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

  • Erika says:

    This might seem like a weird question but, I am beginning to write a new book and am looking for tips on how to make it faster to go back and fill details or background, for example if I am developing my character and there is a certain trait or thing about him or an even he is involved in do you use any symbols or standouts ( for a lack of a better term) to kind of mark that spot so I can find it more easily when Im going back to fill those details in.

    Thank you

  • jess says:

    I am writing a novel. I have the bomb ass idea but I’m stuck. I don’t know where I’m stuck. I like the backstory but I don’t want it to turn out as boring. Please help?

    • Hey Jess,
      Thanks for raising your hand here (so to speak). You really aren’t looking for an agent right now, you’re looking for training/learning/practice/truly helpful feedback.
      Call Wordsmith Writing Coaches (323-694-3191) for a free consultation about the novel-writing process and the writing process in general (there are lots of other writing coaches out there, many are good)… but it sounds to me like reading a few books about writing might be a great place for you to start.
      Randy Ingermanson’s “Writing Fiction for Dummies” is truly excellent despite the silly name, and you can get it for $12 or less. I’m a fan of Larry Brooks too (Storyfix.com)— his books “Story Engineering” and “Story Physics” are excellent. So is any book at all that’s written by James Scott Bell— his novels, and his books about how to write novels. I found Stephen King’s well-known book “On Writing” to be a fascinating memoir but not so helpful in practical ways, and you sound like you’re looking for practical advice.
      I hope this helps!

  • Dear Ma’am,
    I wanted an agent to tell me whether descriptions of the weather are fine in the third chapter and after that or not.
    Thanking you,
    Sreyoshi.

  • Terry J. Mason says:

    To a book lover these comments are a Gestalt of whining, spoilt children with ADHD, impatient, immature, with the attention span of a mayfly. Strangers to subtlety, nuance or pace and yet purport to call themselves “literary” agents. IMO readers who lacks the stamina, discipline and patience to unpick a story should stick to comic books. A “literary” agent who cannot handle prologues is like a veterinarian who cannot stand fur; we could shave our pets before taking them there, but why should we? Why not just go to a vet that can handle the job? The problem appears to be generational; anyone under 60 nowadays has probably been raised on a diet of pre-digested, pre-packaged, pre-excreted food, entertainment, sitcoms and “Zap! Bang!” comics that jaded tastes and dulled minds. Yet, explosive beginnings are often nothing more than preambles to unsavoury outcomes, with inevitable attendants: flatulence and bad odour. :oD

    A combination of a crowded publishing market and tight bottom-line are probably to blame. Publishers now employ fewer editors and reject direct submissions, forcing authors to go to a Literary Agent, whom they then have to pay out 15-20% of their paltry 7.5-8% royalties. Smart move, only, Agents are completely unknown entities to authors, and mostly only interested in work they know they can sell fast, no matter how much they enthuse about wanting work they love. By the time an author has had to research a long list of Agents to decide which are serious, professional and have a high rate of success, then submit to 4-5 at a time, waiting weeks, even months to get the inevitable rejection, they may as well spend the time, energy and money on self-publishing and going around to bookshops to try and sell their own work.

    EXCEPT… for the fact that major publishing houses have stitched that up too, threatening large bookshops with refusing to supply them, if they stock books by self-published authors. Because, if bookshops had their own readers to help them select which authors and titles to stock, printers would give self-publishing authors halfway decent deals, and shops, printers and authors – who do the actual work! – would make money, not publishers and agents.

    Regrettably, many agents, whose attention span is more suited to Twitter than Thackeray, and tastes more inclined to E. L. James than Mary Renault – will prefer “zany” books. So, does that condemn us readers to a diet of pap or [email protected]? Hmmm.. interesting question. While there are still a few adults in the world of literary agents, maybe not, but once that generation retires, we may be stuck with those who can only “shown-not-tell”, their text-speak and Twitter-sized imagination.

    Few publishers nowadays love the craft enough to publish new, fresh, intelligent work. Mostly they are little more than grocers, let by readers’ tastes that, in turn, are shaped by a poor diversity of bookshop offerings, in spite of a crowded marketplace. Agents filter out potentially serious authors, in favour of the literary equivalent of comfort food. In such a landscape authors who take a gamble on deciding for themselves what is appropriate for their novels will increasingly struggle to get read, while derivative writing that borders on plagiarism and takes to the pond of lowest common denominators like proverbial ducks to water, thrive.

    In Ecology this is called “simplification”. Vigorous species out-compete more delicate, slower-growing organisms, reducing diversity. And so we readers are left with a dull market of “zany” clones, few of which tell a new story, or elucidate an old one. Today the work of Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Arundhati Roy would struggle to limbo under the impossibly low lintels of most Literary Agencies.

  • This post might be an oldie, but it’s definitely goldie!
    I am beta reading a novel for a fellow writer and I think his story has an amazing potential in it. But he made several of these mistakes in his first chapters, and I was looking for resources to go along with my comments so he doesn’t feel attacked when I point them out to him. I mean, I myself had to learn all that the hard way. I have to fix some of those things in my WIP! This post has pretty much saved my life. Thank you!

    • Tess says:

      I have started writing a novel, but I was wondering, where do you write your book? I am currently using google docs, but I think I want to use some thing different.

  • Nik Morton says:

    Prologues can work, especially if used with an epilogue – like bookends of a story. They can create mystery or provide foreknowledge that may threaten the main protagonists. A good prologue has to involve the reader, however, as does every chapter beginning.

  • Connor says:

    I’m a young writer (only 11 years old) but I have a huge vocabulary and a gift for writing. I am currently writing my first book “The (not so) Perfect Family” it should be out on amazon mid 2018! It is going to be an Ebook, so it won’t be as long as your typical novel. Does anyone have any tips?

  • BookCrush says:

    I’m agree with a few editors comments here. But not all. This days people is “all fast”, we have fast food and microwaves, fast cars, etc. But ” fast books?” must to be punished. When someone said, “I dont like descriptions”, for me is a lazy reader/writer. I really dont care if we are living in modern times. For that I appreciate more the clasics. TLOR is too descriptive and hard to read, and for that is the most amazing book on fantasy. Read The Miserables, The Quixote, or another kind like that, really open my mind.
    Editors are important, but even their opinion is based in their own preference. I am a reader which like several thing they ” hate”. An any writer, must to do it, based in his own instint, dont think if a “editor” will love/hate his work.
    Of course, I believe any draft is just that, and everything must to be evaluated, if need a change, just do it. I love “Florid” writing, and I dont care how many another people dont. That is why classic are classic, and how many modern books now, are forget when a new one come out.

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