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 

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280 comments

  • Barabi says:

    This was a really interesting read! I’d have to disagree on the character descriptions dump deal, though. I can’t stand it when books don’t give an upfront description of their characters. There’s nothing worse than getting to chapter 23 and realizing you still don’t even know the protagonist’s eye color. You’ve made up your own character in your head by then, and it’s so off-putting when they finally reveal what they look like because they’re often completely different than the image you made up. It shouldn’t take more than a chapter to thoroughly explain what the hell they look like.

    • Scott Rhoades says:

      I have to admit that I don’t care about the main character’s eye color or hair color or height or shoe size or most other descriptive traits unless they are important to the story. I prefer writers who let me fill in–or even create–details. What I don’t like is when an author doesn’t give me basic info, or clues to basic info, such as gender or age, and I assume something important that I later find out is wrong. It’s frustrating to think I’m reading about an adult man and discover it’s a teenaged girl and then have to go back and rethink any assumptions I made while reading so far.

      I’ve read manuscripts where I still didn’t know whether the character was male or female, young or old, several pages into the book, so I had no idea whose story I was reading. But something like eye color is unimportant to me in real life unless it’s character defining, and the same is even more true in fiction.

      Some traits tell me something important about the character. For example, wearing clothes from a specific designer (or avoiding anything that looks like designer clothing) gives me important information about the character beyond how well (or poorly) dressed she is, and a talented, experienced writer might use that description to create an expectation that gets used in interesting, unexpected ways.

  • Don says:

    I don’t get what this is all about— everybody knows the best way to begin a novel
    is:
    “It was a dark and stormy night.”

  • Maggie says:

    I realize this is an old post but I had a question and l found this post one of the better ones for what not to do.
    I am currently writing what I hope to be a fantasy novel. No epic trilogies or anything, just a one village setting story. Anyway, a main plot point is that characters’ memories (and eventually the characters themselves) are starting to fade. I had originally started with a brief (like half a page) ‘dream’ sequence that is very obviously a dream. Main character wakes from this and has already forgotten. The dream is a bit of her memory, and dialogue in the dream is responsible for later plot development.

    My questions:
    Is this setup annoying/cliched/common?
    Even if it allows for later plot development?
    If I choose to keep this opening, is there anything I should avoid because it’s too cliched/common/etc?

    Anyway I realize this might not get a response, but since I’ve never seriously tried to write a book like I am now I’m curious.

    Thanks! 🙂

  • Vance says:

    I hate when books and movies start off with the protagonist dying and the rest of it is about his/her life up to this point. If I know the protagonist dies in the first paragraph or first ten minutes of the movie, it tuns me off to finishing it. Do not kill off protagonist until the end of the story.

  • Sheila Lewis says:

    I love the advice from all of you about opening chapters. However, there is a balance. On the advice of one editor, I threw out a back story in my children’s novel, only to have another editor tell me she felt she needed some back story. Finally, I feel just enough has been woven in. Keeping the “what happens next” momentum seems key
    no matter what. Thank you! Sheila Lewis

  • Skylar says:

    This has helped a lot. I am guilty of a backstory in the beginning. I know what I need to fix now!

  • cody tebbetts says:

    I am thinking of writing my own novel based on fantasy. my fav books are Eragon percy jackson volume 1 and 2 and many others im 17 thinking of becoming a novelist can u guys give me some tips please

    • A. C. Spahn says:

      Ten things I wish someone had told me about writing at 17:

      1. Make sure you have a good backup plan. Even successfully published authors often have day jobs to pay the bills.

      2. Don’t write because you want to “be a writer” or “have written a book.” Write because you have a story to tell or a message to convey. Preferably both at the same time.

      3. Read everything, especially things that seem too hard. This is how you expand your imagination.

      4. Writing is work. Sit in the chair and write, even when you really would rather do something else. “Inspiration” is a lie.

      5. Your first draft will be terrible. Don’t get discouraged.

      6. Actively seek criticism, especially from harsh critics. It will hurt, and then you’ll learn to get over it.

      7. Listen to criticism. Ignore the “they just don’t get it” impulse.

      8. Learn from criticism. Sometimes a piece of writing can’t be saved. That’s okay. Move on and write better the next time around.

