*disclaimer* I did not come up with all this all by my lonesome, it kind of evolved from things I read by other people when researching how I should start something I was writing, and I noticed a lot of people were saying pretty much the same things. I know I’m cynical and I know there are bountiful exceptions to these so-called “rules.” These are just things to avoid or be careful about.
1. Waking up.
“BEEEP BEEP RIIIING RIIING, the alarm clock jerks 14 year old Jessica Parker out of a sound sleep. She groans and fumbles to shut it off. Her mom calls from the next room, ‘Hurry up Jessie you’re going to be late!’ Jessie wills herself to get up, and get ready for school. She looks into the mirror at her frizzy red hair, which always turns into a rat’s nest after sleeping. As she begins to brush out her tangled locks, her annoying little brother comes running into the room making noises and holding Tonka trucks above his head, yelling ‘Jessie, Jessie! Look at my trucks!’ Ugh, thinks Jessie, why me?”
Yeah. You get the picture. That actually hurt a little bit to write. Don’t use the alarm clock, just don’t—unless you want your story to sound like it was written by whoever made the opening to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” music video. It won’t grab anyone’s attention. Did it work in Groundhog Day? You bet. Will it work in your story? Probably not, unless it’s extremely original, like the alarm is set to specific song or sound (like a Barney song waking up a 40 year old man, or a person’s voice saying a specific sentence) that is somehow relevant to the character or story. I don’t know, even that is risky. This type of thing is just so overused, I’ve seen it a ridiculous amount of times. In my own naivety I’ve used it a ridiculous amount of times, (though I must say, I usually do it in a creative manner). Is a waking up scene possible to write in an engaging attention-grabbing way? Absolutely. I’ll probably even do it again some time. Just be really careful with this one... it’s so easy to be cliché! An article entitled “11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel” from darleyandersonblog.com lists specific clichés you should avoid:
A dream. Particularly a dream that starts out like a normal scene and then weird things begin to happen before, oh twist, it turns out it was all just a dream
Anyone ‘sitting bolt upright in bed’, ‘burying their head deeper into the pillow’ or the sheets being ‘drenched with sweat’
Onomatopoeia. Alarm clocks, ringtones, knockings on doors – leave them out
Any of these phrases: ‘Breakfast is ready’, ‘you’re going to be late for [x]’, ‘sleepy head’, ‘wakey wakey’, ‘rise and shine’, ‘up and at them’, ‘just five more minutes’ and any variations thereupon
The smell of breakfast rousing your protagonist from their slumber/bed
Your protagonist getting out of bed to look at themselves in the mirror (assuming they look the way they would on any other day and haven’t, say, aged several years from the last morning they remember)
Your protagonist being even slightly hung-over
Your protagonist waking up on the first day of anything in particular
2. Weather/landscape description.
These used to bore me to death when I was younger. I’d crack open a book, see a description of rolling hills with mountains in the distance and purple mist, and slide the book back on the shelf. Essentially, you should avoid anything like this:
“The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
3. Clichés like “once upon a time in a land far away.”
This is an obvious one, but apparently people still do it. Heck, *I* used to do it when I was way younger. Unless you KNOW it’s a cliché and you are doing it to be witty or funny, skip it!
4. Description of the town/kingdom/planet/etc.
World-building can be fun, but in general it’s too early in the story for readers to care about the kind of cars people drive in your world, and their system of government, and how the town got started, or the races of people that live there. Don’t slam a Wikipedia page about your setting at the reader, it’s your first page for heaven’s sake!
5. Detailed character descriptions or back-story.
Don’t clutter the opening—the most critical part of your entire book—with unimportant details. In all honestly, how important is the color of the characters eyes or hair? Does it tell us anything about her desires, struggles, or personality? Not likely.
“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress—with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves—sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.”
- Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary
Hinting at back-story is fine, but do not delve into a lengthy description of what happened before the story started, we want to know what is happening now. Don’t start with a biography—telling where your character was born and where they went to school and who their best friend was and how they grew up with so and so, and then got a job doing such and such, and became emotionally scarred because of this or that, etc.
