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19 Ways Not to Start a Book

26 June 2011

From author and former agent Nathan Bransford and current agent Kristin Nelson, here are some terrible ways to begin a book.

From Nathan:

A character looking in a mirror: I know what you’re thinking. Namely: “How in the heck am I going to show the reader what this character looks like when it’s a 1st person narrative? Hmm… Mirror!” Don’t do it. There is another way.

Extended dialogue with insufficient grounding: It’s difficult for readers to ease into a new world and get their bearings. It’s even more difficult to feel grounded when you’re watching two characters talk and you’re not exactly sure who they are.

and from Kristen:

1. Characters inexplicably getting sucked into a portal for no apparent reason – This is mostly a YA fantasy device and yes, I realize there is long tradition of portals into other worlds in young adult fiction (Chronicles of Narnia and all that).

All I’m saying is that portal needs to be really necessary and not just an excuse to transport characters into another world so you can now finally tell your story

2. A person gathering herbs in the forest – Honestly, it can’t happen as frequent as I seem to see it in opening chapters.

If you don’t read the rest, you may choose one of the 15 other starter no-no’s.

Link to Nathan Bransford

Link to Pub Rants 1 and Pub Rants 2

Passive Guy barely finished this post before he was sucked into his mirror while shaving and is now fighting a nearly-irresistible compulsion to pick the herbs that grow in the forest on this distant star.

Thank goodness the forest has good WiFi so he can respond to comments. PG would really like to trade his basket of herbs for a Big Mac. If he ever gets back home, he’s throwing his razor away and growing a beard.

That’s strange, there’s a wardrobe in the forest. It’s big enough for PG to crawl into.

Characters, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

18 Comments to “19 Ways Not to Start a Book”

  1. I’ve been collecting lists of these from various agents’ “don’ts” lists, too. We can only learn what’s cliched from people who read a lot of slush, so this is enlightening. Who’d think gathering herbs was such a universal trope?

    Amazing how so many writers come up with the same devices. I don’t know if it’s subconscious copying, or if human brains just take the same pathways naturally.

  2. Hope you make it home ok, PG! There might be some dragons/spiders/zombies in the way, so look out~

    • Anthea – I’m just hoping for a Big Mac. I’d hate to get zapped on an empty stomach.

  3. The kind of herbs most people look for in the forest now-a-days are neither legal, nor suitable for YA readers.

    • Peggy – That’s an angle that I didn’t think about. A lot less pastoral than the original vision.

  4. If the story is based on a hunter/gatherer society then both hunting and gathering greens/herbs are the only things the members of the society do, other than preparing meals and attending meetings at home. Or gathering greens/herbs on the plains, or along the seashore as opposed to the forest :-)
    However, I agree that the other points are overdone somewhat. :-)

    • Diane – I don’t think gathering herbs is a bad thing, just not a good way to start a story.

  5. How about: a REALLY OUTRAGEOUS STATEMENT…followed by 10% of story length in backstory.

    Those just kill me.

    If you were trying to convince me that a dream was real, you wouldn’t have one of the characters in my dream go, “Hey, there are a bunch of things you need to know before you can actually start the dream, but really, after a few minutes, it’ll be REALLY EXCITING!!11!!”

    • DeAnna – I’m experiencing separation anxiety from the backstory of one of my books. It’s so lovely, but so boring unless you were the one who wrote it.

  6. Totally done more than one of those before in novel attempts. No wonder they were only attempts, and fizzled quickly.

    I think people (like myself) start books with cliches like those because they’re trying to create more of something they liked, not invent something new. I read Narnia a few times through, loved them, and thought “I want to write a YA fantasy story. How about some kids get sucked through a portal…”

    After a while I realized it was basically my rewrite of Narnia, so I tried again. “How about this young future hero is picking herbs in the forest with his guardian on the day of a rustic festival…” oh, there goes my rewrite of Prydain etc.

    I wasn’t even trying to write an original novel, although I sort of thought I was. I was really just trying to create more of what I loved so much in the fiction I had read. It was almost like an homage to Lewis, Alexander, Tolkien, etc.

    Here’s the question I’ve been wondering about since reading those blog posts: Do readers in general (especially of fantasy) really want original, never-seen-before material, or are they just looking for more of what they already like?

    In a sense, isn’t the whole fantasy genre one big cliche built on the Monomyth and what Tolkien started? Everything else I’ve seen has just been variations on a theme. (“Oh, but this one’s different… it has trolls instead of orcs, and the dragon is a goodguy instead of a badguy, and the protag is a girl, and it’s in a city instead of a rural kingdom.” Whatever.)

    • Scott – Something that’s wonderful the first time can become a cliche by the 50th time and a total turn-off by the 100th time.

  7. very old technique, pg –

    1. write chapter one
    2. write chapter two
    3. throw away chapter one

    • Elaine – That doesn’t seem complicated enough. :)

      • but it works.

        • Sounds like the voice of experience instead of the spinner of theory.

          • them as can does, them as can’t teaches.

            seriously, pg — beginning writers want to get all that backstory in and make sure the reader gets it. mostly it’s for the writer’s benefit. so write out all your backstory, then decide where the action begins, and begin there. even an old clunker like ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ sets the stage, sets an atmosphere. so what’s going to happen on that dark and stormy night. . . . .

            • Elaine – One of my many problems is I often think I’m writing the story when, in retrospect, after the book is finished or mostly-finished it all turns out to be backstory.

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