      9. If your story could easily be transplanted into an existing scifi or fantasy universe with no story lost, you have written a fanfiction, not a novel. (It’s okay. Everybody writes these, but after that you have to graduate to having new ideas, or new spins on old ideas.)

      10. Don’t take any one source of advice too seriously. 😉

      Hope this helps! Best of luck.

      • Dua Khan says:

        That was a very informative piece of advice, I have to admit. I am currently writing a novel but now I would rather call it ‘fanfiction’ as your point no. 9 says. And this made me think. I did add this ‘other universe thing’ and fantasy and all that, so I would just thinking that do I continue with writing it? Or leave it mid-way?

        Thanks

        • A. C. Spahn says:

          Glad you found my comment helpful. I don’t want to offer advice about your story without knowing anything about it. I can tell you that books that start out generic can grow into original creations once the writer thinks of that “hook” that makes their fantasy/scifi world unique. So there’s still potential. I’d ask some trusted beta readers what they think. 🙂

          • Dua Khan says:

            Well, I have read a lot of fantasy and science fiction books that quite made an impression upon me. They had a theme and a lesson and a story to guide it through. Specifically, I am inspired from their writings, the reason why I was encouraged to write. So, maybe, just maybe, there’s a tiny wee bit chance to write something of use.

          • A. C. Spahn says:

            Best luck. 🙂

          • Dua Ali says:

            Thanks!

      • Jan says:

        I like this list a lot. Your advice of how to seek and take criticism is spot-on, especially the initial impulse to say ‘you don’t get it.’ No, they probably didn’t …but why? Maybe because the writing needs some work? That’s what feedback is for. To tell you what didn’t work.

        I’d add this idea to your Number 3 tip: In addition to sparking your imagination, reading voraciously gives you an ‘eye’ and an ‘ear’ for what written stories look and sound like.

        I’m constantly amazed at seeing posts from wannabe authors who never read, but saw some TV show they liked and now they want to be writers. They haven’t a clue, and end up creating a bunch of talking heads with no inner life at all. They need to learn how to create vivid pictures using nothing but words, and they’re not going to do that watching TV.

  • Tori says:

    How are you suppose to start a story? I am a novice, so some more help would be amazing!

    • Connie says:

      Logic says at the beginning but what does logic know? 🙂

      I guess many people plot their story out, I don’t. I just start writing when I get an idea. I let the story go where it wants. It’s how it works for me. That start point may be the beginning but it could equally be somewhere in the middle.

      Sometimes the idea works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I never discard anything.

      Go somewhere you can relax and let you mind wander where it will but make sure you have notepads and pens/pencils to hand. When something pops up, write it down exactly as it comes to you. It’s a first draft. You can polish it later. If you have a powerful dream you can clearly remember next morning, write it down exactly as you remember it. Let the story grow from there. The research to ensure it’s plausible and possible comes later.

    • Vance says:

      I was told by an author to “have the roof fall in” in the first two or three pages. Have something big happen to grab your reader and make him/her want to find out what happens next.

  • Patricia Guthrie says:

    I would like permission to post this onto my blog. It’s an exceptional piece, and I think my readers would love it.

    Of course, you will get great praise and recognition.

    http://www.paguthrie.blogspot.com

    • Heather van der Hoop says:

      Feel free to post a short excerpt and link back to the full text here, Patricia!

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

  • Tionna.Watson says:

    I think that a prologue can help a person understaand the story more. It lets them no what is going on, why something is happening, and could even give away a lot of what will happen. I’ve been reading since I was in 5th grade and and have been writing since 7th grade. I’m a freshmen in highschool and I do believe that a prologue should be in every book. You don’t even have to read it anyway, just skip it if you want to, but besides that prologues can help out a lot. So that shouldn’t be something you shouldn’t put in a book.

    • Rosannie says:

      You have a point. I think it depends in how the prologue is written, because when it’s done correctly, it can be really interesting! Some amazing books have prologues- Eragorn, for one, and chapter one of Harry Potter is practically a prologue anyway.

