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?Pin It