Friday, January 30, 2015

Friday Fricassee (How NOT to Open Your Novel)

What are your thoughts on our First Five round?  Thanks to all of you who took the time to leave thoughtful feedback.

So, let's talk about the fine art of not confusing our readers.  One thing we need to bear in mind as we are writing our opening scene is that we know EVERYTHING about our world and our main character, and our reader knows NOTHING.  So we need to ease the reader into the story in such a way that time, place, and character are immediately apparent.

This does NOT mean:

Gregory Cheeseneck was a typical twelve-year-old with wiry hair and precisely thirty-nine freckles on his cheeks, who lived in a handmade, split-log house with his parents and four younger sisters at the end of the line, a quarter mile from the station and no fewer than fourteen steps from the outhouse, since these were the days of no indoor plumbing.

It might mean:

Gregory yanked up his trousers and tore from the outhouse, sure as sure that he was going to be late for school again.

Example #1 is heavy with description and telling, and sounds "narrator-y".  Example #2 brings us right into Gregory's head and shows us immediately (trousers, outhouse), that we are in an earlier era. It also gives us our first glimpse at Gregory's voice ("sure as sure") and character (he runs late a lot).

In our opening paragraph (and pages), we need to find the delicate balance between "too much" and "not enough".  And in my editing experience over the past couple of years, I find that the "not enough" is more common.  IMPORTANT:  By "not enough", I don't mean to imply that the problem of over-writing doesn't exist.  OH, GOODNESS, IT EXISTS.  But you can over-write and still not give the readers what they need to actually be grounded in your story.  And if they're not grounded on the first page or two, you'll lose them.

Here are some common problems that I've seen:


Like I said above--you know your world and characters, but the reader doesn't.  So avoid doing things like this:

Marshina slammed the door and locked it.  Nobody else was going to get in and steal another sacred poo-poo bead.  No one.

It was just like that other time.  Marshina shuddered.  That other time almost cost her sixteen hours of freedom--and Sue-bear's life.

What would Sue-bear think now?

(We don't know what a sacred poo-poo bead is, we have NO IDEA what "that other time" is, or why Sue-bear would think anything at all.  You may think you are being mysterious and tempting when you do this, BUT YOU ARE ONLY BEING ANNOYING.  Trust me.)

"You have no idea what you're talking about."

I stopped in my tracks.  Yes, of course I knew what I was talking about.  I thought everyone knew.  But here I was, being accused of not knowing anything for the third time this week, and it was starting to annoy me.

(We're opening with dialogue and we HAVE NO IDEA who is speaking, and the protagonist is referring to something we don't know about either.)


This one is self-explanatory:

L'trxvy tiptoed around the detran, careful not to drop his f'nee in the mud.  Breathing deeply, he sensed the nearness of his k'n'oo.  That was reason enough to be wary.  His k'n'oo should have been halfway to Meerduck by now.  Everything was off balance, and it was only the second cycle of Gorshnik.


I've railed about this one many times in the past.  This is what Jodi and I refer to as "the car crash opening".  We can't root for a character whose legs just got blown off if we haven't even met him yet.

Glass shards everywhere.

I threw myself again the nearest wall, pressing myself flat as a leech.  Outside, a third explosion rocked the foundation of the old building, and I stumbled sideways, landing hard on my knee.

The shard pierced my patella, sending hot pain shooting up my leg.  I cursed as blood began to soak my pants leg.

(We have no idea what's going on.  We don't even know if our protagonist is male or female.  We don't care about the explosions or the wounded knee.)

Nathan gripped his handlebars and veered sharply to the left.  The road was slicker than he'd expected, and his sudden turn made him lose control, his front wheel jacking to the left and skidding for several yards until the bike flipped end over end.

Nathan landed hard on his back, his breath slamming out like an implosion.

(We know what's happening, but we don't know Nathan, and we don't know why he's riding his bike down a wet road.  So it's hard to care.)

And there you have it -- a mini-primer on How Not To Open Your Novel.  Mind you, I don't have all the answers.  Like I said, it's a delicate balance, and I continue to rewrite and tweak my own openings as many times as it takes to get them right.  But the huge faux pas mentioned above are easily avoided.  Let us SEE (show, don't tell) your protagonist in his setting, and draw us into the world (show, don't tell) by letting us SEE and HEAR and SMELL and FEEL it for a little while.  Insert a sense of tension right away, remembering, of course, that TENSION IS NOT THE SAME AS ACTION.  If you do this, then chances are high that your readers will want to keep reading.

All right, then!  Have a wonderful weekend.


  1. I know I don't post very often, but I wanted to let you know I appreciate the time and effort you put into helping writers perfect their craft. I always enjoy reading, and learning, your advice. Thank you.

