Tired Openings

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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?

17 thoughts on “Tired Openings”

  1. Brenna says:

    I’m glad other people think this too. I’ve been working on my opening for three days trying to do just what this post says, and now I’m sure I’m heading in the right direction. Thank you so much.

  2. Although I have 20 years as journalist — and I’m known for riveting leads — it took me three or four attempts before my novel began at the beginning (and one beta reader still begs to differ).

    It’s not always intuitive, but it is vital. My book now opens with my teenage protagonist knocking over a 72-year-old woman while being chased by a bully, and sending her to the hospital with a badly broken arm and a concussion.

    I think it works. But it took me a long time to realize that. :-)

  3. Terry Odell says:

    Openings are only second to endings on my “argh, I can’t do this!” scale. At least I no longer cut the first 8 chapters to get to the ‘real’ beginning of the book. I think I’m down to two.

  4. It usually takes me multiple tries to get the first scene just right. And I start the process by turning to page three of my first draft–that almost always makes a better page one.

  5. Looking at WIP and scratching head. LOL.
    Openings are always the hardest and you have to be ruthless. My first book I cut the first 50 pages. 50 pages! Sheesh.
    The other thing about openings is they have to convey the tone of the story, and set up the primary questions/mysteries/conflicts without inserting too much backstory or slowing the pace.

    Thank goodness for excellent editors :)
    Back to the WIP which I can now see needs a lot of work :)

  6. Hi,

    As a reader, choice of openings varies according to genre.

    Thriller: I expect an opening action sequence or fear inducing prose, I don’t have to like either hero or heroine to enjoy a thriller.

    Romantic Suspense: give me insight to the mind of the hero or heroine and build the suspense around them, I need to know who they are and what makes them tick. I need to like one or the other, preferably both: if not at the start, at least when turn of events put them through the grinder.

    Straight Romance: I’m happy with slow build-up, and not fussed if hero and heroine meet in first chapter. Hero and heroine usually ring true (believable) and one can more or less expect an HEA, though I’m not averse to open ending!

    Category romance: I hate the bump-into openings (lifts/doorways/pranging cars etc.,) all done to death. If the hero and heroine come across as unbelievable (fantasy figures) I won’t read on. If sense of reality prevails the author has got my attention.

    Erotic Romance: anything goes, any opening, but I particularly like twist/unexpected obsession openings airing sohisticated chic!

    As a once pubbed writer: then it’s a case of whatever rocks my boat, takes my fancy or sets my pulse racing in all genre. Whether an editor at Carina Press likes what I write now is for me to find out as I endeavour to break back into the world of publishing. There’s a manuscript somewhere in your electronic slushpile, and if it gets the big R so be it. I don’t do the cry thingy, too busy writing for that. ;)

  7. I like an opening that gives me a strong sense of place. Maybe that sounds weird, putting setting above characters. I just really like to visualise where the story is. The blurb can help with this, but an opening that invites me into a new world is cool.

  8. Patricia_Preston says:

    I love openings that pull me right into the story. Greg Iles has terrific openings in his books. I wish I could say that about myself! :)

  9. Yep, when asked to do an R&R the biggest issue was a need to lose the first chapter and get to the point. I scrapped it, even though it was a piece of descriptive genius. LOL

  10. Clare London says:

    LOL. I’m looking at the opening scene to The Tourist#2 – as Ace wakes up in a strange bed *again* – and I’m thinking…. drat. Ah well *g*. My challenge is now to make it fresher.

    I think the opening of a book is crucial and I often say this is the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me – try to make sure the opening hooks your reader. The ending is also crucial – so many disappointments or delights can be found there – but as a reader, it’s a bit academic if the opening has already made me put the book to one side :).

    I loved the opening of Storm Warning, it really hooked me :).

  11. My favorite openings are the ones where I’ve read to the end of the chapter and didn’t realize I just read that many pages because I was so engrossed. Those are the books I pick apart to see what she did, and how she did it. Sometimes they’re very ordinary things – I’ve read openings recently where the heroine or hero is going to work, etc. but it’s the way the author puts it together. She makes it work.

  12. Tracey Lyons says:

    I’m working on an historical romance right now and realized, I too needed to cut the first chapter. It was nice, but not really where the story begins! I’m glad to see I’m not the only writer with this problem…LOL!

  13. Oh, the dreaded opening. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t delete my original Chapter One. :)

    I dislike dream sequences too. Also tired of the man/woman finding spouse in bed with another man/woman. I have so many books on my TBR pile that if the opening doesn’t deliver something really special and force me to turn the pages, I move on to the next book. Life’s too short!

  14. Jonathan Treadway says:

    Hmmm, I’m thinking I need to go look at my opening chapter again. Darn it, and I was starting to get my flow going in my sequel! LOL

  15. Deborah says:

    I think quite often an author needs to finish writing the book before deciding the best way to begin.

  16. Delle Jacobs says:

    I judge a lot of contests, especially historicals, and the one type of scene I find most infamous is the “ballroom opening” where everyone is introduced to everyone else. Or, heroine is standing with BFF discussing men at the ball, and why she will never marry, catches the eye of incredibly handsome, tall duke hero across the room, pretends she didn’t see him, and after all he does have the reputation of being the worst rake in London…

    Several years ago I started doing openings differently. I begin writing a story by writing the backstory of each major character. Then I file that away and begin the real story where the basckstories collide to incite the beginning. By identifying backstory,writing it, then filing it away, there’s little temptation to repeat it.

  17. Missy Welsh says:

    Since I rarely write in sequence, I’m never sure where the story starts until I finish it. Then I can go back and discover that the first two scenes I wrote aren’t necessary or something like that, chop them off, and oh look! There’s the beginning. I’m glad to see it’s not just me :)

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