Pub Rants

Killer Openings

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STATUS: Off to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference at noon today.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? LAID by James

And I actually don’t mean it in the sense that it’s so good, I couldn’t put the manuscript down. I mean the openings that are guaranteed to kill your manuscript within the first 10 pages for an agent reading it.

And trust me, we won’t keep reading to get to the “good part.” The opening is everything when you are trying to get an agent’s attention.

A terrible and disheartening statistic is that for 90% of the submissions we receive, we won’t read beyond 2 pages. (I know. Ouch.) We know that quickly whether a) a manuscript is ready for an agent’s attention or b) if it’s right for us. Anything well-written, we’ll read all 30 pages of the submission before deciding to request a full or not.

But back to Killer Openings:

1. Opening pages that are nothing but backstory and explaining.

2. Opening pages with scenes that only do one thing (like have action but no character development or any other components that are essential to strong writing).

3. Problems with sentence structure, misuse or overuse of description, and basic grammar snafus.

4. Prologues (or chapter one) that sets up a faux conflict to “hook” the reader but then has very little connection to the following chapter—in tone, in the characters that are then introduced, in plot that unfolds immediately in the next chapter.

I see number 4 over and over again and it’s always a neon sign beginning writer mistake. Even the tone and writing styles of these openings differ greatly from how the rest of the manuscript is written.

I’m sure there are other killer openings and when I stumble on them, I’m happy to blog about it.

More James music on iLike

46 Responses

  1. Kirk K said:

    Unfortunately, what you say makes a lot of sense. So many writers feel compelled to info dump at the beginning of a novel as if the reader will never catch on. I’ve discovered the info dump problem in my own writing but not in the opening.

    Thanks for the reminder and for the blog. I appreciate your efforts.

  2. Red Boot Pearl said:

    I’ve seen ‘killer’ openings for published books as well. I don’t want to read an information dump or the random prologue… I usually set these down there are so many amazing books, why would I waste my time.

  3. Jan Roswold Brown said:

    I expect that this tip is moot if the killer opening keeps going, and going, and going.
    Love your blogs, they help alot, although….I must add that for unpublished authors hoping with baited breath to get SOMEONE to look at their book, some of your blogs are scary as sh__! I haven’t sent anyone a query yet, but I will send one to you soon. I am girding my loins as we speak.

  4. ilyakogan said:

    I do have a three page prologue that only makes sense towards the end of the book. But I wrote it not to impress the agent and/or publisher but to make the reader guessing at who the person mentioned in the prologue really is.

    I think that the first chapter is exciting enough by itself but if I remove the prologue it will take away from the book.

    Should I then follow Janet Reid advice and not include the prologue in initial query and/or partial?

  5. M.J.A. Ware said:

    I can see why number 4 would be so common. Someone writes the story they love, but then decides it’s too quite, or not high concept enough.

    The quick fix, add a prologue (maybe even disguise it as a first chapter) that will get the reader’s attention. By the time the reader realizes they’ve been hoodwinked, the’ll have fallen in love with the story.

    Just one problem (or at least one). Readers hate being lied to.

    I’d guess that if an author has done this, they might be sensing that something is missing from their manuscript and should really go back and identify and fix it.

  6. Shayda Bakhshi said:

    I agree with all of these “killer openings”–and confess I was guilty of all of them several years back. To a wistful-minded teenager, prologues are epic and amazing.

    Although one of my favorite books does this–Garth Nix’s SABRIEL has this very dark-moody prologue, then jumps forward eighteen years to a seemingly unrelated time and place.

    I think it works for Nix’s novel, but it’s usually a red flag, as you said.

  7. Gabriela Lessa said:

    I’ll have to ask the same question ilyakogan asks. Are any prologues that only make sense a few chapters ahead a deal breaker? Should we not send the prologue when submitting, even if we think it works?
    If you could elaborate on the prologue issue, maybe mention some published prologues that you think work and some that don’t…. That would be very helpful.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Gabriela, she doesn’t usually take Q&A, but she’s addressed prologues before in posts I’ve found helpful. Examples were included, I think. You can search the blog and find them.

