Pub Rants

Groan Worthy

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Status: The subway is getting a little steamy in terms of humidity these past few days.

What’s Playing on the XM or iPod right now? CONNECTED by Stereo MC’s

Several years ago, way before tags were available on blogger, I did a really popular post on openings to avoid when writing fantasy novels.

Last week, I went to lunch with an editor from Tor and LOL, we got to brainstorming other “great” openings. So I’ve got a few to add to the list. Now I wanted to link to that previous entry but darn of I can find it! If anyone has it handy, post in the comments and I’ll embed the link. (Update: here’s the link! Thank you blog readers for finding this entry way back in year 2006!)

From what I remember of the previous list, we saw a lot of fantasy novels with main characters gathering herbs in the forest. Who knew what a popular past time that was? Openings with battle scenes where the reader had no connection to the characters was another big winner.

Sure, any masterful writer can grab any of these “openings” and do them justice but for us mere mortals, they tend to be groan worthy.

The latest contenders:

1. Man sitting on steed in pouring rain.

2. Woman standing on high wall looking out into the distance at something

3. The city chase scene

4. Aftermath of a battle


46 Responses

  1. Trisha said:

    Tags are awesome!! And I won’t be of any use with the finding of that entry. hehe. I’m a more recent follower!

  2. Steve C said:

    What if it’s the steed who’s standing on a high wall in the pouring rain, looking out into the distance at the aftermath of a battle?

  3. Debra Lynn Lazar said:

    Did the people gathering herbs in the forest drink people’s blood? Now THAT would be a unique and thrilling opening!

    But, seriously, I’d love to hear about a few openings that jumped off the page and hooked you.

  4. Anonymous said:

    You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of these openings are inspired by movies. I can see some of these working out really well in a film, but rather poorly in a novel.

  5. James Enge said:

    I think your earlier piece (URL provided by Stephen above) was a little stronger because it briefly discussed why those openings were problematic. The present entry is more of a “don’t do this” list–which would-be writers are constantly bombarded with. (“Don’t use adverbs! Adjectives are also bad!” and other nonsense.)

  6. SJ Drum said:

    The book “How Not to Write a Novel” by Howard Mittelmark has some great tips too. Like not giving the reader a description of the main character by having her look at herself in a mirror. Check it out.

  7. Yossi Mandel said:

    “Status: The subway is getting a little steamy in terms of humidity these past few days.”
    Amen that. It’s getting like NJ Transit, turning down the air to save money.

  8. immotusfactura said:

    OH NO! My book totally opens with a variation on one of these. (I’m not telling) I’m need to look into whether or not it really has to open that way. lol.

  9. Samir Patel [starkalicious] said:

    Agreed. I don’t generally write [or read] fantasy, but I have rarely found a prologue I like. Even in books I enjoyed.

    Take Eragon, for example. I liked the book as a whole, but the prologue totally confused me. [For those of you who haven’t read it, the prologue is this random scene that makes absolutely no sense until at least halfway through the book]. I didn’t make the connection between it and Eragon finding Saphira’s egg until the end of the story anyway — it could’ve easily been incorporated into dialogue between Eragon and Arya.

    The prologue in Harry Potter [I can’t remember if it was a prologue or just the first chapter, but I know the first bit followed Dumbledore and the rest of the series follows Harry] did work, in my opinion. But that’s about the only one.

    That being said, Kristin’s right — there are always exceptions. Look at movies. Avatar was pretty much Pocahontas, in space, with blue people. Same old story. But of course, James Cameron is James Cameron and therefore the movie was still awesome.

  10. Janice said:

    But if the MC isn’t off gathering herbs, how will she escape getting burned with the rest of the village, including her beloved Aunt and Uncle who for some unknown reason won’t tell her anything about her parents? She’ll never get a chance to stand on the wall of her ruined childhood home and swear to track down the pond sucking scum who destroyed her village, killed her family, and forced her to realize that she does, indeed, have the strength and courage to find the truth. And the wind will never whip her hair around her face either. Gathering herbs is essential.

  11. Margo Lerwill said:

    [blink] But but but… Patrick Nielsen Hayden really liked a story I did a few years back — it started with the aftermath of a battle. He even said, “Stories like this are the reason I read.” (One doesn’t forget a statement like that from Patrick Nielsen Hayden. I’ve having it inscribed on my tombstone.)

    Now I’m just confused.

  12. David said:

    Hilarious, Janice. I agree. Gathering herbs is essential…. or we could just call for more transparency on the part of storytellers. How ’bout a metafiction fantasy that opens: Fikus combed through the forest for the stubborn mushroom heads, not because he knew he would find them, but because he felt some strange urge for mushroom stew. It didn’t matter that his entire village was preparing to enjoy the festivities of (insert generic holiday here)–the clouds were rolling in, and Fikus had long ago developed a nose for ominous events. Clouds were one thing. Clouds in the shape of effing trollocs made Fikus worry that he hadn’t spent enough time trying to learn how to assume the void (or whatever other Jordan-knock-off-magic the writer has reinvented). He’d found that certain mushrooms made him at least feel like Rand al’thor, if somewhat less skilled.

