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September 2016
A Message from Kristin Nelson

9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 4

Kristin Nelson

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#4) Your novel opens with a lengthy passage of “talking heads” dialogue. 

Here’s what fascinates me: The openings we suggest that you avoid actually evolve out of a writer’s good intentions. In this case, writers know that starting with dialogue can be a very dynamic way to open a story. Dialogue is inherently more energetic than a description-of-the-setting opening, and if done well, a dialogue-heavy opening can reveal a lot about character(s).

Just so we’re clear, we’re not suggesting that you ax every bit of dialogue in your opening. The problem arises when an opening provides only dialogue to the exclusion of all other narrative elements.

We call this the “talking heads” opening. When two (or more) characters have a conversation for a page (or more), then readers receive no other vital story clues, such as setting, context, tone, background information, or the power dynamic between the characters doing the speaking.

Angie here. Consider the following:

“Did you bring my money?”
“Relax. I brought your money.”
“Where is it? Give it to me.”
“Not yet. We’ve got some things to talk about first.”
“I already told you everything I know.”
“Not everything.”

Any interest I have in this story, or any investment I might feel in the outcome of this conversation, is eclipsed by questions. Where are we? When are we? Are these characters men? Women? Children? Aliens? Talking squirrels? What are their roles in this story and how do they relate to each other? Is one a police detective and the other an informant? Is it two mobsters, one bribing the other? Is one a bully and the other a nerd? Is one a circus clown and the other an elephant trainer? Is this a funny story set in a 1960s Florida retirement community or a disturbing psychological thriller set in present-day Baltimore?

The human brain is hardwired for story, so when you, the writer, leave details up for grabs, the reader’s brain is going to fill them in. It literally cannot stop itself. The longer you withhold basic story information, the more time the reader’s brain has to stockpile incorrect assumptions. That means that when you do reveal story details as you intended them, and readers discover they were wrong, they’re going to get confused, frustrated, and annoyed. They might even abandon your book. And that (brace yourself for some tough love) is not their fault.

Remember that a published novel comes with a title, cover art, and back-cover copy, elements often worked up by professionals. These give the writer’s opening scene context. But with sample pages, all we have for context is your query letter’s pitch paragraph…and often that’s not enough. Approach your opening scene as though you’re writing for an audience with zero context, and you’ll start to think differently about what to include and what to save for later in the story.

For now, take a look at your opening scene. If you’ve got lots of dialogue, make sure it’s balanced with other narrative elements: some details about setting, some evocative word choices that set the tone, some personal details about the characters—not only what they look like, but how they move, react, and behave. For fun, consider this revision:

     Sister Mary Margaret slid onto the empty stool next to mine and tapped the bar. Old Joe uncapped a bottle of Jameson’s Irish and set up her usual double. She threw it back, then motioned for another.
     Without so much as looking at me, she said, “Did you bring my money?”
     “Relax,” I replied, watching Old Joe pour. “I brought your money.”
     Down went her second double. “Where is it? Give it to me.”
     I took a sip of the warm beer I’d been nursing for the last hour. Sister Mary Margaret was known for two things: drinking hard and being late. Scratch that. It was three things she was known for. The third was dealing harshly with anyone who crossed her. I gulped. Sam made himself clear when he sent me in here. No info, no money.
     “Not yet,” I said, trying my best to sound tough. “We’ve got some things to talk about first.”
     Her laugh sounded like gravel in a cement mixer. “I already told you everything I know.”
     I pulled an envelope out of my coat’s inside pocket and slid it toward her. “Not everything.”

Want to try? Craft a brief opening scene from these six lines of dialogue, and then after we repost this article on Kristin’s blog (within a couple weeks), leave your scene in the comments section. Just for fun.

Remember: Please take all the advice we give you in this article series with a grain of salt. If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can make any opening work, even ones we suggest you avoid. We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the types of openings we’re sharing with you here often don’t work because they are overused. Avoid them, and you automatically increase your chances of standing out in the slush pile. Until next time…keep writing!

Recent News
Think Like an Agent

Mastering the Art of Acknowledgements


What book are you currently reading? Pick it up and flip to the acknowledgments. Nearly every published work has one at either the front or back. This is where the author thanks those who helped to make the book possible. But don’t confuse the acknowledgments with the dedication. The dedication opens the novel and usually singles out one person or group of people for special recognition.