Maybe I’m the only one, but I always used to just skip prologues and then read them after I was finished with the book. Prologues are just another cheap way of stuffing a bunch of back-story in. However, I know a lot of successful famous books have used prologues, so they’re not always unacceptable, but if you can, work in the information somewhere else—maybe even if you need to have a flashback later on. Readers are put off by prologues that they don’t understand and have visibly little to do with the actual first chapter.
7. Addressing the reader directly.
Something I’ve noticed a lot of people say is that you should not start off by addressing your reader, like “Welcome to my story. If you’re reading this, you might be wondering...blah blah blah...”. I would agree that most of the time this is a bad idea, for one, because it puts up a barrier of self awareness that keeps the reading from being drawn into the story. However, I think there is definitely some potential to have some fun with this kind of opening if it’s done in a creative way.
8. Telling the reader your work of fiction is a true story.
Do not tell us it’s a true story, we already know it’s not. Acting like it’s a true story is fine, but don’t outright tell us, like “This really happened many years ago” or “this is the true story of how I became...” Trust me, telling us your fictional story is true is only going to remind us that it’s not. Your readers probably aren’t five year olds. In Rick Riordan’s series, The Kane Chronicles, he acts like the story is a factual account of events that really happened, even saying it’s a transcript of a digital recording. And it kind of works for that story, but you’ll notice he never outright claims it to be true—this makes it more believable.
9. An outlandish shocking zany hooker.
Everyone tells you to write an attention-grabbing opening sentence, right? This leads many beginners to start with things like, “When I woke up that morning, I had no idea my little sister would turn into an alien and try to kill me” or “‘I shall kill you all!’ cried the ghastly bat-like creature as it rose above my school’s football field.” It’s crazy, it’s out-of-the-ordinary, it’s sure to hook a reader, right? Wrong. It’s boring. It’s red flag amateurish and sounds desperate.
Note that this is not bashing the sci-fi, fantasy, or horror genre. I’m all for creepy stalkers, magical water dragons, and starship battles—but aliens that turn into flying pigs with glittery blood shooting out of their eyes is not creative, it’s stupid. Guess what? Just because your story has some supernatural happenings doesn’t mean you don’t have to be realistic. As a reader, I truly want to believe that what is happing is real, but if it starts off as too crazy without easing into the whole supernatural fantasy world thing, I will have a hard time doing that.
Although, to be honest, I’m grateful when people do open this way, it allows me to instantly know I shouldn’t waste time reading it. If your book actually is about that crazy uncreative stuff I mentioned, you’ve probably got more problems than a bad opening line.
10. Things the reader does not understand.
One of the main offenders of this is rule is when people start off with lengthy unexplained dialogue. Don’t have a bunch of dialogue with no tags. Sometimes even one sentence is too long with no context for the reader to understand it in. We want to know who is speaking, where they are, and who they are speaking to.
As a general rule, don’t start us off with things we don’t understand. We won’t be curious and want to solve the mystery of what the heck you are talking about, we will be confused and bored and look for something that doesn’t seem like it needs a prerequisite to the first page. It is like when you’re in a class that’s way over your head in school and you don’t understand a thing, so you’re really bored.
Something I’m fond of quoting when it comes to art is—and writing is certainly an art—once you know the rules you can break them. What this means is, if you already know the “right” way of doing something and know you could do it well if you wanted to, but you still want to deviate from the standard, go ahead. But you’ve got to be honest with yourself: is your use of a cliché so much better than anyone else’s that it hardly counts as a cliché anymore?
Rules are made to be broken; it is in the nature of writing. Do what you want, do what you like the best, and chances are other people will like it too. Or maybe you don’t even care if anyone else likes it! Just don’t get stuck with a lousy opening just because you were lazy or didn’t know you were sabotaging yourself.
Think about it, what would get you to keep reading? Do that. Not sure what would keep you reading? Try this: go to your bookshelf, and look at the first one or two sentences of your favorite books. What are their strengths and weaknesses? How could you do something similar with your story?