The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents

The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents

No one reads more novel beginnings than literary agents.

They’re the ones on the front lines, sifting through inboxes and slush piles. And they can tell us which Chapter One approaches are overused and cliché, as well as which writing techniques just plain don’t work when you’re writing a book.

Below, find a smattering of feedback from experienced literary agents on what they hate to see in the first pages of a writer’s submission. Consider this a guide on how to start a novel. Avoid these problems and tighten your submission!

Here are some of the worst ways to start a novel.

False beginnings

“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”
Cricket Freeman, The August Agency

“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

In science fiction

“A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Prologues

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

Exposition and description

“Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition – when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”
Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management

“The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress — with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves — sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

Starting too slowly

“Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”
Dan Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter One in which nothing happens.”
Jessica Regel, Foundry Literary + Media

In crime fiction

“Someone squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief — been done a million times.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

In fantasy

“Cliché openings in fantasy can include an opening scene set in a battle (and my peeve is that I don’t know any of the characters yet so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn’t realize how common this is).”
Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary

Voice

“I know this may sound obvious, but too much ‘telling’ vs. ‘showing’ in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me. The first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who and how.”
Emily Sylvan Kim, Prospect Agency

“I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story.”
Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary

“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.”
Daniel Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t like an opening line that’s ‘My name is…,’ introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. There are far better ways in Chapter One to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader.”
Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player.”
Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency

In romance

“In romance, I can’t stand this scenario: A woman is awakened to find a strange man in her bedroom — and then automatically finds him attractive. I’m sorry, but if I awoke to a strange man in my bedroom, I’d be reaching for a weapon — not admiring the view.”
Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

In a Christian novel

“A rape scene in a Christian novel in the first chapter.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Characters and backstory

“I don’t like descriptions of the characters where writers make them too perfect. Heroines (and heroes) who are described physically as being virtually unflawed come across as unrelatable and boring. No ‘flowing, wind-swept golden locks’; no ‘eyes as blue as the sky’; no ‘willowy, perfect figures.’ ”
Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency

“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them — it’s in their DNA.”
Adam Chromy, Movable Type Management

“I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story; a story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.”
Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.”
Rachelle Gardner, Books & Such Literary

This column is excerpted from Guide to Literary Agents, from Writer’s Digest Books. We updated this post in August 2019 so it’s more useful and relevant for our readers!

Photo via  Farknot Architect/ Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Craft
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280 comments

  • Allyn Lesley says:

    Very good post. A few I was aware of, and some I was not. This will be helpful to me in my writing.

  • Michele Clark Powell says:

    Sorry, but all I can focus on is the game/machine behind Chucks head in his headshot… keno…

    So the jist of it is to not use too many adjectives, keep the characters relatable physically and leave the majority of the details to unfold throughout the story.

    If only.

    • Heather van der Hoop says:

      Thanks for your comment, Michele. What other advice would you offer for beginning a novel?

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

  • Alan Garrett says:

    A lot of useful information thanks. But I don’t agree in skip out prologue. I think depending on story and setting I think prologue is a sensible option. Just setting the mood of your story and getting you intrigued.

    • Heather van der Hoop says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Alan. If a prologue feels right for your story, then you’re absolutely free to use one! You just might not want to send it to one of the agents who specifically noted their dislike for prologues 🙂

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

    • Zahra says:

      Hi. I don’t use prologues, but as a reader, I do like them. I even like epilogues! (*Ducks*).

      It’s difficult when agents tell you something you include in your writing makes them get stabby, but it’s best just to take the advice. After all, you want to give yourself the best chance, don’t you? We all know there are exceptions, but an exception is in a minority. Why take a chance on hitting an even smaller bullseye?

      • Nic Nelson says:

        Yes, Zahra! I like the metaphor of choosing the size of the bullseye you want to hit. I saw James Patterson mentioned a couple times as someone who “writes prologues and gets away with it.” E.Nesbit wrote long character/setting descriptions and got away with it, becoming hugely popular long after the Romantic Age writers’ windy style passed into disfavor. But those authors are like expert marksmen. Go ahead and take a shot at publication “their way” if you like, but I’ll pick some easier targets first to develop my skill. If I’m having trouble hitting the bigger bullseyes that are right up my alley (or target lane, so to speak), then I’m probably not ready for the itty bitty ones, despite how lucrative they may seem.

        Unless inspiration strikes, of course… but I need not tell you what’s languishing in my “Develop These Manuscripts” folder… 😉

  • Vance Rowe says:

    This article is filled with great advice but almost every “don’t do this” is how novels start out and is a little frustrating to read through. Especially the comments about descriptions and how someone doesn’t want to read about, for instance, how a woman has long flowing blonde hair and her skin is like alabaster. Her figure petite and a smile that that would brighten even the darkest of days, etc…

    I was always told to paint a picture of your characters so they can see them as they read. I agree there are some overboard descriptions and is not something you have to do with every character in your novel but some characters have to be descriptive so the reader can see them.

