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

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

This column is excerpted from , from Writer’s Digest Books.

No one reads more prospective novel beginnings than .

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 it a guide on how to start a novel. Avoid these problems and tighten your submission!

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.”

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

In science fiction

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

worstwaystobegin

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.”

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”

“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!”

damntheprologue

Quick note from Chuck: I am now taking on clients as a . If your query or synopsis or manuscript needs a look from a professional, please consider my . Thanks!

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.”

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

“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.”

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.”

“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.”

In crime fiction

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

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).”

Quick note from Chuck: if you’re looking for a writing conference, perhaps one of these below is in your neck of the woods. I’ll be presenting at the following events in 2019:

  • Feb. 23, 2019: (New Orleans, LA)
  • March 2, 2019: (St. Paul, MN)
  • March 8, 2019: (Birmingham, AL)
  • March 9, 2019: (Atlanta, GA)
  • March 9, 2019: (Pittsburgh, PA)
  • March 29, 2019: (St. Louis, MO)
  • March 30, 2019: (Kansas City, MO)
  • April 13, 2019: (Charlotte, NC)
  • April 27, 2019: (Seattle, WA)
  • May 4, 2019: (near Detroit, MI)
  • May 4, 2019: (Los Angeles, CA)
  • May 11, 2019: (San Diego, CA)
  • May 18, 2019: (Cincinnati, OH)
  • June 8, 2019: (Tampa, FL)

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.”

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

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

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.”

In a Christian novel

“A rape scene in a Christian novel in the first chapter.”

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.’ ”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

Other TWL Guest Posts by Chuck Sambuchino:

  1. What Does a Literary Agent Want to See When They Google You?

  2. Tips for Pitching a Literary Agent at a Writers’ Conference

  3. Querying Literary Agents: Your Top 9 Questions Answered
Filed Under: Craft

Featured resource

Discover character creation techniques and crucial exercises in James Chartrand’s guide to creating characters that seem real all on their own.

278 comments

  • Jan Foley says:

    If there is anything that would put me off an agent faster than “I hate prologues” I can’t think what it would be.

    Prologues can serve many purposes. If the agent rejects a book based on the fact that it begins with a prologue—not on whether the prologue works or not—then I’m sorry. I’m not interested. I don’t want a prejudiced agent, and this silly prejudice against prologues really gets my goat. I’ve read many EXCELLENT books with prologues over my lifetime. The trick is to learn to write them well. They must be significant, and just as intriguing to read as any other chapter.

    There is a misconception that a prologue is like a preface or an introduction or a history lesson. It’s not. It’s a necessary part of a story. Skip it at your peril. The only thing a prologue signals is that the chapter will differ in some significant way from the other chapters in the book.

    Trust the author.

  • I do not understand the hatred of the prologue. Many novels have wonderful prologues that I as a reader absolutely love.

  • Larry Lou says:

    Great advice. Even the one on prologue. What are the chances of a beginner writing a great prologue or even just a mediocre one? So, better to avoid it.

    Wait till you write as well as Stephen King, then you can include a prologue, maybe even insert in between chapters nine and ten, just for the heck of it…

    • Jan says:

      I think I get where you’re coming from here, Larry Lou. However, I don’t entirely agree. The chances of a beginner writing any great story (without working to learn how to do it) are also slim. You wouldn’t suggest that people not bother to start writing, just because their writing might not be top-notch right out of the starting gate, would you?

      Avoiding writing prologues because you think it’s something a beginner can’t do just makes The Prologue achieve mythical status. A prologue is just like any other part of the book, really. Just learn what makes a good one, and write one if it fits your story structure.

      The folks who think you should just call your prologue Chapter One (that’s not you, Larry, btw) don’t understand what a prologue actually is, or what it’s used for. That’s the key, really. A prologue isn’t any more difficult to write than any story beginning. It’s just that you must understand what it’s for. That’s not hard to learn.

  • Sophie Wainwright says:

    I have an endless ideas tossing and turning in my head, fighting to be let loose. I see mountain peaks, I see forests, I see angels and I see dragons. But when I open a blank page, all I see is nothing. How do I transfer these images into words? Is that even possible?

    • Jan says:

      I’d say start by writing a scene that is vivid in your mind. Never mind trying to fit it into your story right away. Just write it down. You’ll be amazed at how your imagination takes flight once you’ve got one scene written.

      Many authors write scenes and chapters out of chronological order. Later on, when the story has taken firm shape, it’s easy to write more scenes to connect these scenes to the main story.

      If you’re not sure how or where to begin, just write what you see happening in these separate scenes. The story will take shape as you go. You don’t have to start at the beginning. In fact, until you know exactly where your story is going, it’s best to leave the beginning till later to write. The beginning launches your story in a particular direction, and until you know what direction that is, you won’t know what your beginning should be.

      Just start writing what you see and feel about a scene. It can help if you pretend you’re telling the story to somebody you know well. Somebody who will hang on your every word and who won’t be judgemental. That focus on a listener helps develop your storytelling voice, and makes it easier to start.

  • Lily says:

    What is automatically wrong with a rape scene in a Christian novel? It certainly grabs your attention. I can see lots of scenarios where that would work. Maybe it’s an inspiring story of someone who was conceived from a rape, maybe the story of the woman who raises a baby or gives it up for adoption, or has to decide whether to have an abortion or not. Just because it’s Christian doesn’t mean it has to be G-rated. Not all Christian books and movies are the Kirk Cameron style … some actually tell a good story!

  • Savannah says:

    I had like half a page or so of some backstory of how the character started her journey.. Is that too much? It’s just on how her people had left her and she couldn’t find life where she was at the time.. And then I jump into the story.

    • Jan Foley says:

      I’d say what you need to do is start with something that launches the story.

