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September 18, 2014

First Pages: Tips to Avoid Cliches and Weak Writing

Blank book open to first page with text: What's on Your First Page?

As we discussed two weeks ago, many stories “strike out” with readers in the first chapter. Jefferson Smith confirmed that fact in his Immerse or Die challenge, and I’ve found that with my usage of Amazon’s Look Inside feature as well. So our opening pages can be just as critical to sales as our book cover, title, back-cover blurb, etc.

That’s a lot of pressure on a few thousand words, and we might struggle with finding the right balance of action, characterization, setting, and description to hook readers. Nowhere is that pressure higher than on the first page itself, so let’s take a closer look at clichés to avoid and tips to make those pages work for us.

A Disclaimer on First Drafts

Before I dig into this post, I want to point out that we often won’t come up with the perfect opening pages during our first draft. I write by the seat of my pants, so I don’t know where my story is going when I start drafting.

Without that knowledge of the ending, conflicts, and themes I’m going to explore throughout the story, it’s near impossible to emphasize the right elements on the first page. That’s okay. That’s what later drafts are for. *smile* Our goal for a first draft might just be to get it close enough that we don’t send the whole story off in the wrong direction.

First, Decide on Our Opening Scene

I’ve talked before about how we can figure out where to start our story, and as I mentioned there:

“Whether it’s part of a prologue or not, an opening scene should:

  • have a similar point-of-view (POV) style as the rest of our story (i.e., not omniscient unless the rest of the story is),
  • at least give hints to how this event ties into the main story and characters (i.e., how this event can/will affect them),
  • present a problem, dilemma, or choice to act as a “now what?” hook for the reader,
  • start at the scene when something first happens that will drag the protagonist into the main story conflict,
  • be directly relevant to the story now (i.e., not just backstory), and
  • feel like a concrete, specific scene that makes sense and has context.

Opening scenes aren’t about setting up the character and their situation. Beginnings are about setting up elements of the story’s conflicts. Readers will learn about the character and their situation along the way.

That means we have to decide how we’re going to get from Point A (the opening image) to Point B (the Inciting Incident that kicks off the story). Often this means trying to move Point A as close to Point B as possible, starting just before something happens to the protagonist that forces a change or decision.”

Now, Let’s Talk about the First Page

Once we know our opening scene, we can start working on the first page. The first page isn’t just about deciding when to start that opening scene, but also about how to start that scene.

When might mean deciding whether we start before or after this piece of action or dialogue. How might mean deciding whether we start “zoomed out” or “zoomed in,” or with a line of dialogue, description, action, or character internalization.

Many of those choices come with clichés or issues to watch out for, so let’s take a deeper look at some of the typical openings, their problems, and how we might still be able to make them work.

Clichés and Issues in First Pages

*Clears Throat* Prologues

Prologues are often a lazy way to start our story, but I’m not anti-prologue (I’ve written them *smile*). The problem is that too many prologues are unrelated to the first chapter, a backstory information dump, or lacking in stakes or a hook. We’re essentially asking the reader to start our story twice. See below for the False Start issue too.

Tip: If we include one, we have to make sure the prologue helps our story. Then we have to ensure our prologue avoids the cliché problems of not being a concrete scene or not being relevant to the story now, etc. Good prologues can work.

Is This Real or Just a False Start?

This category includes all the techniques that “cheat” readers. Some stories have readers connect to a character who dies at the end of the scene, and others use a scene that turns out to be a dream. In all these cases, the reader might feel misled, disconnected from the story, or confused about the kind of story this is going to be.

Tip: Some genres can use these techniques and still meet reader expectations, but most genres should watch out. Like with prologues, we want to make sure this scene is actually the best place to start the story. We need to know what we’re trying to accomplish and ask if this false start scene is the right way to make that happen.

He Grasped the Life-and-Death Action

We might think that having a character clinging to the side of a cliff would be attention-grabbing for readers. But without context, without knowing the character at all, readers aren’t going to care.

Tip: We can make action-filled scenes work if we include context right away so readers know who the character is and why they should care. After analyzing 70 stories, Stina Lindenblatt found that the two-paragraph openings she liked best contained a combination of introspection and action. Introspection makes us curious about the character, and action makes us curious about the situation, conflict, or problem.

“Who Says This Line of Dialogue?”

A while back, it was trendy to start a story with dialogue. When done well, this technique can be intriguing enough to drag readers into the next paragraph. When done poorly, it’s confusing and uninteresting. The trend went out of favor because there were too many examples of the latter.