  13. mbeougher said:

    Wow, the first draft of my novel totally started with number two. 🙂 That is hilarious. Now that I’m on fourth draft the book doesn’t begin there and that scene is completely gone from the story. Makes me glad I changed it.

    Did you and the editor talk about what they are looking for? I’d be curious to know that too.

  14. Saranna DeWylde said:

    Or, opening with a discussion about The Chosen One.

    Hey, I get that when you’re on a quest, you may have to be chosen. But why do we have to open with it? When I read most of these intros is turns the voices in my head I usually hear when I read to static.

    (Hey, it’s okay to hear to voices. I’m a writer. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

  15. pthalo said:

    reading the older post for the first time…darn, my story (adult fantasy) has a portal. and it’s introduced in the first page or two. but the portal was created for a reason, if it’s creation was partly unintentional, and it’s not done as an excuse for awkward and wordy explanations of worldbuilding in conversations with the newly arrived and confused characters.

    I guess my reasoning for starting the story there was to start with something interesting happening, and not start with backstory. But perhaps I could start about 15 minutes earlier with the event that created the portal, but that’s a dark and violent event and most of the story isn’t dark or violent, so i dont want to set the wrong tone for the book by opening with that.

    the story also starts with rain, but just a light rain, no horse, and another main character noticing to themselves how gently it’s raining.

  16. Jeff Baird said:

    Comment about Maria Lu’s Legend.
    Legend is listed on the web site along with the Hunger Games, Earthseed, The mortal Instruments and Legend. No mention of the Nelson Agency but it discusses each studio’s interest in each story to tap into the future void of Harry Potter and Twighlight almost done. The embedding came from to The Wrap. Didn’t know if you knew about it.
    Checked Lu’s site didn’t see it mentioned.

  17. Carmen said:

    lol @ Steve C’s “steed on a high wall” etc. Fantastic!

    Re: the last comment, Kristin, when it comes to barking up trees, is the RIGHT one if the Twilight audience is anything your author is interested in attracting. Massive, massive, massive numbers of ladies who love to read and whose loyalty I would give my eyeteeth to harness if I were publishing anything YA right now. They had a spinoff thing a while back called Eve’s Fan Garden as well.

  18. Lucy said:

    @ Margo

    Just to repeat Kristin:

    “any masterful writer can grab any of these “openings” and do them justice”

    So I wouldn’t worry too much. Unless its the aftermath of a battle in the pouring rain and everybody gets sucked into a portal. 😉

  19. Diana said:

    I’m currently reading Diana Wynne Jones, Tough Guide to Fantasyland. It’s a complete catalogue of all the cliches in fantasyland and has me rolling on the floor laughing.

    Got to go, my sword is singing to me that it’s time for rabbit stew.

  20. Roxann (a.k.a. Madison Woods) said:

    *Whew* At least the opening so far isn’t going to need to be rewritten…but I haven’t read your original post yet.

    I love hearing about the things agents/editors get tired of seeing. Narrows down the field a smidgeon 😉

  21. Anonymous said:

    This makes me so sad. I think I have a great and original idea,but I guess not.
    Is there any point to writing? (Other than making agents and editors laugh, apparently)

  22. Jason M. Hough said:

    Not exactly openings, but at World Fantasy last year I listened to probably 25 different authors read from their books, and I think I heard this phrase at least 12 times: “Light streamed in through high windows.”

    I guess that’s a good one for you fantasy authors to start avoiding…

  23. David said:

    In reading all of these posts, I guess the lesson is if you need to be told what not to do, then you’re not reading enough. Or, conversely, for the people who are just finding out that their brilliant and unique ideas are not, your novel still isn’t a failure. It’s just another step forward in your million word apprenticeship. So stop bemoaning the immediate loss of fame and riches and get back to work.

    The Hunger Games wasn’t a first novel. It wasn’t even a second, third, or fifth. Great stories take time. And becoming a great storyteller takes even longer.

  24. Rose Green said:

    Fantasy’s my favorite genre, but urgh, whenever I pick up a book that starts out with a prologue, or the whole healer or mage thing, I just…put it back. I want to ask if the author has ever seriously gathered herbs in the forest. Don’t most herbs need full sun, anyway? Provided s/he can find these herbs growing in the dark, does said author actually know what to DO with them? I think it would actually be possible to write a gathering-herbs scene if an author actually knew something practical about it instead of it being this mystical part of fantasyland.

  25. LupLun said:

    Well… in a fantasy novella that I never finished, it opens with the main character — a young and arrogant wizard — waking up in the middle of the night to find that his house is on fire. I don’t think that’s done very often.