      If your character’s backstory is just ‘what went before’ —I was born, then I went to school, then I graduated and got a job—then I wouldn’t dump it on the reader at the start. UNLESS …you can pick out a significant incident from her past that was pivotal for your character, that made things change from what they otherwise would have been. That’s a very good place to start.

      Make it a scene that sparkles with life, that is just as interesting to read as the rest of the story. Work on creating emotional connections between your story’s start and your readers. Try not to turn it into a dull history lesson, about people the readers don’t yet know or care about.

    • Eddie T. says:

      If you MUST include a chapter one backstory or prologue my advice is SHOW me the money, don’t TELL me about the money. Show me why this matters, don’t tell me why it matters. Show me that the building gets blown to smithereens, don’t tell me that the building gets blown to smithereens because…

  • Wow, what a list. It could be pretty dispiriting at first, to read through the list and think ‘yep, done that. Yep, done that. Yep, dammit, done that too!’

    Ultimately though, the advice on this page will steer me away from cliche and improve my writing. For that I genuinely thank you! Shared.

  • Briana says:

    The last quote pretty much sums it up perfectly: you get to know someone over time, not all at once. I’ve never met (ok, maybe just once) a person who gives me a monologue about their life. Usually, it starts with a conversation, you have some sort of common ground with the person, and either a friendship takes off or you maintain acquaintance status. Or, if you’ve worked in customer service, you spill out a rant of mundane but friendly questions because you don’t really care to get to know the person, but you’re still not going to completely ignore them either. Anyway, everyone I’ve ever known really well I’m still learning about as life goes on. Some people have depression but not everyone who has depression is going to tell you that right off the bat. I think it’s healthy for an author to write out a backstory for each important character, but it’s equally unhealthy to slap it on the beginning of a novel. You have to equivocate those things and keep the reader interested by giving them only a smidgen of detail, enough to keep them going. If someone told me all about who they are, what they liked, and what they wanted to do in life, I’d probably roll my eyes and assume he/she was a narcissist.

    I think of a good biography when I think of how to tell a character’s story. Biographies are usually written for well-known people, and much of the details of their life are sort of a bonus to attach to what is known by the general public. A good biography might give a summary of what everyone already knows, but it hooks the reader by delving into a scene full of juicy literary goodness, and much of the time it’s a scene no one has had access to before.

  • Nancy says:

    Kenneth M. Get over yourself! That’s the best advice I can give you, all things considering.

  • Natalie S. says:

    My first novel had a prologue, and it worked just fine. I suppose whether you should or should not have a prologue depends on your story. Sometimes it is just a really bad way to put unnecessary chunks of backstory into your story.

  • Angela says:

    I have to agree a lot with these pieces of advice. While books that break these guidelines CAN be good, most of them aren’t. It’s not that they aren’t well written or that the story is no good. It’s just that it’s been overused. I’ve always been an avid reader. And I’ve read way more than my fair share of books. But after a while books with cliche openings and page-long details just get tiring. There’s thousands of books that are available, and if you don’t make your book special then chances are the readers are going to pick something else up. I think as a writer, sometimes you have to throw your pride and love for your story aside, and think ‘will this engage my reader?’

    Because it’s all ABOUT the reader. It’s about taking them along on a journey they’ve never been on before. It’s about them falling in love with your characters and your story. Sure, you can throw all advice aside, and write for yourself. But you’ll have to come to terms that everybody might not like it as much as you do. You made your characters so it’s easy for you to feel attached for them. You can drone on and on about how cool they are, and still love them. Readers don’t know them like that.

    After a while, I started putting down books that have similar openings. Why? Because I feel like they’re carbon-copies of other books. You don’t know how many books I’ve read that start off with someone waking up, getting ready, going to school, and two chapters later something interesting happens. Or someone dreaming. It’s actually come to the point where if I pick one of those books up, I almost automatically put it back down. I don’t have the attention span to read through gruesome and long details. I read to get away from real life. I don’t want to spend a hour reading about something I do to a day-to-day basis. And no matter how cool your character is I don’t want to see him sitting there contemplating life and his backstory. Give me action, or at least get the ball moving a little bit.

    I’m not some big-fancy macho editor or writer. I’m simply a reader. But if you want to appeal to readers, don’t be BORING. (Unless somehow you can incorporate being boring to the point it’s cool. I’ve seen that happen before.) And you don’t have to go to a full-blown action seen. A simple scene where a woman spills coffee on her pants and is worried because she has a date in a few minutes, is honestly more appealing to me than, “I HAD A DREAM ABOUT A GIANT BLACK BIRD IT SHOWS THE WORLD’S COMING TO AN END. I’M THE FREAKIN’ CHOSEN ONE!!” And then they wake up to their usual life and go through a boring routine.

    Basically, go wild. Don’t feel like you have to explain everything. If you love your story and characters enough, we’ll feel that. Show me conflict. Show me why your character is a hero. Show me why you made that character. Show me their struggles and hardships. Show me what true love is. Give me a story that will take me by surprise. Because YOU (writers-to-be) will hopefully bring me my next favorite book series. I’m counting on you guys to bring me good entertainment and exciting worlds. Just go for it! Don’t be afraid. And please for Pete’s sake, don’t start with a dream, waking up, or herb-gather. (It’s my biggest pet peeve.)

  • Tara says:

    I wonder if the agents that i have sent my work to even look at it? It would be nice to get some feedback even constructive. That way I could know why it is not desirable.

    I know everyone is writing fantasy right now but I believe in my work because this is the first story I have gotten past a paragraph of ideas before fizzling out. I wonder if I should just give up on submitting it and maybe join a writers club surrounded by people who will happily rip me and my work to shreds!

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