How (not) to start a book, by Michael Ford
First impressions count. The start of a story is like a blind date between you and an editor. Until they start to read, they’re open-minded, so it’s important those first few paragraphs don’t make them want to get up and leave through a side-door. In many ways, the opening of a story is a gambit to hold the attention.
At Working Partners, we ask several writers to try out for a project and judge the samples against one another. That means we read four to ten versions of the same chapter one. Even if the opening doesn’t work, we read on, because often samples get better as the writer gets into a groove. However, a busy agent or editor at a publishing house might not be so forgiving. So here are five openings to avoid (and, it goes without saying, there are exceptions to all these ‘rules’):
1) The dream sequence. The problem with dreams is that they’re not real, so nothing is at stake. They delay the actual beginning of the story proper. It’s tempting to write a dream sequence because tonally it might be interesting, and it can serve the purposes of exposition or flashback, but guaranteed, an agent will see dozens in the slush-pile every week.
2) Waking up. Sometimes seen in combination with 1), waking seems a natural place to begin the story, as it brings us, the reader, into consciousness along with the protagonist. Sadly it then follows that we have to get out of bed, brush our teeth and perform our ablutions, all of which are boring. Scenes are far better begun in the middle of something interesting happening. Being woken up – probed by an alien, to the smell of fire, with a hand over one’s mouth – can work better.
3) The weather. There’s a temptation to set the scene with some atmospheric pathetic fallacy – rain-lashed pavements, an ominous rumble of thunder, etc. The problem isn’t so much that this technique is invalid, it’s more that it’s very common and unremarkable. Of course, if your protagonist is a meteorologist, or the story begins in a crashing hot-air-balloon, it’s excusable.
4) Backstory (and its cousin, the Prologue). With older fiction especially, characters don’t just arrive on the page – they’ve got baggage. Every story of any complexity is going to involve things that have happened before the story starts, but the start of the story is not the time to lay it on the table.
5) Looking in the mirror. It can sometimes be tricky to convey what a character looks like, but unless it’s the most interesting thing about them (‘My nose had fallen off in the night’), don’t start with a reflection.
So what does make a good opening? Something arresting, something surprising, something active and dynamic. Thrust the reader into a circumstance of high drama or uncertainty or intrigue. Some of the best openings are dialogue, but make it snappy and interesting. The same rules that apply to scene-building apply to openings: enter the scene as late as possible. You don’t have to explain everything from the off – grab the reader and trust them to follow.