  9. Cole Kleinschmit said:

    I think the crusade against prologues is becoming a bit dogmatic. If the scene differs dramatically in POV, time, location, or setting, then a prologue can be perfectly appropriate. It’s not shorthand for “exposition that can be readily skipped.” When used correctly, it’s an integral part of the story. (Which is why it baffles me when I hear people say they skip them)

    It may not have an impact on chapters 1 & 2 (and thus earn much scorn from someone reading a partial) but it may be crucial to the understanding or context of the entire story. So, I wonder if, as an agent, you are seeing a false pattern with regard to prologues since the partial-to-full conversion ratio is so skewed. If you requested partials that consisted of the last 30 pages, would you see a pattern of useless epilogues that would have made sense had the entire book been read?

    Now, granted, as an agent you see more than we do in terms of prologues that aren’t publishable, but I’d be curious to know how it worked out for any partials you read that included a prologue where you then requested a full, and the prologue truly had nothing to do with the story.

  10. LaylaF said:

    I have to agree with Cole’s comments. I personally am a great fan of prologues. Although, of course I am reading them as part of a published novel which, hopefully by the time it reaches the book store shelves, is polished and relevant.

    But I have to say, I relish in snuggling down into a chair, opening those first pages and starting with the prologue to get me into the mood and mystery of what is yet to come and then as the story unfolds, I mentally keep referring back to the prologue to piece it all together.

    I like Epilogues too.

  11. Cholisose said:

    Regarding prologues–I usually avoid them, but I’m sure there’s a time and place for them. Perhaps it’s just not what’s best to show agents though? Prologues seem to only make sense in context with the rest of the story as a whole, rather than as a setup for the next chapter.
    #1 and #3 are par for the course in writing advice. Info-dumps are bad, especially for the beginning… And I’d hope any submitting author would go through the first few pages several times to check for grammar/spelling mistakes. First impressions are big.

  12. Jan Markley said:

    I’ve never been a fan of the prologue. If it’s good/important enough to be in the book then put it in the book. Opening with a dream is a killer as well.

  13. Nicole said:

    Ah, but here’s the rub:

    You still see killer openings coming to you because would-be authors still see killer openings in published books.

    Tis the way of the world, I guess.

  14. M.J.A. Ware said:

    IMHO, Kristin wasn’t dissing all prologues, just ones the author threw in to setup fake conflict. Or that try to hook the reader, but have nothing to do with the rest of the story.

    And for the record, I generally dislike prologues. Unless they are really short, say less than a page.

  15. Anita Saxena said:

    I think my opening stands the test of these four bullet points, but again this is like the tenth revision of my novel. I know that the earlier versions of my work were definitely guilty of points one through for. Thank you for the tips.

  16. Sharpie said:

    I’ve seen writers who obsess on something dogmatic like “tension on every page” and then write an opening they’ve twisted into tenseness but with no character development or anything remotely done to connect the reader with the MC.

    But dadgum it they’ve got tension. So that means it’s automatically good.


  17. Anonymous said:

    Okay, I agree on points 2 & 3. But 1 & 4 are like a tired, old song that you agents keep singing and singing, which suggests that perhaps you are the ones with the attention spans of gnats, and not us readers. The books that I remember long after I’ve read them are those that sweep me up in the full scope of the story, and the characters of that story, their backgrounds, etc.–yes, horror of horrors, from the very first page.

    By your criteria, books like Geraldine Brooks’s “March,” Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” and even Nabokov’s “Loilita,” would get your “just didn’t grab me” letter. There are more examples like these, hundreds of examples. And I don’t particularly like everything he writes, but the prologue in Pat Conroy’s “Prince of Tides” is one of the most beautifully written things I’ve ever read, and (Oh my God!) it goes on for pages and pages.

