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September 25, 2013
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*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 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.

6. Prologue.
    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?
I know this makes it near impossible to come up with an opening that stands up to all these cautions, haha. But hopefully this will help you avoid clishes and common mistakes.

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Chinesegal Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014
What exactly counts as a zany hooker? Because if a fantasy story starts with a battle with a dragon, or a sci fi story starts with the character being imprisoned inside a cell of a starship, does that count?
LauraMizvaria Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014  Professional General Artist

Those scenarios would not count as "zany" because they are still believable within the context of the story. “Zany” would be if a fantasy character is battling a dragon and then suddenly aliens land and then vampires form out of fairly dust. The only way something like that would work would be if the premise of the novel were something like Inkheart, where characters from many books come alive and interact.

As I said, I have no problem with the fantasy genre, I just have a problem with throwing in crazy stuff that doesn’t really make sense or have a purpose just to get readers’ attention.

This video explains it well:…

Chinesegal Featured By Owner 5 days ago
Do you mean a fantasy setting with magic, dragons, and witches can't have sci fi stuff? Maybe a writer wants to deconstruct fantasy tropes by having technologically advanced aliens land on a high fantasy or urban fantasy world, and at first succeeds to enslave everyone because of their advantage in technology, but then the magic creatures succesfully fights back? Or a wizard alien?
Chinesegal Featured By Owner Nov 23, 2014
I am writing a novel, and in one chapter, my character actually wakes up tired, and eats breakfast before going to school. It's not the story opening, but I wrote that part because I wanted to give the reader insight on how different gadgets work in the sci fi setting. Also because I want to show the audience the protagonist's home life. For example, she discovers that her mother came home drunk.
LauraMizvaria Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2014  Professional General Artist
Good on you for working in story details by showing instead of telling! However, I must say that waking up and eating breakfast and going to school, while not technically a problem, is simply such an oversused opening readers might still "facepalm" a bit even if it is done in a creative manner. Perhaps you could switch things up a bit by showing your character coming home from school, or perhaps just skip to the character eating breakfast and continue on from there. Or, you could just start with an entirely different opening and work in the waking up scene a few pages later.
Chinesegal Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014
I said it's NOT the story opening, it's a few pages later. My story starts with my character dreaming.
LauraMizvaria Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014  Professional General Artist
Oh I'm sorry, I must have been half asleep when I responded or something. If the waking up part is occuring at a place other than the opening it is far less cliche. I've heard people often advise against opening with dreams as well though, for the record. But it might work ^_^
PsixiTheRaven Featured By Owner Oct 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Also, I never though of prologues as something cheap or something I would skip. Every Warriors book begins with a prologue, and it always sets the mood, gives a bit of information and, at least for me, makes me interested. I've started to use prologues myself because of it. I think a well-written prologue is a good thing, because it's usually easy to read and you can get a taste of the book without actually beginning the main story block. It sort of helps you ease in, like when climbing into a tub of hot water.
LauraMizvaria Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2014  Professional General Artist
It's true that "easing in" can be effective for some readers...though I've gotta say, most advice jumping right into the story in order to grab the reader. Perhaps it works with Warriors because you are already familiar with series, whereas a new reader may not experience a prologue the same way. But, each to his own!
PsixiTheRaven Featured By Owner Oct 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Hmmm, I have a question. I started one of my stories this way;

'The moon was stained by blood.

The puddle shattered, and I felt myself sink to the cold ground, my eyes fixed on the red water, the bloody dirt.

The shadows, hiding my calico pelt and revealing the gleaming eyes of the cats surrounding me, writhed as if trying to wake themselves from a morbid dream. A dream I, however, could not awake.

Rainstrikes held the gaze of the white shecat. In truth, she had bled little, but the blood mixed with water, and then the mixture stained her fur so thoroughly at first glance I almost thought she was brown-furred.

Lastwhite lay sprawled, her eye and stomach weeping blood and entrails. I knew I was going to be sick.'

Is this a good beginning?

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