Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why do those opening pages fail?

I thought I would take some time today to highlight some of the major problems I see with those opening pages of the stories that cross my desk.

We all know how important these pages are. Heck, you hear all of us agents screaming about this time and time again. Still, it is always great to be reminded about these flaws so that writers can go back and make sure they aren't doing these.

I should stress that a weak beginning doesn't necessarily mean we will reject the story, but I can certainly say that it does get us thinking the wrong way about your project. You never want to have us thinking we might pass. Always keep us positive about your work.

BACKSTORY DUMPS Many writers commit this fatal flaw in their stories. They seem to think that without this information about the character or the situation, we'll be lost. While some information is certainly necessary, simply giving us everything in the beginning is a sure way of making us say no. We want the story to get moving and those information and backstory dumps are a sure way of not motivating the reader. Spread this out!

NO MOVEMENT No, this doesn't mean that you need to start with the central conflict of the story, but we need to have something happening in the story. This flaw frequently happens in Regency romance submissions. The writers begin with the heroine sitting and having tea, thinking. Ugh! We can relish in her beauty and the peacefullness of the moment later, but we can't start with this.

STARTING WITH THE CONFLICT - The best analogy I can give you with this is hearing a bad version of The Star Spangled Banner being sung. You know what I'm talking about. We hear that person start a bit too high for their singing range and then they hit that really nasty part in the middle. There is simply no where to go. Your story will do the same thing. If you get the conflict going too soon in the story, the end will die because you finished the book far too soon. Writers seem to think the best way out of this is to "add more scenes." Sorry but all this does is makes the story repepetitive.

So, think about how you are getting us hooked. Will we want to read more?



  1. Thank you, Scott, for this helpful post!

    You touched not only on the all-important opening, but the entire storyline as well, via use of the Star Spangled Banner analogy. (That one will stay with me, I'm sure! :)

    I've heard on other blogs that the 'waking up from a dream' opening has become cliche but I can see how the heroine sipping tea and musing would go that way, too.

    I'm sure there are many more but hopefully just trying to avoid these common ones will help spark a writer's imagination to come up with something really good and different.

  2. This is great advice. It can be so hard to decide where to begin a new story, especially if you know all about your MC and the 300 pages ahead of her. But, I find that you can't go wrong with letting your MC do the work. When I read the voice of an MC who I love, I would follow her anywhere, and gladly turn those pages to see what she will get into.

  3. Thanks for for the clarity of your advice. While I understand that you represent romance and women's fiction, the points you make apply to virtually all genres.

  4. Backstory Dumps - I read once that it takes a while to get to know people. You don't learn everything about a new person the first day so you shouldn't know everything about a character immediatly either. It takes time. Gradually throughout the novel, the reader should learn more and more about the characters. I keep this in mind when writing.

  5. I had to re-do my first two chapters. I felt the backstory was so important that I really crammed it in there. I was being hardheaded. Now I'm thrilled will my rewrites. I like the opening so much better. Being hardheaded when it comes to revisions is like shooting ourselves in both feet!

    On another note, can't we take it too far? I'm reading two books now and the first few chapters are so sparse, no info at all that I've lost interest in both. They haven't given me sufficient reasons for some of heroine's actions making for really dumb moves on her part. Just a line or two would satisfy me and certainly make her look more intelligent.

  6. Thanks for this blog. I'll take any help I can get on the road to selling a novel!

  7. I am forever making the same mistakes. Information Dump is a problem area for me. I have a hard time trusting the reader. But it's always nice to be remeinded.


  8. Henya, I like what you said: you have a hard time trusting the reader. I guess that's exactly why we dump all the info--we're spelling things out for the reader-we don't trust them to figure it out for themselves. :) I'll keep that in mind when I start my new book. Thanks!

  9. Same problem with info dump. But after getting rid of my 'waking from a dream',and info dumping I wrote a kick butt first chapter. Now that I'm querying it again, terrified I made it too kick butt.

  10. Scott,

    This was EXCEEDINGLY helpful information. I began writing as a creative writer. However, I went to college and began my professional career as a journalist. Now, I'm working on re-sparking that creative fire within. I can write a great magazine feature or investigative piece without thinking (and I can draft compelling content for any business). However, story format and outline as a creative writer has been my greatest struggle as of late. These tips were invaluable, as I'm working on a project to pitch to an agent, and I'm learning as I go! So thank you.

    Shari Lopatin
    Twitter: @ShariLopatin

  11. Fabulous advice, concisely put. Thanks very much! :-)
    (BTW, I've sung professionally and your "Star Spangled Banner" analogy is terrific and quite amusing.)

  12. Back story dump-- To go along with this, I am almost always turned off to a story when the writer tries to describe the character too soon and too much, especially if it is in first person. The worst is when they happen to look into a mirror so they can describe themselves. Personal pet peeve, but I think it's a mark of an amateur.

  13. Fiction today suffers from the overload problem faced by film makers. So much is available that devices quickly become hackneyed.

  14. Really, really helpful post!

    I am guilty of the backstory dump in my first chapter. This just confirmed for me that it has to go. It can definitely slow a story down. Besides, we want to leave the reader wanting to know more so they will read more!