    Many in your business justify your opinions by saying that people just don’t have the time to read today, so a story has to grab them from the beginning, blah, blah, blah… I don’t know, but a real reader, one who truly enjoys the meditative, solitary act of reading; one who loves the beauty of the language and a good story, those people always make time to read. It’s like breathing to them. (And, by the way, there are more of us than you may think. We just read less and less current fiction because it’s so awful. We’re still reading, though. We read older books, perhaps those we’ve read before or those that we didn’t quite understand when we first read them. But when a new rare good novel does come out, we are often among the first to rush out and buy it. Our silent disgust with the current state of fiction is thus never represented in the best seller lists.) I just don’t accept this nonsense about the increased competition for our time. We are not the same people who obsessively check our text messages every five minutes, or update our FaceBook page three times a day (if we even have a FaceBook page), or who watch “The Jersey Shore” before playing a quick game of “Halo.” That erroneous profile of the “reading public” that you agents have tried to push (because it’s easy) reminds me a lot of the movie studios who say “that crap we spew out is what the audience wants.” It’s not true. It’s not what we want.

    I’m starting to think that instead of peddling literature, and I use the term loosely, many of you agents should really be selling something else instead–say, timeshare rentals, or something on late night television. Not books, though. Please, not books.

  18. Anonymous said:

    The folks who are bothered by prologues are the same ones who get all bent out of shape on semi-colons.


  19. Abby Minard said:

    Anon 10:32- I’m a “real” reader, and I won’t read more than a few pages of a book if it starts out with boring backstory. You forget this business is so subjective no matter what role you play. You are assuming all readers are like you. We are not. We are very diverse, and who are you to say what all readers like? That’s the cool thing about this business- there are all types of different people with different interests. Apparently the agents and editors giving this advice are doing something right, because they are selling the heck out of their books. How many great works of literature have you written and sold yourself?

    Btw, thank you for the tips Kristin- I always enjoy your advice.

  20. J.D. said:

    Look when you get right down to it; it’s all about the specific agent. Take a look at Twilight. The first few chapters are crap. But the agent reading it decided to give it a chance. And from there we all know how the story ends.

  21. Anonymous said:

    Twilight… the first ‘few chapters’ are crap? I wouldn’t exactly bring twilight as an example of good writing. At all. Regardless of the fact that it sold a lot.

    A bit like soap operas are watched a lot more than actually good movies.

  22. Perri said:

    I really appreciate the reminder.

    And while I have nothing against prologues as a reader, I made sure NOT to put one in my novel so that I wouldn’t have to agonize over whether I should include it in the pages, or not. One less thing to worry about! Whew!

  23. Les Edgerton said:

    Great post, Kristin! Interesting, some of the comments. Some folks really seem to be bitter, or perhaps they just got up on the wrong side of the computer…

    My observation is that a lot of people practice “selective reading.” That is, they “see” some of the advice and some of it is invisible to them. I don’t recall you saying all prologues are bad (“most” does not mean all, usually…), and then go on to point out four mistakes made in many. Valuable stuff.

    I experienced (from a few) the same thing when I weighed in against (most) prologues in my own book, “Hooked.” I got letters from folks giving me eleven thousand examples of prologues that they felt worked. Well, even though I’d said most didn’t work, I did point out several that did… but they must have missed that disclaimer.

    One, in particular, was the prologue for Larry Watson’s “Montana, 1948” which was a brilliant book, imo. It was a nice little prologue, but I did say I thought it was unnecessary and that I suspected it came about at the editor’s urging and had a feeling that Mr. Watson hadn’t originally included one. Who knows? Maybe it was the other way around–Watson included it and wouldn’t take it out at the editor’s urging. Or… it was there and nobody complained.

    But, a big problem with a minority of readers seems to me to be selective reading. Kind of missing the qualifiers and disclaimers. (Please note I said “minority”)

    Just did a post on my own blog about this and the terms we use in teaching writing that addresses this very issue. Might want to check it out at

    Or not…

    Anyway… good stuff!

    Blue skies,

  24. Anonymous said:

    The most important rule for every writer in search of publication is

    Give. The. Reader. A. Break.

