Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Your book’s opening is a strange hybrid, being both the last threshold of the sale and the beginning of the story. It can be difficult to strike a balance between writing something that gets a book bought and also works as the start of a novel.
The key in both cases is to write your opening as a ‘hook’: a passage which grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read more. Of course getting hooked makes a potential buyer want to read on, but for those who have already purchased the book it acts as fuel for their continued interest.
There are as many different kinds of hook as there are stories and yet some devices get used over and over again, despite actually hurting a reader’s experience. In this article, I’ve collected some of the most common story opening mistakes, explained what it is that makes them so bad, and then suggested the things you can do instead.
While all of these mistakes are already clichés it seems sensible to start with what many literary agents consider the most annoying story opening.Do you know what many literary agents consider the most annoying story opening?Click To Tweet
1. The fake out
One trick that rubs readers up the wrong way is to begin with a fake premise from which the protagonist ‘wakes’. This is usually done by setting the opening passage in a dream or simulation. The reasoning behind this kind of writing is sound: if your opening doesn’t actually impact the story then you can say anything you want to get the reader’s attention.
In fact, there are few ways to create a better hook than by using a fake out opening. The problem begins when the reader moves past the opening and realizes they’re not reading the story you’ve hooked them into. When this happens, the reader is not only annoyed but comes to view the real story as a consolation prize.
Alan Gibbons’ novel Shadow of the Minotaur begins with a thrilling chapter where the protagonist fights the titular monster. At the point where the hero is about to die he shouts ‘game over!’ and the chapter is revealed to be a simulation. Gibbons does get some dispensation as the book is about a video game which eventually comes to life but the reader still begins the story disappointed that such an exciting passage comes to nothing.
Ideally your opening will be directly relevant to your story. Nothing beats an honest hook that gets a reader interested in what they’re about to read. However, if you’re set on beginning with the sort of bombast that really hooks a reader there are a few fake out style devices that will leave the reader less irritated.Nothing beats an honest hook that gets a reader interested in what they’re about to read.Click To Tweet
Setting the first chapter in the future, perhaps in the midst of a huge battle, and then going back in time for the second chapter places the hook event in the future of the story rather than just shrugging it off. The reader might not be happy that they have to wait for the thing that hooked them but this will manifest itself as an eagerness to read on rather than irritation at the story.
It’s also possible to do this by setting the hook in the distant past. While less satisfying, this doesn’t make the opening feel as fake as it’s still relevant to the plot, just as history rather than the main story. Likewise heavily implying that a dream opening is in fact a prophecy removes some of the sting from the fake out.
The act of placing a prologue before the first chapter is often used to make a story feel epic, too important to be entered into without a narrative antechamber.
In fact prologues can act as a sort of anti-hook, purposefully distancing the reader from the story. What they add in perceived scale they more than lose by alienating readers who aren’t already on board with the story. Even the word ‘prologue’ at the top of a page declares to a reader ‘the real story hasn’t started yet, but read this first’.Prologues can act as a sort of anti-hook, distancing the reader from the story. Click To Tweet
As mentioned above it’s possible to hook an audience by presenting a particularly exciting episode set in the main story’s distant past. This is only possible when the excitement of the passage makes up for the sense that being set in the past means the opening doesn’t ‘count’. Labeling such scenes as a story’s prologue emphasizes their disconnection rather than their excitement and breaks what was already a risky device.
Find another way to deliver the information contained in your prologue. This could be by splitting up the information and sharing it out between future chapters, or finding characters who can share the information without it seeming strange. Prologues often fall into two camps:
Here the prologue is used to set up later developments or establish the tone of a story. Such passages are often brilliant openings which only need to lose the ‘prologue’ title to really grab readers.
Most of Irvine Welsh’s novel Filth is narrated by a police officer, however the prologue is narrated by the character’s wife. This seems to justify the existence of a prologue – a different narrator is a good reason to set one chapter aside from the rest – until the reader reaches one of the later chapters where narration once again passes to the wife.
While a different voice is a great hook to begin a story, labeling this section as ‘prologue’ does nothing to help the reader engage with it. Making this chapter a prologue rather than simply the first chapter is later shown to be unnecessary when the wife’s later narrations are just chapters rather than ‘intermissions’.
As in Filth, labelling your first chapter as a prologue doesn’t make it attractive to a reader and isn’t necessary even if your story opening differs from the rest of the story.Labelling your first chapter as a prologue doesn’t make it attractive to a reader.Click To Tweet
- Histories and exposition
In this kind of prologue, the author presents the new reader with everything they need to know about the world. This is called an information dump and it’s one of the worst, and most common, story openers you can use. Why? Well…
Telling a story means you have to familiarize your reader with its characters and world. The further your story is from reality, the more you have to explain. Many writers deal with this through direct exposition, simply explaining to the reader who is who and where they are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem comes when an author begins their story with a mass of exposition, the information dump, which the reader has to wade through to begin the story. While this information needs to be shared, it makes for a terrible hook.
Who characters are, their motivations and relationships, can all wait until the reader is hooked. Think immersion rather than explanation: show the reader a fascinating, consistent world without requiring them to understand all of its complexities.
Emily Rodda’s The Forests of Silence lessens the impact of its opening by focusing on the character’s relationships too early:
For Endon was the son of the king and queen, the prince of Deltora. And Jarred was the son of a trusted servant who had died in the king’s service when Jarred was only four years old. Jarred had been given to Endon as a companion, so that the young prince would not be lonely. They had grown up together, like brothers…
That’s not to say you have to ignore your world or characters, just resist explaining them for the first few pages. Robert Rankin’s The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse is a murder mystery set in toy town. Though Rankin goes on to explain how the town is run and who lives there his initial passages are a conversation between the protagonist and a farmer.
This battle of wits is absorbing and gives the reader a feel for the book’s hero. When his motivations and history are explained not only is the reader already hooked but they have a reason to care about the information.
4. Too little information
Not so much the flip-side of an information dump but rather an extension of it. Your reader needs to have some kind of idea of what’s going on. Again the stranger the world of your story the more the reader needs to know.
The answer isn’t exposition, but to start your story somewhere where the differences are less pronounced than in the rest of the story. So many situations are understandable without deep context: if we open on a character’s sky ship plunging towards the ground, the context of a world where such machines exist won’t be missed until the crisis is resolved.
The spirit of the story
To really nail an opening think of it as an introduction to the tone of the novel. Potential readers will use your opening to decide if they enjoy your tone. The good news is that the readers who will enjoy your novel will be hooked by an interesting, uncomplicated introduction that showcases a tone and style they enjoy.
Do your characters the favor of some breathing room before their official introduction. Allow your readers to get their bearings in a new world before they learn its unique history. Above all, remember that story openings are for tone, personality, foreshadowing, and excitement. Start out on the right foot, wow your reader, and you’ll have a committed fan before the end of the first chapter.
For more on the details your readers need to know, and when they need to know them, check out our article Are you killing your book with too much detail?
Is there a style of opening you particularly enjoy? Are you the kind of person who actually loves an info dump in the first chapter? Let us know in the comments.The Four Story Openings That Put People Off (And How To Avoid Them)Click To Tweet