Pro Tip: If you are currently agent hunting, acknowledgements are a gold mine of information. You can use them to find out which agents represented bestselling books in your genre, and then you can add those agents to your list of agents to query!

Is there an art to writing the acknowledgements section? Not really. There is no right or wrong way to do it, but here are a few handy tips—especially if you are a debut author crafting this section for the first time.

Tip #1: Read a bunch of acknowledgments and get a sense of the rhythm and style. Note which ones appeal to you most and think about why. Then mirror that style when crafting your first draft.

Tip #2: First, thank your editor and your team at your publishing house, i.e., your marketing coordinator, publicist, copyeditor, cover designer, etc. If you indie publish, thank your freelance team members.

Tip #3: If you’d like to thank your agent, then interject that next. Some authors prefer to thank their agent last to give the mention a little extra emphasis.

Tip #4: If you have a critique group or beta readers, you’ll definitely want to include them.

Tip #5: Did any previously published author offer support by giving you a blurb for your book or extra encouragement or suggestions? Don’t forget them!

Tip #6: Did you work involve research or special interviews? Feel free to acknowledge anyone who helped you along the way.

Tip #7: How about family and friends who gave you emotional support? Include them.

Tip #8: Your significant other. This person probably deserves a super-special call-out. Many authors like to place that acknowledgment first or very last in the section for special emphasis.

Tip #9: Think about who else has inspired you, either to become a writer or to write this particular book. Put them in, too.

Tip #10: Is there anyone whose memory you want to honor? Any loved ones who have passed away, or historical figures or famous people who figured prominently in your research?

Luckily, you have some time to craft thoughtful acknowledgements—it’s not like standing on stage at the Oscars, drawing a blank under the hot stage lights with 15 seconds to get it all out before the conductor signals the orchestra to hurry you along. But do craft them, and do be thoughtful. Rare is the manuscript written completely without help and support!

Kristin's Book Club

A Cerebral Thriller

If you like thrillers that aren’t about catching a criminal or serial killer, you’ll find Max Barry’s LEXICON up your alley. Thematically, this novel ended up dovetailing perfectly to previous discussions Book Club has been having regarding Edward Snowden, government surveillance, and the importance of privacy. The choice, however, was accidental.

“Best thing I’ve read in a long time…a masterpiece.” —Hugh Howey, New York Times bestselling author of Wool

“About as close you can get to the perfect cerebral thriller: searingly smart, ridiculously funny, and fast as hell. Lexicon reads like Elmore Leonard high out of his mind on Snow Crash.” —Lev Grossman, New York Times bestselling author of The Magicians

Summary: Stick and stones break bones. Words kill. They recruited Emily Ruff from the streets. They said it was because she’s good with words. They’ll live to regret it. They said Wil Parke survived something he shouldn’t have. But he doesn’t remember. Now they’re after him and he doesn’t know why. There’s a word, they say. A word that kills. And they want it back…

Verdict: Not yet in! Book Club meets the second Sunday in September to discuss and to vote on our next reading list for 2017.

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The one man who’s not looking for a wife
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Discovers a woman who changes his dreams forever
Teeming with the bounty of marriageable men employed by the East India Company, Bombay holds hope for security for Wilhelmina Adams. But when the man she’s traveled halfway around the world to marry doesn’t suit, Mina finds instead that she’s falling in love with a man who offers passion, adventure, intimacy-anything but security…

Buy It Here:


Vivian in Red

by Kristina Riggle

Famed Broadway producer Milo Short may be eighty-eight but that doesn’t stop him from going to the office every day. So when he steps out of his Upper West Side brownstone on one exceptionally hot morning, he’s not expecting to see the impossible: a woman from his life sixty years ago, cherry red lips, bright red hat, winking at him on a New York sidewalk, looking just as beautiful as she did back in 1934.

The sight causes him to suffer a stroke. And when he comes to, the renowned lyricist discovers he has lost the ability to communicate. Milo believes he must unravel his complicated history with Vivian Adair in order to win back his words. But he needs help—in the form of his granddaughter Eleanor— failed journalist and family misfit. Tapped to write her grandfather’s definitive biography, Eleanor must dig into Milo’s colorful past to discover the real story behind Milo’s greatest song Love Me, I Guess, and the mysterious woman who inspired an amazing life.

A sweeping love story, family mystery and historical drama set eighty years apart, Vivian in Red will swell your heart like a favorite song while illuminating Broadway like you’ve never seen before.

Buy It Here:

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