Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thursday Thoughts

I haven't blogged about craft stuff for a while, so I thought I'd talk about beginnings today. Beginnings have become all the rage lately among writing-related blogs and forums. It's like if you don't nail down that first page, or perfect the hook that invites someone to read your first page, you're SOL.

There are a lot of ways to start a novel, not all of them good. We're familiar with those throat-clearing starts, the one where the writer is warming up to the story and needs to get all that preliminary set-up crap out of the way, like weather and the character waking up and what a tough childhood he had. Yawn. So we'll leave those as given no-nos and go on to some other first page killers.

I don't think readers can always identify what turns them off when they read the first page of a novel, but a lot of the reasons agents give for passing on a project would probably apply. Here are a few to consider:
  • Opens with rhetorical question(s).
  • The first line is about setting, not about story.
  • Not enough happens on the first page.
  • The opening contains clichéd phrases and/or situations (i.e. a character shakes his head to clear the cobwebs, character runs away from an unknown assailant, etc. )
  • The main character responds to an unnamed thing (e.g., something dead in a bathtub, something horrible in a closet, someone on the other side of her peephole…) for more than a paragraph without naming it, creating false suspense.
  • The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
  • The unnamed protagonist cliché: The woman ran through the forest... The man hid the knife in his pocket... yadda, yadda.
  • Fake suspense created by some relevant fact that's kept from the reader for longer than a paragraph.
  • The character spots him/herself in a mirror, in order to provide an excuse for a physical description.
  • The first page is straight narration that doesn't involve the character doing anything.
  • Too much physical descriptions in the opening paragraph, rather than action or conflict.
  • When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.
  • The book opens with a flashback, rather than what's going on now.
  • Descriptive asides pull the reader out of the conflict of the scene.
  • No conflict.
  • Too much repetition.
  • Too many generalities.
  • Stakes are not high enough.
  • Story is written in the second person.
  • The narrator speaks directly to the reader (“I should warn you…”), making the story hyper-aware of itself and thereby tossing the reader out of the story.
  • When characters tell one another things they already know.
  • The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. ( “She squawked.” "He growled.")
  • The writing switches tenses for no apparent reason.
  • The action is told out of chronological order.
  • Took too many words to reveal what happened.
  • Dull and/or awkward writing style.
  • The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions: “She did not trust herself to speak,” “She didn’t want to look…”
  • Too many analogies/metaphors/similes per paragraph.
  • Purple prose and overwriting
  • Melodramatic opening
  • Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.
  • Too much unnecessary explanation.
  • Unmotivated characters.
I'm sure there are more that just these. Can you add to the list? Did anything on here make you go back to look at your first page? Do any of these opening bloopers rate high on your pet peeve-0-meter?


Merc said...

Lovely list!

The unnamed protagonist cliché: The woman ran through the forest... The man hid the knife in his pocket... yadda, yadda. This bugs me SO. Fricking. MUCH. :P

I chew people out on it a lot in crits *sigh* becuase it constantly shows up. Grr.

I think the similie/metaphor one applies to the entire novel, not just the openings. ;) Simile abuse is a horrible, horrible thing.

Hmm, I think you covered most of it--I had something I wanted to add but forgot what it was now. :P

Thanks, Karen!


Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Merc. You know, that unnamed protagonist gimmick is my pet peeve as well. Or any time a book starts with a character being chased through the night, the perpetrator is getting closer, the breathing is getting heavier, and I'm getting more bored. Zzzzzz...

Merc said...

Yup. I think part of it is people think "Oh, I have to start with action/suspense, so why not chase some dude or dudette through the woods and the reader has no clue and it'll be EXCITING and--"

...while completely failing to realize that we actually have to care about the character before the tension will work well, and a nameless person (in their POV) generally isn't as worthy of caring about as someone with a name.

Names have associations and also make someone more "real" and harder to dismiss, I think, thus why it works better if you have a named character up front versus an unnamed protag who's just another face in the crowd we can ignore and move away from.

~Merc, who probably shouldn't think this hard at 3 am