10 WORST Ways to Start a Book
In case you missed the news, Shut Up and Write the Book is officially available for pre-order! If you want a step-by-step guide for crafting your novel from the idea phase all the way to the professional edit, by golly, you're in luck. From now until January 24, 2023, every single person who pre-orders in any format is eligible to receive an exclusive digital workbook you can use alongside Shut Up and Write the Book to help plan your novel. All you have to do is send your proof of pre-order to this email address: PREORDER@JENNAMORECI.COM and bam, you got your workbook. In honor of this pre-order, I thought I'd cover one of your most requested topics.
Today I'm breaking down the ten worst ways to start your book! Chapter one, particularly its opening scene, page, and sentence is extremely important. You wanna make sure you leave your readers with a positive impression, and none of these points do that. I've got a whole chapter devoted to writing your first chapter in Shut Up and Write the Book. But today we are taking a deep dive into specifically writing that opening scene in chapter one–aka, the stuff that most of us fuck up. Fortunately, after watching this video, you will be fully prepared to open your book without frustrating your readers.
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Number 1: Telling
Telling is when you simply state facts or opinions to the reader. For example:
“He was handsome. She was loving. They were happy together.”
There's a time and place for telling, but it certainly doesn't belong in the opener. And there's a good reason for that–it’s boring. The opening paragraph and page are designed to entice the reader, and a long segment of telling will do the exact opposite. It comes across as amateur because typically the only books that open with telling are fairy tales, fables, and children's books. For example:
“Once upon a time, there was a pretty princess in a magical kingdom.”
Because of this, it's definitely preferred to open with showing. This is when you illustrate facts and opinions by creating visuals utilizing your reader’s senses and capitalizing on dialogue. Now there is an exception to the rule, and that's when you use a brief line of telling to grab the reader's attention. For example, say your opening line is, “Jenna has always been kind of a bitch.” I am clearly telling the reader that Jenna is a bitch rather than showing her bitchy behavior. However, because this line is brief, and it packs a punch, it works as an opener so long as the content that follows is show.
It's definitely preferred to open with showing. But there is an exception to the rule, and that's when you use a brief line of telling to grab the reader's attention.
Number 2: Backstory
There are some genres where a little bit of historical exposition is necessary. Fantasy and sci-fi are the most obvious examples, but these exposition bits should be brief and they should absolutely not be the opening page of your first chapter. I know you can think of some famous authors who have done this in their work, but they've been dead for a hundred years, and the literary industry has changed. A backstory info dump is boring at the start of the novel. Plus it's telling your readers that you may not be starting the novel in the right place. If you absolutely need a history lesson at the start of the novel, perhaps your story should begin in the past.
Additionally, backstory is usually written as a tell rather than a show, which, as we already covered, is the worst. To avoid this issue, share the history as it becomes relevant, not a page sooner. And if readers absolutely must know the history on the very first page, then you're starting the book in the wrong place.
Number 3: World-Building
You know what’s a tedious way to start a book? With geography. Setting the scene is one thing; you may need a sentence or two to ground the reader in the location, but this should be brief and probably not the opening line. Opening with a world-building info dump reads as purely self-indulgent because it serves little benefit to the reader. They don't need to know about an entire planet's climate. They only need to know about the here and now. You're putting your readers to sleep for the sake of showing off all the research you did before writing. No one cares.
Like the last point, the solution is simple: describe the world as it becomes relevant. If they enter a castle, describe its architecture then. If they're navigating a forest, that's when you describe the foliage. But never before then, and certainly not as the opener.
Number 4: The Mirror Description
The mirror description is when, at the start of the novel, the main character gazes into a mirror and the narrative describes what they are seeing, aka their physical description. It pains me to list this trope because honestly, I like it. (Sue me!) The biggest complaint about this trope is that it's not realistic. Who even looks into a mirror and assesses their appearance? Me! I do that. All the time. Am I the only one?
Regardless of this difference of opinion, one thing is inarguable: the mirror description is a cliche. This means it’s been overused to the point where readers find it trite and predictable. Because of this, it's not wise to open with a mirror description. Instead, find another way to describe the character's physical appearance. A great method is to compare their appearance to another character's appearance, that way you kill two birds with one stone.
Number 5: Another Perspective
When readers start your first chapter, they are expecting to follow your main character. Full stop. That means if you open with a different character, say a character from yesterday or the villain, they are going to be confused and disappointed. They are reading this chapter expecting to get invested in the character, and then if the character’s perspective changes in chapter two, they are going to feel like you just did a bait-and-switch. It's not nice.
Because of this, it's vital that you write your first chapter from the main character's perspective. If you have multiple main characters, that's even easier. Just pick one or two of them, and write from their perspective. Problem solved!
“But Jennaaa! I really need to start my book from someone else's perspective.”
Then it sounds like you've got a prologue. A prologue is an introductory section before the first chapter, and it's usually there to showcase someone else's perspective. Often it'll be written from the villain's perspective, the main character's perspective when they were years younger, or someone from the past’s perspective who is long dead. If you've written any of these perspectives, they are perfect for a prologue, but they are not fit for chapter one.
