By Samantha Martin
When agents sit down to read submissions, they are not only reading the query, but the opening pages as well. That means that your opening scene can make or break whether or not they will be interested in reading further. The easiest way for readers to get to know your characters is through what they say and do, so make sure your first scene depicts them doing something interesting. With that in mind, here are four overdone, cliché ways to begin a novel:
1. “I woke to the sound of my alarm clock…”
It may seem natural to begin your character’s story with the beginning of their day. However, reading about a character we don’t know much about going their morning routine just isn’t very interesting. We may learn small things about your character by the way they wear mismatched socks or contour their makeup, but these are small details that could be given in a more fluid, interesting way. Unless something major is going to happen to your character between the moment they wake up and where they’re going to spend their day, it’s best to gloss over this.
2. It was only a dream…
There’s nothing worse than reading a high-stakes, well-written scene only to have it revealed that the pages you just read never happened at all. While I’m all for using dreams to communicate backstory or inner trauma, it’s not the best way to begin your book. When readers invest time and interest into the stakes of a scene only to have them trickle away into nothing, it leaves a sense of disappointment. It’s better to dive into character’s subconscious once we’ve gotten to know them.
3. The first day of…
An immense number of books and stories begin with a character’s first day of school or work at a new job. And while this scene is important in some stories, consider where it is placed. Could we learn more about what your character is leaving behind when their parents force them to move cross country to a new school? Can the story start later? Unfortunately, first-day-of narratives often boil down to “housekeeping” style exposition—we learn what classes the protagonist has, or what their duties are at work. The sheer number of books that begin in this way make your work less likely to stand out. Consider other places in which the story could begin.
4. My name is…
Sometimes, it may seem like the best way to introduce a character is to have them do it themselves; beginning with their name and what they look like. Too often, this is done in front of a mirror. In this situation, we are often put right into the head of a character and told everything relevant to the scene that’s about to happen. However, this same information could be conveyed much more naturally through that scene itself. Action and dialogue are so much more enjoyable when there is an underlying tension between characters, be it angry, romantic or otherwise. It won’t be nearly as interesting or enjoyable to watch two sisters fight over the shower if we know they are really fighting over the affections of a boy right from the start. If we learn this gradually, the story becomes much more suspenseful and interesting. The characters have something to gain or lose, and readers have things to learn along the way.
If you start your book in one of these ways, don’t worry! It’s not the end of the world. Just consider a more unique way you could start the story, and your writing will be that much stronger!
Samantha Martin is an intern at Holloway Literary. Follow her on Twitter @.