Red Lettering

Stories will not be written easily. A story without a heart is dead, and the only place it will get a heart is from the author.

Three Ways to Not Start a Novel

3 Ways to Not Start a Novel

Scattered all over the internet are a half-million ways to not begin a novel. When I looked them up a little while ago,  I could not help but think that—though I’m sure they’re all splendid, logical reasons—it would be more than slightly discouraging for a beginning writer to look through the eight lists entitled “100 Worst Ways to Start a Novel.” It was not that there was so many of them (though I do think that can be a bit overwhelming at times) as much as how they went about presenting their information. “Don’t do this. Don’t do this. I hate this. Don’t do this. This is terrible.” The sites that gave reasons why it’s a bad idea to begin your novel like that were few and far between.

Even fewer are the ones that say how to do it correctly.

While these are far from official publisher or agent-type openings to avoid, these are three things at the beginning of stories that bother me as both a writer and a reader.

It was— Wait. Stop there. You were expecting “It was a dark and stormy night,” weren’t you? Oh. Well, if you insist, we’ll get to that next. For now, though, let’s discuss the two words it was that are so frequent in the beginning of books. The to-be verb paired with the ever-mysterious it seems to be one of the most common beginning to beginning authors’ beginning novels. This, more than any others, is one of the openings that will make me moan and set the book aside.

Normally, it’s best to remove the to-be verb as much as possible (“are,” “is,” “was,” “will be,” and “were,” are all to-be verbs) when we are telling a story; there is almost always a stronger way of saying whatever you are trying to say. For example: “She was running,” or “She ran.” Do note, though, that this does not apply to dialogue. We want our characters to be speaking as normal people would.

Since it’s best to remove the to-be verb, keeping it out of the first sentence, which is the doorway into your novel, is a good idea.

Google defines the word “it” as “used to refer to a thing previously mentioned or easily identified.” As the first word of your sentence, first sentence in the novel, you can’t possibly have previously referred to something. The word it has now become a fairly meaningless word in this context. Remove it, and replace it with the thing you’re speaking of. If you’re talking of the morning air? Talk about the morning air, not a mysterious it which we know nothing of.

“It was a dark and stormy night.” Since we’ve already been over the “it was,” let us not speak of it again, but instead tackle this sentence as a whole. To put it quite simply, this is practically the most cliché beginning to any story. Once upon a time, the words were original.

That was a very long time ago.

Again, ignoring the it was, we come to “a dark.” Most nights—at least where I come from—are dark. I wonder if it’s different in the rest of the world.  That taken care of, we’re left with “and stormy night.” These days,  it’s not suggested that you start your novel with a storm at all, though it’s not strictly forbidden. If you must start it with a storm, try for perhaps a more original introduction to the storm.

The Main Character is in (slightly random) Mortal Danger. This sort of opening is one that usually only receives a blank look, though I sometimes feel vaguely bad about it, what with all the trouble the characters are going through to make it exciting.

At the moment, though, we don’t particularly care if the character dies. I’m afraid ’tis so, heartless though it might seem; if the character died, we would slowly blink, say, “That was odd,” and not be overly concerned about it, because at this point we don’t know the character. Perhaps there have been a few stories where abruptly dropping us into dramatic, life-or-death situations have been well done, but I imagine that if I ever were to find a book, I would keep reading not because I was concerned about this character whose name I did not even know, but because of the mystery behind it.

The main problem with this type of beginning, though, is that when it’s coming from beginning writers, I often see meaningless danger. It’s very exciting drama, but it doesn’t tie in with the rest of the story. That, combined with the fact that we wouldn’t mind if the character decided to go and die, makes for an irritating beginning to a novel.

How, then, do we do it? 

“Mark Royce arrived at the latest African crisis by way of a United Nations Chopper.”

“Rare Earth,” Davis Bunn.

While I’m not entirely sure his style is my favorite, Davis Bunn’s first sentence in Rare Earth, impressed me with all the information it held. In this first sentence, we are introduced to the main character— Marc Royce, discovered where he was—Africa (and the fact that there is a crisis there), and how he arrived—by a United Nations Helicopter.

From this one sentence, we gain a large amount of information; more information, perhaps, then we needed in the first sentence, but it was helpful information nonetheless.

“Hill House, though abandoned, had remained unscathed during the years of the Dragon’s occupation.”

“Veiled Rose,” Anne Elisabeth Stengl.