Tip: Like starting with action, we can make this work if we give readers context right away. Dialogue with no information about the speaker, listener, or situation is just confusing. Also, that line of dialogue needs to be really compelling.

Buzz, Buzz… Wake Up!

Alarm clock or no, any technique that starts a story with a character just waking up is a cliché, and worse, our first moments are rarely the most interesting of our day. No one wants to read about someone getting ready for school or work, no matter how important that day might be later on (first day of school, etc.). Start where it gets interesting.

Tip: We can make this cliché work if we also create interest right away. The first line of Hunger Games contrasts what Katniss expects with what she discovers: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” That hint of a problem pulls us to the next line, where the family’s situation gives us someone to care about. By the end of the first paragraph, we know something bad is about to happen: “This is the day of the reaping.”

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

A lazy and cliché way to introduce a character is to have them look in a mirror. There’s almost no end to the ways this demonstrates weak writing. In addition to being lazy and cliché, it’s also boring (looking in a mirror doesn’t contain enough action or a goal for a first page) and creates a distant and/or cheesy POV. Normal people don’t look at themselves in a mirror and think “Yep, that’s my x-colored eyes and my y-colored hair.” Also, a character’s appearance simply isn’t important enough to justify space on the first page. Unless their appearance is the story, it shouldn’t take up space that can be used for real character development and conflict.

Tip: There are ways to use mirrors in a story opening in a unique way. The opening of Divergent uses a mirror to create a sense of mystery: “There is one mirror in my house.” Why only one? The next two lines add to the mystery, as readers wonder why the mirror is hidden, and why they are allowed to use the mirror only once every three months. In other words, if we use a mirror in a truly unique way and not just to share what our character looks like, we might be able to get away with this technique.

Blunt Force Foreshadowing

This category includes all of those “If I only knew…” type of openings. Twilight opens this way, with a Preface that copies a couple of paragraphs from later in the book to appear before the first chapter. This technique admits that the opening pages or chapters are boring and so throws in a bone for later: Stick with this. It gets better. Really. But just because we might be able to “get away with” something doesn’t mean this style would be the strongest opening for our story.

Tip: This technique can also feel like a False Start if there’s too big of a disconnect between the opening and the follow-up paragraphs. Just like with a prologue, it would probably help if we include hints of how the story elements tie together.

Blah, Blah, Blah Information Dump

This category covers every opening with too much information that isn’t needed this very second. Space on our opening pages is at a premium, and only the most important information should earn a spot. Setting descriptions, weather details, character backstory, historical/political backstory, etc. should be layered into the story, not dumped on the reader in a chunk of information that interrupts the story flow. In addition, most information dumps are filled with telling and not showing. Telling passages in an opening can create a distance that fails to entice a reader.

Tip: A lot of writers start with broad setting openings to give readers an overview (trying to avoid confusion) and then zoom in on what’s important, much like a movie-style wide-angle scene zooming in on a character, but that style of opening tends toward static, telling description. We can avoid dumping unimportant information by starting a story with a narrow focus instead and then slightly zooming out to show the character involved. The narrow focus ensures that the information we’re sharing is relevant to the story in the here and now.

All that said, we shouldn’t panic if the opening of our story includes one of these elements. As I noted, there are ways we can make them work for us. Personally, I have a prologue for one of my stories, I have a character waking up in chapter one after that prologue, and a character looks in a mirror in the opening scene of one of my other stories.

If we try to avoid every questionable element, we’ll be left with no options (and just create new clichés when our approach becomes trendy). The point is that if we understand what makes these approaches weak, we can work to avoid those specific problems.

Yes, it can be risky to include a cliché element. Just as we’ve heard from some editors and agents in regards to prologues, people might assume we can’t pull it off. So we should start with asking whether our opening is the best choice for our story. Afterward, if we decide to proceed despite the risk, we can at least ensure it’s the most unique and compelling first page we can create. *smile*

Do you disagree with the idea that we can make clichés less problematic? What stories can you think of that work despite using one of these elements? What other first page clichés can you think of? Are there ways to make that cliché work anyway? Do you have any of these problematic elements in your stories, and if so, how did you make it work? Do you especially enjoy or hate any of these clichés?

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45 Comments on "First Pages: Tips to Avoid Cliches and Weak Writing"

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Mary Anders
Mary Anders

Excellent piece and very timely too. I’ve been struggling with rewriting the first chapter of my current MS. I’m trying to balance creating an exciting hook and bringing the reader right into the action with giving the reader some sense of setting/world/character so they care before the bullets go flying. This gives me some important things to think about.