    (“The thought process for dealing with a crisis like this while half asleep proceeds in three stages: ‘My house is on fire.’, ‘My house is on fire?’, and ‘MY HOUSE IS ON FIRE!!’. I skipped over the first two because a few seconds after awakening, the beam above me cracked and had me quickly rolling off the bed out of the way. That tends to wake a man up.”)

    Here’s a cliche for you: opening with the main character narrating the bullet-points version of his backstory. It’s annoying, because you have to put it on paper to solidify these things in your mind, but it bores the reader. I usually wind up writing it in the first draft, that removing it in the second and dispersing the information around the rest of the story. Or just into the ether.

  26. attackfish said:

    She stood on the wall looking out on the twisted wreckage of her city after the battle and watched the man racing on his horse in the rain, the shadows at his heels and wondered if this was what it was like living in a fantasy novel.

    I sadly couldn’t fit gathering herbs in there. Maybe she has a garden on top of the wall.

  27. Anonymous said:

    I read a lot. I especially love SF&F and have never come across a book with someone gathering herbs.
    Can anyone name a book that does have that?

  28. Anonymous said:

    To David..I do read and continue to read many books. I am not ‘bemoaning’ any lack of money,but that no one will read my book because the main character is collecting herbs on page one. No matter how well written apparently that will stop editors and agents in their tracks.
    To Rose Green- Most herbs grow in the shade. I am well versed in herbs and as my character is Wiccan and a healer it is appropriate to my story.

  29. Anonymous said:

    Anon 1:13, try Google Books. I found some using a search of only books, 21st century, many were non-fiction but I found some fiction in a minute of searching: Taming Her Irish Warrior; Banyan-Keeper of the Trees; Legends: Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy; Gap Creek; Sanakhou; A Highlander’s Homecoming; Comanche Rain.

    It isn’t that you can’t use herb gathering, you just have to make sure your story really stands out from all the others agents and editors are seeing in the queries they receive.

  30. Karen Duvall said:

    I don’t think the problem with these openings is that they’ve become cliche, the problem is they don’t work. A story is supposed to move and a stagnant setting without momentum takes it no where. It’s just the writer clearing his or her voice before the story actually starts.

    So to use the herb gathering example again, if you attach a sense of urgency to it, you could get a compelling opening. Like what if the character was looking for a specific herb out of panic to use in the antidote that will stop a venomous snake bite from killing her. Add to the the fact the herb itself is dangerous because it’s a violent sentient plant that could kill her faster than the poison would. Now you have an effective beginning to your story. There’s tension and high stakes, two main ingredients for good storytelling.

    It’s all in the spinning.

  31. Anonymous said:

    An excess of despair, here. Just because you have an opening that may be cliched, that doesn’t mean you can’t change it, if necessary.

    BTW–I am also well versed in herbs. If you’re talking about the standard culinary herbs that most people call herbs, practically none will grow in shade. Rosemary, thyme, savory, etc. will croak in a matter of weeks and certainly will not grow naturally in the standard European forest, unless you make it a very open wood with a Mediterranean climate. Sweet woodruff, from German forests, is an exception.

    But “herb” can mean any herbaceous (non-woody) plant with cooking or medicinal uses, and so, yes, there are plenty of herbaceous plants that grow in the forest. Look through an old herbal from the Middle Ages or Renaissance, and you’ll see some doozies that no one should ingest, such as Mandragora. Cool legend, though.


  32. Diana Stevan said:

    As I’ve already sent off my first thirty pages to an illustrious agent, I profess I might be guilty of a few problems cited here. My opening starts with a main character sitting on a cliff looking out to sea, and horrors of horrors, it’s at the beginning of a prologue (a challenging part of a novel).

    However, I’d like to think that what I’ve written is compelling and totally necessary to my story. As there are many writers who have successfully woven in prologues, I’ll hold on to my truth until I hear different.

  33. Matt Leo said:

    Madeleine L’Engle got away with “It was a dark and stormy night.” And it was a waaay better opening in “A Wrinkle in Time” than it was in “Paul Clifford”. AWiT also contradicts Karen’s advice that a story is supposed to move. L’Engle is in no hurry to push her characters into action. Things unfold at a confident, measured pace, carried forward by solid writing.

    The real problem with openings is starting the story in the right place. Fantasy stories tend to have extensive backstories, which complicates the decision of where to start the story. That’s why a lot of manuscripts gain superfluous prologues I think; it often strikes me as a vain attempt to propel the reader through a poorly chosen start. Some manuscripts that don’t officially have a prologue open with one of these extraneous action scenes.

    None of the opening scenes you mention is in the least objectionable if the story starts in the right place — a place where things start to move. Then you don’t have to worry so much about generating character movement or characters sitting around looking picturesque while they think world-building thoughts.