    Prologues seldom do this. Especially prologues that exist to keep the reader guessing (ouch!) or to fill in backstory.

    Few readers pick up a book because they want to be challenged. Readers read for escape, entertainment, to enter another world… for enjoyment, not to be kept guessing.

    The only example of a prologue that works that I can think of is the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book. It’s funny and fun, and introduces you to the story’s world at high speed. And, this is important: it’s not *called* a prologue.

    If I open up a book and see a prologue, I put it down again.

  25. cassandrajade said:

    Thanks so much for the advice. I’m in the process of revising an opening at the moment and I think I’m suffering from too much description and not enough action. Thanks for sharing this post.

  26. Bob Mayer said:

    The books anonymous mention weren’t first novels. Established authors have more of a chance to develop things. Also, frankly, when someone who is anonymous rants and raves, it has little credibility. Usually it’s a frustrated author who believes they have the great American novel but the conspiracy of agents and editors just can’t see their brilliance. I’ve seen many of these over the years and the great novel is usually so narcissistic it’s unreadable.
    Want to read a great opening, read Lee Child’s first and breakout novel, Killing Floor. For a suspense novel he builds suspense without action. And has a great hook at end of first scene.

  27. David Kearns said:

    I have to agree with someone’s take on Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides.
    You had to understand the relationships, thus, exposition required. Another great work, same author is Beach Music.
    How much pain the protagonist felt from the suicide of his wife; you couldn’t read it and not feel it. You have a man standing there, remembering his dead wife and the bridge she jumped from, the look on her face as he imagined it. Was anything technically “happening” here? Of course not.
    All of Conroy’s passages would likely be tossed out with the bathwater in this market.
    Oh, and, the main characters would all be vampires 😉

  28. Drew Patrick Smith said:

    I really enjoyed reading the comments about how, well, these books (Prince of Tides, etc., etc.) would be thrown out by agents nowadays, and the comments about “real” readers. It’s a nice thought, but a little out of touch with how any of the art worlds really work.

    In the end, this is about the relationship between art and business. Literary agents are a business, they need to make money, and they do so by selling books. This means that Lauren Conrad is going to get book deals, because she can sell books. (FYI, Conrad is the former star of the Hills, a college dropout, and she “wrote” LA Candy, a NYT bestseller)

    But, in the end, I think writers should be able to write two great pages as their beginnings. If they can’t, then they don’t deserve to be published. It’s also about conforming to what you know you need to do – and frankly, I’ve heard this piece of advise from basically EVERY agent I’ve ever had contact with. Including the ones I’ve worked for.

    So, there you go. Write a good opening and end up rejected. Sad but true.

  29. aralyma said:

    #4 is very popular in horror: it establishes the threat without immediately killing off the protagonists. It’s also extremely common in television–which is becoming a narrative form as sophisticated as the novel, so it’s no surprise to see its conventions carry over into print.

  30. Ed Bast said:

    Anon 7:31,

    “The most important rule for every writer in search of publication is

    Give. The. Reader. A. Break.”

    I have no idea what that means, but it certainly is not the most important rule for first time writers. Don’t patronize your readers.

    “Few readers pick up a book because they want to be challenged. Readers read for escape, entertainment, to enter another world… for enjoyment, not to be kept guessing.”

    Blatantly, blatantly false. There’s a whole world of readers out there who like being challenged, who like having their horizons broadened by the written word. Escapism may be your reason for reading, but it certainly isn’t everyone’s.

  31. Rachel said:

    I love your posts like this–it helps me to keep in mind what you are seeing a lot of, and to go back and check my own work. It is also always a sign of a good, informative post when the comments are just as interesting to read as the post itself, ha!

  32. Anonymous said:

    So, you say #4 is a mistake, but I can’t tell you how many recently published books (mostly young adult) I’ve read that do this. So, what’s the deal? Is this just something you don’t like, or do you feel all agents see this as a mistake, because there are obviously a lot of editors that seem to like the idea.