  2. These are all great examples! It helps to see them in context, because I know we think we're special sometimes and can get away with an uber-mysterious opening or car crash opening, but some things only work in flash fiction, and some things just don't work at all.

  3. Thanks to everyone who put their work out there to be reviewed, and thanks to Authoress for another great crit session!

  4. I love these examples! Now I'm going to add mine, which involves those who think mysteries can start in only one of these three ways:

    It was a dark and stormy night. . .

    The body. . .

    The funeral. . .

    Or combined to make my favorite mystery start : "It was a dark and stormy night when I tripped over the body at the funeral. "

    I am so going to use that one of these days. :)

    What we did see on Wednesday was a lot of GOOD starts, starts that got me interested and involved but didn't answer all my questions, because if they told me everything I needed to know in five sentences, why would I want to continue reading?

    And there were good critiques too, so good job overall. Thank you, Ms. A, for another great learning experience. This was fun!

  5. That was really good advice. Thank you

  6. Funny thing, I actually like your description of Gregory Cheeseneck in the first example. But then, I think it would probably need to be a story that uses that narrative description for flavor as a particular type of story, and it would probably need to get to the action shortly thereafter.

    But that probably hits on the balance thing you mentioned. :-)

  7. It's amazing how much or little can be conveyed in our first five lines! Thanks Authoress and fellow writers who posted and critiqued!
    Writing is Rewriting

  8. Is it bad that I want to know what happens next in the explosion with the glass shards? ;)

    But really, thanks so much for all you do to help us hone our craft. I always love your made up examples. I was snort laughing (just a little) at that sci-fi/fantasy one.

    (but seriously. What happens next in the glass shards?)

  9. I'm afraid I was working this week and didn't get a chance to offer any feedback, but kudos to everyone who participated, and to Authoress for making these critique opportunities available. :) Today's post has some very helpful (and entertaining!) examples, and from what I've been seeing recently on other critique sites and forums, those 'car crash openings' are all too common. So I think it's important to keep stressing that tension and action are not the same thing, because there are clearly a lot of beginning writers out there wrestling with that concept.

    But I also have to say that I agree with SBibb and I actually like many of the elements of your 'Gregory Cheeseneck' opening; certainly some older books use that kind of opening, and I think that in MG books that approach can still be used quite effectively if the voice is charming and it's well done.

    Also, one of my favorite opening scenes is from a science fantasy novel, and in that scene the author uses all kinds of names and references that the reader won't understand until they're well into the book. But it works in that case (IMHO!) because it creates powerful imagery and a sense of the world that is really compelling -- not to mention that the writing is so gorgeous that I'd read it no matter what it said. ;) But that book is not YA, nor is it your typical genre fiction -- it's intended for a sophisticated adult readership. So when we consider what makes a good opening, it's very important to consider the context and the audience for that story.

  10. L.C. -- Good points. And yes, the "Gregory Cheeseneck" opening is very old-school. But for both that, and for the scene you described, it takes A LOT OF SKILL to pull it off. Like you said, the writing was "gorgeous". Clearly that author knew what he was doing. For those who haven't attained that level of skill, it is better to steer clear of stuff like that.

    Rebecca -- I have no idea. LOL

  11. Actually, the "Marshina" example seemed typical of a lot of SF stories I've read over the years. Many of them do tend to drop you right into the deep end of the pool and expect you to start dog-paddling.

  12. Thanks, Authoress, for hosting the First Five round. Although prior obligations prevented me from submitting my first five sentences, I enjoyed reading the entries and critiques. This exercise got to the meat and bones of crafting a killer opening. Very informative. I hope you do this often as many can benefit from it. :)

    Have a GREAT day!

  13. What's funny is that I enjoyed reading ALL your examples, Authoress. Hooked me right away. Ha! :) What it all comes down to for me is not content -- action, description, backstory -- but context. Voice and character are everything. If you get both of those in your first 5 sentences, regardless of content, you're pretty much golden, IMO. Have you read the first 5 sentences of Gone Girl? It's solid backstory and description, but the characterization and emotion is super strong. That's what makes the difference (and what can turn a book into a NYT #1 bestseller).

    Sorry I didn't get to read all the openings posted this week, I was busy working. I still want to take a gander at them though. :)

  14. My computer died this week and I had to replace it. I'm still familiarizing myself with the new programs and didn't get to provide as much feedback as I would have liked, but thought this was a great idea. I really enjoyed reading all the entries and the feedback, and discovering what did and didn't work. I also loved the examples you provided above. Thanks for hosting yet another great writing event.

  15. I really enjoyed this. It was quick to read and offer feedback - 25 was very doable. I would be happy to see this as a regular post to give lots more people the opportunity to get their first 5 sentences critiqued.