    However, when it comes to writing, I am my own my worst critic. If I read something I write, chances are I will hate it even though other people tell me it is good, and I throw it all away and start over. How can I combat this? Also, I have a problem with mixing up my tenses, past and present. For instance I will say something like “It WAS easy to see that his muscles WERE sinewy” instead of, “It IS easy to see that his muscles ARE sinewy.” I have to catch myself when I write like that.

  • Katie says:

    I hope there are exceptions to these. The end of the firat chapter the main character wakes up as if she was experiencing a dream. BUT that’s how every chapter ends. At least so far. She struggles with fishi MG out reality among the alternative universe she finds herself stuck in!

  • Brad Filippone says:

    Surely there are exceptions to many of these rules. The moment I read the one about not starting a book with “My name is…” I immediately thought of “Moby Dick” with its opening line of “Call me Ishmael.” And then I thought of “Great Expectations” which begins with the much more descriptive, “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”
    I agree with jumping right into the action, and “Great Expectations” is a great example. Following the self-naming paragraph quoted above, Dickens then gives us two brief paragraphs of Pip musing over his dead family members in the churchyard, before the convict accosts him and the action begins. It has always been one of my favorite novel openings.
    But speaking of Dickens, I wonder if his opening chapter for “A Tale of Two Cities” would pass muster with an agent today. It is beautifully written, (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc”), but merely describes the general mood of the period being written about, and the differences between the two cities.

    • Barbarann Ayars says:

      Love this response. We hear so much of what agents do or don’t like, determining what is unacceptable or refused by the reading public. Guidelines become hard and fast rules. Why? Because they say so? As you point out, in today’s world the great writers of the past would never be published, and look at the wonderful tales we’d miss. For years car companies dictated what cars we should like. The convertible was scrapped because someone said we no longer want it. Really. Worse, they ignored the clamor for convertibles! Ditto paint colors. Green took it in the neck, never mind the extreme popularity of jaguar green. When did I ever put a book down, saying, gee, what a lousy opening line?

  • Ronald Doss says:

    I know some editors seem to hate Prologues, but sometimes I think they are useful. They can be short and describe an event that happened before the situation in Chapter One, and in that person’s POV, someone we won’t hear from again in the whole book. If it’s only a page or two, not rambling for 20 pages, then I think it can be very appropriate. The trouble is that some prologues I’ve read do ramble, and you don’t need to read it before beginning Chapter One. But I dislike the dismissal of prologues out of sheer habit. Editors and agents are not infallible, and they may only be reflecting a prejudice picked up by someone who taught them. I say, it all depends…

  • darkocean says:

    Thank you for this blog, I completely redid the first chapter of my book because of this. You know what I like my story a lot more now too. 🙂 Also you should mention that the main action has to be with the main pov, in my first draft it had started with a secondary pov, and this was confusing the heck out of people reading it.

    I always looking for constructive criticism to help polish my book. I’d appreciate it if any of you would take a look at my book and help me spot grammar errors, spelling errors, areas laking in transition words/phrases, boring spots, and excessive prose.

    My book in on wattpad.com in the fantasy category with the title of Soul Tear. You have to join to be able to post critiques and comments. Proofreaders are also badly need in wattpad as most members are ignorant about their books being needed to be looked over by a proofreader and think they have to immediately have their works looked over by and editor before the draft is even finished!

    This isn’t just about my desire to have help with my book but for the other members too. As I think having some one edit a fledglings anthers rough draft before they have even really let it grow is damaging to their story’s.I to did this until i learned better from researching in Google.

    So, please come wattpad proofreaders you are needed. I’m very good at making banners, photo editing, backgrounds, & website layouts and offer one of those as payment to who ever is willing to read my story all the way through.

  • Bronx says:

    If one does not like prologues why not just skip reading it? If the story that follows the prologue is enjoyable, then what does it matter that a prologue was included?

    • Jan Foley says:

      Because a well-written prologue is part of the story. Skip it at your peril. You’ll spend a great deal of time galloping through the rest of the story and wondering what, why and who. A prologue is not ‘optional.’ All it signals is that the chapter will be different from the others in some significant way. (Different narrator, different time period, different location, etc.) Trust the author. They chose this way to tell their story. Give them a chance to do it.

      • claudiacv says:

        I absolutely agree, Jan. Trust the Author. If you like what you´re reading, stick with it. If not, no need to read any further. But don´t throw a book out the window just because there´s a sign that says Prologue at the beginning.

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