  33. Jay said:

    Prologue in the opening is a opinion, this has worked in several novels. In fact I have used it in some of my works. Some agents have loved it, but others disliked it. Normally, the Agents that did not like it, were just unable to see through the underlining meanings.

    These are the issues I have been bombarded with over the past few years.

    Agents do not believe a new author, lacking platform, is capable of writing elaborate plot.

    Agents love my manuscripts, but guess what? Again, no platform.

    The market is littered with the personal opinions of the common day agent.

    It’s all about the easy $$$.

    It is insulting to the art of writing. Choking on the vomit of it all, I nearly through in the towel, but in the end, I was lucky to find an agent willing to work hard for me. Speaking with agents, who in the past rejected my works, hearing them curse under their breath, out of regret, as they walk away, makes it worthwhile it in the end.


  34. Anonymous said:

    Well…I’m going to say this, as someone who gives a LOT of novel critiques, I see a great deal of prologues that aren’t needed. Or it gives the wrong feel for the story and it ends up as a misleading opening. (An abstract example: I thought the author was going for a fantasy, but no. Just a strange PoV because they thought it would be intriguing.) I feel many times the problem is that people open the story in the wrong place, and they put a prologue in as a Band-Aid to fix it. And I think that’s where prologues get a bad name from.

    BTW, the reason I chose to go anon is that I don’t want someone to think I’m referring to their work. I’m not here to bash anyone; I just wanted to share the bigger picture of things. No one needs to bash a particular writer or genre. Reading is a passion. Any author that attracts new readers is a good thing.

  35. Anonymous said:

    Like others, I think prologues get a hard time from certain sections of the agent community. In this case, I note that a certain type of prologue annoys, which is not a blanket disendorsement.
    However, prologues done well are often useful in ‘big stories’ in scifi and fantasy in particular. By big stories, I mean complex timescale, character and plot canvases that do need some initial explanatory backstory.
    I can see that your average crime or relationships drama can be burdened by the this approach.
    Also, in this regard, picking an appropriate genre agent that ‘gets it’ may be the way to go.

  36. Cozy in Texas said:

    Usually, if the blurb on the back cover gets my attention I’ll wade through several pages. Two books come to mind – The Zookeeper’s Wife that had 59 pages of information dump and Empire Falls, which is now my favorite book (15 pages of prolog!).
    Cozy In Texas

  37. Stroppy Author said:

    Aspiring writers never like to hear that it’s possible to tell within two pages if a book has potential. They like even less to hear that it’s often possible to tell within two sentences, but it’s true.

    Prologues are not bad per se, only misguided prologues. How to tell if your prologue is misguided? Write a paragraph explaining how it would damage your story if you removed it. What would you have to do to make up for it? That should tell you whether it’s essential or a dumping ground for indigested material, or a band-aid for starting in the wrong place, or a consequence of distrusting the reader. Readers don’t always want to work hard, but they do want to be credited with some intelligence.

  38. Anonymous said:

    Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’ does just what you describe in point number four.

    Hardly a failure.

  39. Josh Hoyt said:

    After attending the League of Utah Writers conference this last week it opened my eyes to the importance of using all three elements in writing especially in the beginning. It shows that description can be used as long as the other two elements are in their as well otherwise it is just a boring info dump.

  40. Kairee Taylor said:

    Hi Kristen:

    Back cover tidbit: “She makes a decision that will alter their lives, but will a brush with death change her mind?”
    In my novel, the prologue is in the POV of a sub character who is deeply involved in the climax of the story. However, the reader will think it is the female protagonist through a majority of the book because of the back cover.
    I start Chapter One by stating “Five weeks earlier” to try to transition from the darker prologue.

    My question is: are you totally turned off by prologues? Would you recommend that I kill the prologue? I’m in revise mode. I have a great query letter, thanks to YOUR blogged suggestions and examples. I am hoping to send it in the next three weeks or so.

    Hope you’re having fun in Frankfurt!

    Kairee Taylor