by Deborah Nemeth, Freelance Acquisitions and Developmental Editor for Carina Press. You can follow her on Twitter @DebNemeth.
When reviewing a manuscript submitted for publication, editors are looking for many things, just as readers do when browsing for a new book. Voice is important, and so is compelling action in the first scene. Whether I’m in a bookstore opening a novel or at my desk opening a manuscript submission, a tired opening may sway me to pass on to the next one.
A tired opening is one editors have seen so often, it makes us suspect the rest of the story will be predictable. As with any writing “rule” or “advice,” there are always exceptions, but it might be helpful for authors to be aware of some of the ones we’ve seen done to death.
Some slow openings suggest a lack of experience. Brand new authors often begin their novels with the life story of the protagonist, filling us in on his or her birth, childhood and education. Sometimes we get his complete ancestry, with maybe a geography lesson thrown in too. Are there published novels that open this way? Yes, but not many new authors are landing contracts for commercial fiction manuscripts that contain this type of first scene.
Less experienced authors often open their stories (and maybe every chapter) with the hero/heroine waking up. This is an opening I’m really sick of, even though I’ve seen it work well when given a twist. I’m drawn to stories that open in action, with something interesting happening, and I don’t want to see the heroine getting dressed and driving to work. Closely related to this is the dream/nightmare opening. I’m not fond of dream sequences in general, so I have to force myself to keep reading if you hit me with one in the first paragraph.
“It was a dark and stormy night” has been done before. Description can work but only if compellingly presented to convey mood, tension and character.
In romantic suspense and mysteries we often get a prologue in the villain’s viewpoint as he’s murdering someone, so it’s refreshing when we see something different.
In romances and women’s fiction, I’m tired of the BFF telling the heroine or hero she/he needs to get laid. And the heroine catching her husband/lover in bed with another woman (or man). A few others include the heroine getting a makeover to win the hero’s heart and the jaded Regency hero making love to his mistress before dumping her.
We won’t always pass on a ms that contains one of these openings, but they may give the project a handicap that will take an awesome voice to overcome, and there’s a chance the author will be asked to revise the first scene during edits.
What should an author do instead? Begin your ms when the story does. Open with action and/or tension, showing your hero or heroine passionately pursuing a goal, worrying about a problem, or thrown into a sticky situation. Don’t overload us with the characters’ pasts, but show us their present and future—where they’re trying to go, what they’re trying to accomplish or avoid.
Here are a few Carina Press novel openings that hook me. On the first page of Storm Warning by Toni Anderson, a Columbian drug lord asks an undercover DEA agent what should be done with the DEA agent spying on him. In the next scene, we meet the heroine as she sees the ghost of her father, then pulls a dead body out of the surf. Kim Knox’s Gambit opens as truth crawlers burrow into the heroine’s flesh prior to an interrogation. As Silver Bound by Ella Drake opens, a woman is fleeing her crime lord husband. The hero of Amy Atwell’s Lying Eyes is hunting for missing jewels. If your story doesn’t contain a lot of suspense/SF action, you can still hook us at the outset with other kinds of tension and interesting situations. In the first scene of Inez Kelley’s contemporary romance Sweet as Sin, the hero is returning lingerie that blew off the heroine’s clothesline.
Readers, how about you? Are there opening scenes that you’ve seen too often? What are some of your favorite openings?