if the character’s ordinary is extraordinary to readers? Is it then okay to spend some time in that ordinary-extraordinary world before the big boom?

    1. Angie said:

      Hi, Melissa! Anything can work, depending on how the author crafts it. But my caution here would be this: Let’s say your protag is a teenage superhero, and a start to his ordinary day includes flying at supersonic speed to Super Hero High School. Totally extraordinary to readers, right? However, if this ordinary-day stuff bores your protag, then you risk boring your reader, too. Bored characters –> bored readers. Get your character NOT BORED as soon as possible!

  5. Kristen Steele said:

    Great series of posts. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule but in general these are great rules to follow. The opening sets the tone for the whole book. If it’s mundane, people might not want to keep reading.

  6. Jenny said:

    Now you have me worried about the opening in my novel.My novel is still in progress but the opening is two young women leaving their hometown in search of adventure. It does give background and dialogue, but now I’m worried I may have to change it. I do have a short prologue that I feel may rope people in, because it makes the reader question what it all means. I’m enjoying your Pub Rants though. They give me something to think about- inspiring better alternatives to my story line. Thanks!

    1. Angie said:

      Hey, Jenny! Don’t worry about your opening until you have completed your first draft. And maybe your second draft. Heck, even your third. Many aspiring writers make the mistake of rewriting their opening scenes over and over again, trying to make them perfect. But a finished book is better than perfect, and perfect doesn’t exist. Many, many published authors don’t discover where their story starts until they figure out where it ends, so they get any old opening on the page and plow through to “The End.” Leave the beginning alone for now and FNINSH THE BOOK! 🙂 -Angie

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