Advice for new authors – The pitfalls of fiction novel openings

Writing the opening pages of a novel is hard.  How do you set the right tone?  What’s the best way to convey the main character’s wants, needs, appearance, age, etc?  How do you get the plot moving from page one?  Sadly there’s no magic bullet that will address all of these things for all manuscripts; however, many new authors (myself included) do fall victim to some of the same opening chapter issues.

This weekend I spent some time reading the opening pages of various manuscripts and providing feedback on them as part of a contest.   While reading through those early pages I kept having similar feedback.  Unsurprisingly, these were a lot of the same areas that I struggled with during early drafts of my manuscript, and honestly, several of them I still struggle with.

In order to help other new authors out there, I’ve pulled together a list of advice for the early chapters of your novel (let’s say 1 through 3).  Some of these are things you should do, and others are things to avoid; however, you really should consider all of these when editing your manuscript:

  1. Do not use cliché openings.  This point ends up on just about everyone’s advice list, but it’s number one for a reason.  If your books starts with someone waking up, looking in the mirror, a dream sequence, anything with vomit (or other bodily fluids), or sex, then you need to revise it right now.  Yes, one time some bestseller somewhere did this and it “worked”, but it’s a cliché now for a reason.  Don’t be that author that makes your reader roll their eyes on the first page because its the same thing they’ve read many times before.  Your story is new, it’s unique, it’s awesome, so make sure your opening is as well.
  2. At some point in the opening pages we need to learn what the main characters look like.  In conjunction with point 1 above, do NOT do this by having a character look in the mirror and describe themselves.  Analogies and comparisons are a great way to slip in little character details without simply listing them off or shoving them unnaturally into the flow of the narrative.
  3. Avoid too many special punctuation marks.  This includes m-dashes, parenthesis, semi-colons, and exclamation points.  All of these things can be useful when used sparingly and effectively, but too much of any one or a combination of these items is difficult to read.  These punctuation marks will pull the reader out of the story, especially if there are too many.  Be careful and use them with caution.
  4. All scenes should do one of two things:  advance the plot or grow the characters.  Ideally both.  If a scene is not doing that, or is doing very little of it, then it needs to go. This is especially true early on in a manuscript when you are still trying to hook your reader into the story.
  5. Multiple POVs should only be used with intension.  Using dual or multiple POV just ‘because’ is not a good reason. Each POV should advance the plot in a way that can only be done from that perspective.  Further, each POV needs to be unique and distinctive.  If two characters sound the same in their unique POVs, then the characters will not be believable.  Often people use move POVs than they really need, so make sure a POV is absolutely necessary before you decide to add it.
  6. Balance dialogue and exposition.  Every novel has both.  The key is making sure that you have a good mix of the two and do not go too long without one or the other.   Scan through your pages and see how they look.  If you have many long paragraphs back to back, you probably need to mix in more dialogue.  If you have many lines of dialogue in a row, you may need to throw in more exposition, or even thoughts/feelings to show (rather than tell) how your characters are experiencing said exchange of dialogue.
  7. World-build by the spoonful.  If your novel starts with lots of names, intricate details, titles, magic systems, etc., your reader is not going to absorb that information. In fact, they may be so overwhelmed that they’ll be putting the book down after a page or two.  This is especially true in fantasy.  Yes, your fantasy world is awesome and you want to tell us all about it, but it needs to happen one little spoonful at a time.  Give a detail (a place, a power, a description), then let the reader rest.  While they absorb that spoonful, stick to something normal and easily digestible.  Then give us another spoonful, more of your world’s unique character and detail.  This topic actually deserves its own post, and will be getting it soon, so stay tuned for that one.
  8. YA and MG characters need to act, sound, think, and experience events in line with their stated age.   Do not write a character that talks, acts, and thinks like a 20 something (or older) and then call them 15.  Just don’t.  If you want to write them as a 20 or 30 something, great, do that, but don’t try to pass them off as younger than they are.  The voice will not work and your target audience will not be able to relate to the character.  This is especially true when the challenges faced by the character are also not relatable for their age group.  This too is going to be getting its own blog post.

That’s all for now.  Hopefully this advice is helpful to you as you write and revise your own stories.

More on topics 7 and 8 coming soon.