5 Worst Ways to Open a Novel

There are many ways to open your novel and a lot is required of those opening pages. We have to be introduced to the main character, understand what world and era we are occupying; get a fast take on the visuals of both the character and their world so we can begin seeing them in our minds; and also, the all-important “hook” that gets us to the inciting incident quickly. We must bond with the protagonist or the narrative voice enough to be willing to follow the journey. Because this is a challenging task, there are common tropes for openings too often seen in manuscripts that have become clichéd at best. Here are the openings that make agents and editors run for cover:

1. A dream sequence: If we had a dime for every manuscript that launched with a dream sequence in which a character whom we don’t yet know was doing something wildly exciting only to be interrupted by the buzzing alarm clock…. The eyelids often open to darkness and too frequently it leads to the next cliché—a summary of morning activities.

2. A morning routine replay: In this opening, our new-to-us protagonist wearily gets out of bed, ambles to the bathroom where we are treated to a play-by-play of events that we are all too familiar with: showering, brushing teeth, combing hair, going to the toilet (eww!), etc. We also invariably get a detailed description of the protagonist looking in a mirror, as if for the first time. The morning continues to unfold with making breakfast, conversing in typical first-of-the-day dialogue, getting dressed, feeding pets, and commutes to work or school. All are written with a heavy lean on the thesaurus to “jazz up” the adjectives, and physically tell us what’s happening through gestures, body language, and descriptions of what different organs are doing (especially the stomach, mouth, and throat). Not only are these openings mundane, but also sometimes gross! Spare your reader.

3. A long conversation: Opening with dialogue when we as readers do not yet know the characters, have a picture of our surroundings, or any other orientating entry point into the novel, is as dizzying as walking into a conversation between strangers with no introduction or explanation of why we are there. As readers, we have no context for what is happening, or why we should care or remember anything, which could mean missing information that is crucial to the story.

4. A lengthy flashback: Another commonly deployed technique is to open with a long recount of what happened to a character in the past, often as a child. Again, this is disorienting for your reader, and is equivalent to being introduced to someone who immediately launches into a monologue about their childhood, leaving you wondering why you said hello to them in the first place (while casting about for the nearest exit).

5. False suspense: This opening misstep is often a feature of exceptionally action-forward prologues where we are expected to remember key details and are teased with the promise of exciting things to come—eventually, and sometimes at least halfway through the book, or as late as the climax. In the meantime, you return to basic reality, which is now a snooze fest, literally, bringing us back to blaring alarm clocks and morning routines.

Does your novel open with any of the above? Wondering where you should start instead? If you need help getting it right from the first line with a fresh opening that will grab on and hold tight to readers, book a free consultation with us today!

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1 Comment

  1. Guilty of two? An opening (prologue) with the protagonist as a child running away from home which I’m thinking of replacing with a flashback in chapter one. Where’s the laughing emoji when you need it?

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