Loni Townsend

On the topic of infodumping, what is your opinion of using flashbacks early in the story?

Amanda

Great advice! I’ve done a couple of these things – starting with dialog, looking in the mirror – and while I don’t know if I did them well enough to be considered unique, I liked them enough to keep them that way, and my beta readers didn’t have any complaints.

I was stuck on how to start a story recently and tweeted about it. Rhonda Helms answered – start with a bang. And I realized I’d done that before, too. You know what? It’s still great advice. Even if the story doesn’t have what I’d think are traditional “bang” elements (romantic suspense, paranormal, urban fantasy) you can still have that moment of tension right up front – whether it’s your h/h running into each other (literally) or your ER nurse heroine running out to meet the ambulance.

(And yes, I’ve used both of those examples, too 🙂 )

Anne R. Allen

Excellent advice. I’m writing a post this week on things that red-flag newbie novels. I include a lot of these cliches, too. I’ll link to this post!

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)
I’m facing a similar challenge with not making a scene cliche but read right. It’s not a “First Page” scene, but nevertheless it’s TRICKY! There’s a scene in my debut novel GABRIEL where I have to get my title character (a rat) to communicate with large group of humans, yet I don’t want to drag the scene down, and this is an area where being too vague can be MORE annoying to a potential reader than the “dreaded flashback” IMHO. The more I think about it, the more I KNOW a guide for writer’s of animal fantasy is needed, and I NEED to write it, because these are things writers of other genres don’t always have to face, or they’re using more classic (arguably cliched) approaches that people have seen enough to at least accept at face value. Bully for those of us who want to do something different! (Growls…) My editor brought up the issue of not having the people involved more suspicious of Gabriel being able to talk, and all I can say is that I’m probably not as quick to “suspect trickery” as most people, which contributes to why my “Suspension of Disbelief” threshold is WAY HIGHER than the average reader… I also thought I made it clear why they’re willing to believe rats can talk, but I guess not… Before I go on, I just want to say I DO AGREE with my editor on this, but I just don’t want to have the “Collegiate Scholar… Read more »
Deborah

This is a really helpful article. I am a writing teacher and an editor, and it’s great to have something that covers the importance of the beginning in such a clear and compelling way. Thanks! 🙂

Carradee
I’m coming up on the end of drafting A Fistful of Life, and I’ve been mulling a bit on the sequel. I know the overarching goals for PoV and what the story will show (though I’m unsure how, exactly, all the major threads will weave together), but I’ve been unsure how to even start it. It’s going to have 5 PoVs. If I’m to make it consistent with the rest of the series, those will all be first person, present tense. That’s five different females, in first person present tense, with one of them living 20-ish years before the others. O.O It’s ambitious. Aaand I’ve committed to it being one of my “First Draft Fridays” projects on Wattpad. *gulps* But as it happens, I commented to a friend on IM today, that I had no idea how to start the story—and then got hit with inspiration for how to start it. I’ll know later in the writing process if my idea will be the final opening, but it’ll work for now. I’m the edit-as-I-go kind of writer, so usually there isn’t much difference between the original and final draft. A bit more detail, a bit of adjusted verbiage, a bit of smoothed out content, a few scenes added here and there. Otherwise? Much the same. But sometimes I struggle with a story and realize, as I did more recently with one: …This short story I’m struggling with is actually roots for 3 different short stories. I’ve since teased the various… Read more »
Kirsten

Wow, another great post! 🙂
I love the examples you used, because I immediately thought about the mirror at the beginning of Divergent and how well that worked. In contrast, there’s a mirror near the beginning of Twilight that stopped an already slow story in its tracks for me.
For me, if I can relate to a character from the first page, any other cliche is okay by me. My favorite beginning lately has to be The Fault in Our Stars, because though it seemed very little actually ‘happened’ (the protagonist is watching America’s Next Top Model, I believe) I fell in love with her immediately. I was in for the entire story after reading one page. 🙂
My least favorite beginnings are ones where there is a bit of action, and then the action stops to introduce the character and drop in a bit of backstory. I always think, “But wait, wasn’t our protagonist in danger a moment ago? Why am I learning about her childhood now?”
Great job slicing and dicing the dos and don’ts of the first few pages!

Cathe Swanson
Cathe Swanson

I found a link to one of your article on Pinterest a while ago and have been enjoying your articles. This one is very interesting and helpful.

I particularly appreciate this: “Before I dig into this post, I want to point out that we often won’t come up with the perfect opening pages during our first draft.” not because I am a seat-of-the-pants writer but because I am an outliner. I generally know where I am going, but I tend to get paralyzed at the beginning of my stories because I want it to be perfect and don’t think I should proceed until I have the opening just right.