  • Patricia A. Guthrie says:

    Hi,

    I enjoyed reading these comments from literary agents. Bless them for sharing. I’m sure they don’t want to read a myriad of bad novel beginnings they’ll have to pitch.

    One thing, as a reader, I do not agree with. That is, the prologue. I’ve read many well-done prologues and it helps establish me, as the reader, into the mind of the character. If I am to follow the main characters, I love to know his memories of a perfectly awful time in his life. Without (hopefully, a suspense and tension filled) prologue I’d be poorer not knowing where “he/she is coming from” emotionally.

    I’ve been told by many in the business–don’t write a prologue. Make it chapter one. Hmm. A prologue is a prologue is a prologue no matter what you call it. It takes place before the story action. Or, a prologue can be what happened centuries ago or is happening across the world.

    Then, I read some prologues from some of the masters of thrillers/suspense/horror. Just to see what I really felt about prologues: James Rollins, The Eye of God. He has a prelude of a map and Historical Notes with the last sentence: “The date for the end of the world…it’s in four days.” Chilling. I’m all about “on with the story.”

    Stephen King doesn’t have a prologue per say. In The Stand, he has a Preface in two parts. First part to be read before you purchase the book. The second part we see in the movie. Where Charlie and Mary leave the army base in California headed east. If we know anything about The Stand that is a necessary part of the story. Mr. King writes it before Book 1. So, in my mind that’s a prologue.

    So, to me, a prologue should be “in your face” action that happens in the past or present, but leads me to the main dish. The novel.

    I wish literary agents would take another look at what a prologue can and should do vs the tons of bad prologues that do cheat.

    Thank you for listening. Loved the comments.

    • Jan Foley says:

      Well said. I totally agree.

      I don’t think new authors should be encouraged to pander to this silly prejudice against prologues, simply because agents have encountered some that are unnecessary info-dumps. Instead, new authors should learn the purpose of prologues, and learn to write them well.

      I imagine agents have also encountered bad Chapter Ones, but we’re not being told to just ‘start with Chapter Two’ are we?

    • Jan Foley says:

      I just ran across a suggestion about writing prologues that makes sense to me. Write your prologue LAST. In other words, write the story without one. Then if you still feel you need one, by all means write it.

      That’s what I did for my own novel, and I feel it turned the story around. My prologue contains an inciting incident in my main character’s past, that I had originally written as a ‘big reveal’ at the end of the story.

      The ‘big reveal’ at the end of the story, didn’t work very well.

      My main character is not the POV character. The other characters don’t know why he behaves as he does. Before I wrote the prologue, my beta readers were getting impatient, saying “what’s WITH this guy? Why is he acting so weird?”

      However, since I wrote the prologue, the READER now knows why, even if the other characters don’t. His behaviour is no longer a mystery to be solved. Instead, the reader watches how my MC copes with his past, and understand the pressures he’s under in the present. And of course, waits for it all to go pear-shaped when the past ‘returns’ …which it does. The difference to the story flow, once I added the prologue, was immense.

      • Eddie T. says:

        I can relate to Jan’s comment about writing prologues last. I wrote a 300 page (at that time) ghost story, and the ghost first appeared on page 50. A confused beta reader handed the manuscript back after 35 pages and said, “where’s the ghost?” This told me two things. 1) I needed a prologue to introduce the ghost to the story. 2) I had too much fluff in those first 50 pages that were not moving the story forward. So, I added a prologue and whittled 20 of those first 50 pages. As a result, the novel is better for it.

        A prologue is not a publishing Kiss of Death if done right. If you absolutely have to have a chapter one prologue, I have a creative way to look at it:

        Think of the prologue as a striptease. You want to reveal just enough to the reader in all the right places at all the right times. Keep me interested in what comes next. Reveal too slowly, and I’m going to get bored and go home without putting a single one of my fistful of five dollar bills in those spandex panties. Reveal too fast and I’m going to be in a state of shock wondering what just happened and why. No five dollar bills for you, either.

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