6 Ways Not To Start Your Novel

Once Upon A Time pencilAgents look at countless partial and full manuscripts. What’s one thing that turns us off quick? Unoriginal and unexciting openings.

Here’s my top 6 ways not to start your novel.

1. A prologue that doesn’t make any sense to us at this time

This is a common case of over-writing and not thinking from the readers’ perspective. If you want to hook a reader from the beginning it’s best not to lose them from the start. No one wants to be confused or think they’re not getting it.

2. Too much action

Many writers hear that we want books to start fast, but they take that one step too far and throw us into action we know nothing about. (If you are writing SciFi/Fantasy this is especially for you because you have some world building to do first.)

3. Too little action

The opposite of too much action: too little action. This is what’s going to prevent readers from going further because we’re bored. Internal monologues are something to avoid here too. I know, between points 2 and 3 I’m leaving little room here, but this is what workshopping is for. Share your beginning with critique groups and beta readers and see if it works for them.

4. Info dump of description

If the opening reads like your synopsis notes, we’re going to have a problem. A list of hair colour, eye colour, emotional state, setting, and/or age is not what you want to lead with–and especially not a combination of these. You can get to those later by carefully weaving them in.

5. First day of school or work

This one leads to a mundane opening. We know what it’s like to get ready for work or school–you don’t need to run us through the motions. This is a classic case of not knowing where your novel starts. When in doubt: introduce us to the main character at an interesting point in their lives.

6. Coincidences

Plot coincidences and convenient ways of characters meeting is something that rubs me the wrong way. As a writer you have the ability to weave a story, but when the reader feels like they are being led in a certain direction you’ve lost our confidence in you. Make it feel as organic and ‘real world’ as possible.

Further Reading:

Need to know how to start your novel? Read this post.

Q: How did you start your novel?

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40 thoughts on “6 Ways Not To Start Your Novel

  1. Great post! The action-but-make-us-care balance can be maddening.

    After rewriting the opening to my WIP probably 20 times, the current version opens with the main character about to play “chicken” on a roaring highway with his bicycle, to see whether fate will allow him to go to the dance with the girl of his dreams. She’s already said yes, but he needs to be sure.

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  2. What a timely post. I wrote my novel starting with my protag being awakened in the middle of the night, only to find that novels beginning with the MC waking up are about as cliched as it gets. Although there was a good reason she was being awakened, and within five minutes she was witnessing a murder, I got paranoid and changed the beginning.

    I have to say I don’t like the new one as much as the way I had it. What are your thoughts on that, Carly?

    There are so many novel and query writing pitfalls to be aware of. These types of posts are worth their weight in gold, although frustrating at times.

    I’d already sent pages to seven agents before I realized I’d have to change my opening. I’m now imagining them all rolling their eyes and stopping after one sentence, but at least it was only seven agents, not seventy …

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    • I’m sharing things that agents have seen time and time again. It doesn’t mean it can’t work and we can’t see through it, but I’m trying to provide information to help you. Take it with a grain of salt.

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  3. Thanks for this post! This could not have come at a better time because I just not started my newest novel. I am not too worried about the beginning just yet, if that makes any sense. I don’t have enough of who the characters are and their world yet. When I first start out writing the first draft I like to start from a table of contents that goes through the whole plot triangle to point out all the important bits of how the plot will form. That table isn’t set in stone ad it can shift and change as the characters develop. Right now the beginning I have sets up a few philosophical points key to the story, but in a simple and straightforward language so it isn’t confusing to the reader. Thanks again for the post!!!

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  4. After re-writing the opening many times, the latest version opens with a Prologue in which the main character is shopping for a new pair of jeans, then she goes to buy a doughnut but she doesn’t eat it. She feeds it to the pigeons while the events of the last seven months flick on her mind’s eyes.

    I hope it works.

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  5. Beginnings are hard, but I don’t think they’re nearly as bad as endings. I’d love to see a similar post about the latter!

    My current WIP starts off with one of the main characters finding out about the true fate of her parents and brothers – something grisly and disgusting, the thought of which makes her physically sick. At the end of the chapter, she decides to seek justice and begins initiation for a revolutionary group.

    I hope there’s enough world-building in the first chapter to get readers acclimated before I thrust them into the action.

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  6. Great tips!

    The beginning of project #1 has been through many revisions. Currently, it starts with the male MC walking into his house, only to find his wife in tears over bad news. From there, it gets to the action pretty quick.

    Project #2 is tougher. It starts with the MC talking with a friend while doing mundane cleaning at work. BUT the talk helps establish the action that comes a couple chapters later =)

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  7. I’ve been having such a problem with the beginning of my novel… I keep bouncing back and forth between:

    1) start the story with a coming-of-age ritual (desert tribe, scarification; MC is going to be a slave bride, so her tribe does a religious purification to protect her virtue)

    or

    2) fire-dancing (loosely related, but not as graphic/melodramatic straight off. The fire part of the scene is a small but of foreshadowing for later in the book….)

    I lean towards 2, but maybe next week, it’ll be something else, haha.

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  8. Good points all & well presented. (I kinda like this blog.) Started my first 2 books with prologues. Both describe historical action that is relevant to the plot & characters – but I kept both short & “active”. 3rd didn’t need a prologue but I have written an epilogue that my wife says needs to go. *sigh* my darling wants to axe my darlings. Okay, that’s enough – back to the beach.

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  9. I’ve started my current novel with a group of cloned private security guards being briefed by their boss, and told that if they cause any more altercations involving them and the non-clone employees on the premises, they will be denied the one thing that is holding their bodies together and keeping them alive.

    I don’t think it’s too cliched at the moment, hahaha. Thanks for the tips, they’ve been a big help. :)

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  10. Pingback: How to Write Endings: or how to get the octopus to bed | Carly Watters, Literary Agent

  11. I really enjoyed this post as it outlines all of the things that I try to avoid doing in my own writing. I have a manuscript in the works and trying to come up with an adequate beginning is challenging to the point that I’ve written several new and completely different openings at least a dozen times! I am beginning to wonder if I am better off writing the beginning once I have an ending.

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  12. Pingback: 6 Ways Not To Start Your Novel | Think Positive, Think Write

  13. Reblogged this on The Fashionable Bookworm and commented:
    With the over saturation of the writing market I will definitely put a book down with in the first few pages if the beginning does not draw me in. The “hook” is often the hardest element to add to your novel. Carly Watters lays out some important ground rules to remember when writing that all important beginning.

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  14. Hmm. Maybe number 3 should read “not enough tension” rather than “not enough action”.I’ve found that the boring beginnings tend to come more from not feeling the pressure of the story problem, rather than a lack of action.

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  15. This is great, and awesome advice! I was wondering though it you’ve ever talked about how to begin (or not to begin) a second or third book when writing a series. It doesn’t quite feel the same when reads are already familiar with the characters and the setting, so are there special rules?

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  16. This is a really great post, though I’m terribly late getting to it! I love your ‘analyze your writing’ widgets, which is how I found you.

    I am a POV switcher. In a few of my books, the prologue will be a short event the male or female MC experiences, but then the first chapter will open with the opposite MC. Is that something agents would instantly dismiss? I have to admit, I never gave it much thought, the stories just developed that way.

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      • Okay, phew! I also like multiple POV when reading, so I’m glad I’m not the only one. Sometimes, I wish I could do simple, but it seems complex is the way things always end up. Thank you for replying!

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