Robin
Robin

Thanks for the great post! 🙂
I moved the first scene of my current WiP several times… It’s a historical fantasy, set in about an 1850’s level of technology. I ended up starting with 4 (very brief) letters between the two protagonists, establishing a mail order bride scenario, then I start into the meat of the story (about 600 words in) with my MC going straight from her mother’s funeral to the train station, and off to her new adventure.

I have (of course) heard many warnings against using a “prologue” – but the immediacy of the letters seems to work for my beta readers. Also, it provided the opportunity for each of the MCs to describe themselves in their own words so I avoided the need for a mirror scene. 🙂

Julie Musil

I think most of these “could” work if done really well. But since I’m not an expert who can make chiches work, I’m better off avoiding them.

I’m in a tough revision right now. I’ve been gutting the opening chapter, and I’ll be back at it today. You’re right…it’s prime real estate.

Glynis Jolly

Red October starts out with oodles of info. I’m not interested in. Even in the movie, this is when I go get my popcorn.

I’m starting off a story with characters other than the protagonist. It’s the start of the action and, I think, gets the reader ready for the action and reaction the protagonist will give when I do introduce her.

I see many stories start out with the main character, but when I think about real life, the person that is most effected usually doesn’t waltz in until a little later.

What are your thoughts on this?

Candace Colt

Great discussion. Using Kindle’s sample pages has been a clinic in and of itself. I use it to check out first pages and sample first lines. Makes me think about how my novel would look if it was a sample. Would I like it enough to buy it? I plan to load the first chapter of my novel as a PDF in my Kindle documents just to see what it looks like. This was a great idea-starter post!

Liz

Visiting from Anne Allen’s blog. This is very timely for me as well as I’m trying to start a new project. I’m trying to do a “character returning home” without it seeming cliche. I’ve got my work cut out for me. I think I’ll take your advice and just press on and circle back later. Thank you!

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[…] First Pages: Tips to Avoid Cliches and Weak Writing – Some good advice on how to craft a strong first page. […]

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[…] The difficulty comes when we have to describe our POV character. As I mentioned in my post about weak writing: […]

Luka-Micheala
Luka-Micheala

Thanks for the help! I actually see a few of these mistakes and issues in my own writing. I guess it’s time to open a new document and start from the beginning.

Mary Jean Adams

One of the things I hate/love about my publisher is that they insist on the hero and heroine meeting within the first chapter, ideally within the first six pages. The very first manuscript I sent in had them meeting on page 1 or so. I had to rewrite it. But, as much as I hated doing it, I’ll admit it made the story much better.

I’m on book #4 with them and I’ve finally earned the right to bend the rules a bit. I have a prologue. (I know. Normally I hate them, too.) In this case, the heroine is waiting for her turn at the guillotine as she’s watching her snake of a husband get beheaded. Incidentally, the time period is the French Revolution. I don’t actually have the hero and the heroine “meet” until the 2nd chapter. In the first chapter, he’s too busy trying to figure out how to save her.

BTW, I haven’t done the alarm clock, but I have used the mirror. (Yikes!) It was vital to setting up the action, so hopefully, I did it in a way that was at least a little compelling and not just an excuse to describe my heroine. 🙂

Laura
Laura

Hi Jami,
I have been scratching my head for an opening sentence for a while now, and came up with this:
‘She held her gun in an iron grip, fingers tense against the trigger.’

Do you think this is intriguing enough to drag the readers onto the sentences that follow?
Thanks, Laura

Laura
Laura

Hi Jami,
Thank You! No I haven’t seen it, but I will now. 🙂

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[…] For more on this, Jami Gold has a great post this week on how to avoid cliches in your opener. […]

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[…] For more on this, Jami Gold has a great post this week on how to avoid cliches in your opener. […]

Caralin
Caralin

Hi Jami!

I’ve just started a novel with a scene that is slightly disjointed from the POV of the later chapters, but it’s only a couple paragraphs. It is in third person so it’s not really disjointed or anything, but reading this makes me reconsider.

However, it is very necessary, as it is the scene that kicks off the whole drama in the first place! The scene where the new world is acknowledged so that it doesn’t jump out of nowhere, as well as a scene that introduces the main character.

Should I try again, or is it acceptable sometimes to have a quick POV “change” in the start?

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[…] often talked here about how tricky it is to get our opening pages just right. We have to grab readers’ attention (such as evoking curiosity), introduce our characters and […]

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