My Least Favorite Way To Open a Novel

6d7K7I think action is a horrible way to open a book, even in prologues. The prologue, first chapter, first whatever, needs to be spent on developing whatever character/characters are being focused on–not developing the plot through action, which readers are likely to not care about so soon anyway.

I read the first few pages of a book on Amazon and was immediately turned away because, for one, it opens up the book with a weather description, which I found really pointless. I get the author was trying to establish an ominous tone, but weather is just the most trite, weakest way to do it. It’s a shortcut, basically, when you have no idea how to convey that something horrible is about to occur. Plus, I don’t care about the weather. I care about the character and what the character is doing/the character’s current problems. Bring in the weather description after you’ve established character because that is who I care about first and foremost.

Then after the weather description, action immediately happens, a fight breaks out, and I suddenly find I don’t care anymore. I don’t really know the characters, so why am I supposed to care about this fight they’re engaging in? Not to mention the action was just confusing period. And where is the character the prologue is focusing on? Who is the antagonist, or even the protagonist? The whole prologue was essentially pointless. It would have better served as background information later.

In any case, if there is no character or plot already established, I think action is a dreadful way to start a book. No one is going care that Character B died because we barely knew Character B. We barely know any of these characters and you as the writer expect us to care already? I don’t think so. This is a book, not a movie, and even in movies I hate when they start with action. It’s just way too fast and I am all about focusing on that blasted character for the prologue or first chapter.

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Author:

Also known as The Dancing Writer, she is currently working on The Stars Trilogy, among other works.

12 thoughts on “My Least Favorite Way To Open a Novel

  1. Agreed. I can see where the confusion comes in for writers; all we ever hear if we’re reading “how to” lists or agents’ blogs is “You have to GRAB THE READER in the first paragraph! Have something HAPPENING!” The problem is that most people assume that this means that someone needs to be diffusing a bomb in the first sentence, when there are other ways to build tension and reader curiosity without shoving them into the middle of a confusing scene.

    I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a book (yet) that started with an explosion/car accident/fight/etc. Yes, have something happen fairly quickly (action or otherwise), but give me someone to care about, first.

  2. I can’t say that I completely agree. Sometimes it is a great technique to start with an action that results in a death, especially in the prologue if it references the death of a critical character. Sure, maybe you don’t care about the character at that time but as the story unfolds and you connect more and more with them all the while knowing that they end up dead. It intensifies the book for me. I like when books open with action or behavior.

    As for the weather descriptions, I hate them.

    1. It doesn’t work for me. I have to care about the character or else I’m not really going to care to read the rest of the book. For one, I know the character dies, so by then I don’t really care how the character dies because, well, the character dies regardless of what happens. I feel like there are no surprises left, even if the book is somehow chock full of them. I’ll never know because the writer didn’t bother building up the character in the first chapter. I’m just a very character-oriented person. I want to care about the character before anything else.

      1. I can understand that. You might like a book called Gibbin House by Carola Perla. I read it recently and it’s all about character development. The prologue is a letter from the protaganist to another character you meet later.

  3. Fiction is such a subjective thing. I’ve found with my books for example you can’t please everyone. some people really like them and others don’t. I find it best to write the way that suits your own personal style and let the chips fall where they may 🙂

    1. This is true. You really CAN’T please everyone, and obviously there are a lot of readers out there who go nuts for immediate action (because there are bestsellers that start that way, right?). I think it’s a personal choice for a reader. Not my thing as a reader or a writer, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Just not my favourite thing. 🙂

    2. Agreed. Write in a manner that feels authentic, even if it isn’t consistent with conventional wisdom. Behind the majority of success stories in writing, or any field, is someone who dared to challenge the rules.

  4. Yes, it’s a very personal choice. I don’t like being thrown headlong into some OTT action scene, and for that reason, I usually dislike prologues. I like books which establish the location, time period and introduce the main character/s in the first chapter. I agree, you have to ‘care’ about a character before you can empathise with their trials and tribulations. Although Elmore Leonard agrees with you on weather as an opener, one of my favourite books, “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy starts with, “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees…..” Strictly speaking, I guess that’s climate and setting, rather than weather!

  5. I’ve seen this problem highlighted by some famous author somewhere, but I can’t remember… We writers seem to be getting contradictory advices from everywhere: some suggest starting with an action sequence, some with dialogue. But I think we can all agree that starting a novel with a weather forecast is just plain tasteless. I say stricter editing!

  6. I think it depends on the genre you are writing in. If you’re writing a thriller for example, people are going to expect lots of action, so starting with an action sequence makes sense. If you’re writing a more character focused novel, it might not work as well. A love story, for example, would be completely ridiculous if it started with an action sequence.

    As far as weather forecasts, I guess it depends on how you describe it. The opening sentence of Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.) has always stuck with me as it completely contradicts what you’d expect from a normal romanticized sunrise/sunset description, which would be boring and bland.

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