From this first sentence of Veiled Rose, we gain information not about the main character, but about the story. We learn from this that Hill House has been abandoned, and that there has been a Dragon occupation in the past couple of years. We learn a bit about the setting from the style of the writing and have a peek into the world we’re about to enter.

“Great and golden, like an enormous, newly minted doubloon, the Caribbean sun presided over the waterfront.”

“The Angel’s Command,” Brian Jacques.

Here, we learn not only a bit of the location, but also perhaps the time period and a bit about the character. We find that we’re at a waterfront on the Caribbean in the time of doubloons; and that the character automatically compares the sun with doubloons.

In conclusion: (No, I wasn’t randomly putting those first sentences of books in here just for the sake of doing so.) The first sentence is the first step into your world. Make it count.

All of the best first sentences, those that stick us straight into the story, tell us something relevant. It’s splendid sometimes when your world is cold, but unless this will be a real, large part of the story, perhaps it wouldn’t be the best option for a first sentence. Whether it’s something about the setting, something about the character, something about the upcoming plot, tell us something that’s worth hearing.  This is our first impression into your novel. Tell us something that, even if we don’t realize it at the time, will matter as we go through the novel.

What is your favorite type of first sentence? What is the first sentence of your story?

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5 thoughts on “Three Ways to Not Start a Novel

  1. Ahh, yes, first sentences. 😀 Always fun, fresh, new. The signal of a new story. I love them. 🙂 There was a time period in my writing when I enjoyed using abstract first sentences. Using pronouns and deliberately avoiding names until a paragraph or so had passed. Now, I’m not so sure. 😄 I just use what works. =P I’m working on three novels, so here’s their first sentences:

    “I turn around from the front door to face what will be my new home for the next four years.”

    “In everyone lies a story, some just never get told.”

    “The Arie Outpost Command Center loomed up from the surface of planet Reotos.”

    And there we have it, the three first sentences to my three current novels. ;D Cool post. I love your thoughts. I have to quite abashedly (and surprisedly, because I was completely unaware of this) admit that you phrased the first sentence of my first novel exactly. I mean, word for word. At least, until I went back a year ago and gave the whole novel an editorial run-through. =P Oh well, I guess everyone has to start somewhere right?

    ~Michael Hollingworth
    Disce Ferenda Pati – Learn to endure what must be borne

    • You forgot, “Always slightly intimidating.” :p
      Something that I’ve heard (and which has become standard practice for me), is that you shouldn’t avoid using the names of the character, since the character is unlikely to be thinking of himself as, “the boy.” Assuming that the story is being told from the point of view of the character, we want to stay as in-point-of-view as we can.

      I like your beginning sentences! All of them have a very different feel to them. 🙂
      Everyone certainly does have to start somewhere… And there’s a reason I didn’t post any of my early first sentences. :p

      • Ahh, I see. In the novels where I did refer to the main through pronouns at the beginning, I was writing in third person, and using a style where I switched perspectives fairly often, so staying in-point-of-view was to be limited. 🙂

        I’m glad you like ’em. 😄

        lol. Well, I’m glad I wrote/am writing enough novels to get past my first ones. No posting of embarrassing first sentences for me! =P

        ~Michael Hollingworth
        Disce Ferenda Pati – Learn to endure what must be borne

  2. I’m glad you mentioned about avoiding be verbs and not using a vague “it.” So many writers remain unaware of writing rules like this. (I myself am guilty of breaking these rules. Oh well. Which writer isn’t?)
    I think a good way to begin is by saying things in the first sentence which will make the readers curious and that way make them want to keep reading. The example from Stengl’s book, which you gave, for example. I haven’t read it, but now I feel curious about what Hill House is and what this Dragon is, and I want to keep reading. Or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” When you read that, you begin to wonder what a hobbit is and why it lives in the ground, so you keep reading to find out. These are my thoughts. =)

    • I think part of being a good writer sometimes is not only knowing what the rules are, but also knowing when it’s best to break them for the sake of good storytelling.
      I agree about that. 🙂 Oh, awesome! I would definitely recommend all of Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s books. And, yes… I think that since The Hobbit is so very old, we don’t usually tend to actually look at the first sentence, but I whenever I actually stop to think about it, I really love that beginning.

I love hearing your comments. Please add to the discussion! (It'd be awesome if you could keep the comments G Rated. Thanks. :p)

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