The Long List of Things We’re Not Supposed to Do Starting A Novel

As part of my industry reading, I’ve come across quite a few posts recently from both published authors and literary agents about how not to open a novel.

I think I’ve got Dadewalker’s opening down. It’s not a prologue. It’s a sneaky excerpt form the final chapter, the inspiration from which was taken from Twilight (so don’t tell me it doesn’t work). In fact, it’s a part of the bloghop going on right now, and was part of a previous bloghop, receiving great feedback, so I know it works.

But still, it’s frustrating seeing all these things we should no longer be doing in our opening pages. There’s a great big massive list, and I’ve only taken ideas from two people so far. It’s such a long list, of ideas for opening novels (really, there are heaps of old books published out there that start this way) that it’s been overused and probably burned the agents/publishers out. So let’s get to it, and read the long list of things we’re not supposed to do starting a novel. Some of them are obvious no-nos. Others are only recent because they’re overused.


From Nathan Bransford

  • A character waking up.
  • A character looking in a mirror.
  • Extended dialogue with insufficient grounding.
  • Action with insufficient grounding.
  • Character does X and oh by the way they’re dead.

From Kristen Nelson and here

  • Man sitting on steed in pouring rain.
  • Woman standing on high wall looking out into the distance at something
  • The city chase scene
  • Aftermath of a battle
  • Characters inexplicably getting sucked into a portal for no apparent reason
  • A person gathering herbs in the forest
  • A battle scene.
  • A prologue.
  • A distant third person narrative to start (ie. The boy, the old man, the healer)
  • Clumsy incorporating of back story in your dialogue (see handy example)
  • Launching your narrative via a dream sequence
  • Heroine waking up alone with a man in her room
  • Tired SF or Fantasy staples: i.e.: quest for a magical artifact, typical characters (dwarf, elf, the warrioress who doesn’t know she has magical powers), a modern woman who is really the savior on an alternate world.
  • Starting your cover letter for your sample pages with: this is a 250,000 word manuscript…

5 thoughts on “The Long List of Things We’re Not Supposed to Do Starting A Novel

  1. Sleepless Knight says:

    When I submitted the second draft of my manuscript to Cornerstones, they actually suggested I turn the opening and closing chapters into Prologue and Epilogue; saying the narrative would work much better that way.


  2. Rik Davnall says:

    Heh. My novel starts with a prologue, then chapter 1 begins with ‘character does X and oh by the way they’re dead’, where X is ‘wake up’ (it’s a story about a ghost, which isn’t necessarily any better). My first two betas absolutely raved about the novel – and I’m not related to either of them. No writing rule is hard-and-fast, and no good agent has absolutely hard-and-fast rules.


  3. Sari Webb says:

    Hehe. I’m breaking the ‘a modern woman who is really the savior on an alternate world’ rule. But that’s more of an entire plot issue rather than the beginning. Never mind. Sometimes rules just get broken!


  4. Charlotte says:

    Great lists. I say that with the utmost sarcasm.

    They’re only a short step away from the ultimate how-to-open-a-novel list, which will have only five items on it, and those will be the ONLY “accepted” ways to successfully open any novel, regardless of genre, theme or style.

    Because there’s nothing quite so successful at grabbing a reader’s attention as cookie-cutter fiction. ‘Oh but Nathan Bransford said I should do it like this!’


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