Number 6: Zillions of Characters
A lot of writers get really excited when they write their first chapter. They want to introduce all of the amazing characters they've created to the reader. Dial it back ten notches. It's confusing to open a book and be immediately bombarded by tons of names and physical descriptions. You're not exciting the reader, you're overwhelming them.
As we already covered, you must introduce the main character in the first chapter. But outside of them, you should only introduce those who are necessary. If you're struggling with this, comb through your first chapter, take a look at every character introduced and ask yourself, “Are they necessary to this chapter or this scene?”
Maybe they're present in the scene, but they don't do much, say much, or contribute much of anything. If that's the case, they can be present, but allow them to remain in the background. Don't name and describe them.
In the first chapter of The Savior’s Sister, my main character Leila attends a senate meeting. There are about ten people in that meeting, and that's a lot of people to describe at once. Instead, I only introduced the senators who had lengthy speaking roles, and that came to about three dudes. I saved the other senators for later chapters once they became relevant.
Number 7: It Was All a Dream
Readers get super pissed when a book opens with a dream because it's often done in a lazy manner. The dream usually shows a trauma or premonition of a future event. The character wakes up dazed and confused, and then they go about their day. After that, dreams are never again utilized. It was a one-and-done for the sake of hooking the reader.
Except the reader won't be hooked, they'll feel cheated. You opened with something potentially interesting, and then you sucked us back into a world of boring awakeness. There's also a lack of realism here. PTSD nightmares are definitely a thing, but if that's what your character is dealing with, they are definitely going to have more than one. As for premonition dreams, those are extremely rare, and if your character is having them they should probably be thinking, “What the fuck?”
The main exception to this rule is if dreams are a recurring theme in your plot. There are many books that revolve around dreams or nightmares, but the key here is they reoccur throughout the entire novel. If that's the case, opening with a dream should be okay, but tread lightly.
Number 8: The Try-Hard Opener
There are quite a few ways you could create a try-hard opener.
Your first sentence is a mile long, crammed with as many big exciting words as you can think of.
Your opening paragraph is a flowery mess of purple prose you're hoping will impress the reader.
Your first line is a ridiculous metaphor comparing the sunset to cat vomit.
Your first scene is graphically sexual or gory despite the fact that sex and gore have no relevance to your story at all.
These are all try-hard openers, where the author is trying so hard to hook the reader they actually end up pushing them away.
These openers come off as desperate. Readers can immediately tell what the author is trying to do because nothing feels natural or organic. It feels forced. Yes, it's important to open with a bang, but you can do this without betraying the tone of your story or using every word in the thesaurus. Remember, sometimes less is more.
Number 9: The Morning Routine
The alarm clock rings and your character wakes up, yawns, gets out of bed, and starts getting ready. They're brushing their teeth, which is probably when the mirror description shows up, and they head downstairs for breakfast. Usually, a mom or wife has made the breakfast, or they make it themselves. Wow, wasn't that mundane!
Morning routines are boring because there's little variety to them. We all know how alarm clocks work. This opener has also been overdone, which makes it a common cliche, but the biggest issue with this opener is that it's likely not where the story begins. What are the odds that waking up in the morning has any relevance to the plot or the inciting incident? The best way to avoid this issue is to find your main character's dilemma, and start there. If their dilemma is memory loss after waking up from a coma, then yeah, waking up is probably a good place to start. But I'm gonna wager that's not what your book is about.
In The Savior's Champion, Tobias’s dilemma is that his family is struggling financially. Thus, I start the story with him leaving work and getting paid. Readers are instantly introduced to the fact that he is desperate for cash, and in the very next scene, they get to see why.
Number 10: Beginning After the Inciting Incident
A lot of writers claim that their story begins after the inciting incident, to which I say, “Are you sure?” Either you're starting your novel way too late, or maybe you don't know what the inciting incident is. The inciting incident is the moment your main character is propelled into action, not the moment action of any kind begins.
Say your book revolves around an ancient curse created thousands of years before your story starts. Yes, that's a big deal. But if your main character wasn't around, it's not the inciting incident. However, if in your novel, the main character is suddenly afflicted with a curse, that right there is the inciting incident. See the difference?
In The Savior's Champion, the Sovereign’s Tournament has been around for centuries. But the inciting incident isn't the onset of the very first tournament. The inciting incident is when Tobias is forced to enter his tournament in chapter two. I'm trying to hammer this home because it's a widespread issue, and nine times out of ten the author didn't actually start their story after the inciting incident. They just don't understand what the inciting incident is. You're confused, and that's okay. Let me show you the way!
But if after these examples, you are still certain that you have started your book after the inciting incident, guess what my friend! You got a whole lot of re-writing to do because that shit ain't gonna work.
So that's all I've got for you today!
Now that I’ve broken down the ten worst ways to open the first chapter of your novel, you should have a good idea of what to avoid. Some of these points are cliches, some are outdated structural methods, and some are just bad writing. The point is none of ’em are good and you should steer clear. Now get to writing!
What’s your favorite book opener? Let me know in the comments below!
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