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Avoiding Cliché Openings

14 July 2012

From bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

Many years ago, Damon Knight, a fine writer and editor, wrote a book on how to write short fiction. Damon talked a bit about avoiding clichés, and in his book he mentioned the problem of stories that open with people “wondering who they are,” “where they are,” and so on. Damon taught a lot of workshops, and his counsel to new writers soon spread far and wide.

Back when I began working as first reader for the Writers of the Future Contest in 1991, I didn’t see a lot of those cliché openings. But Damon passed away ten years ago, and his counsel has been forgotten. In this past quarter, I came upon nine stories in a row where characters were opening their eyes and wondering where they were, who they were, and in some cases what they were. The tenth story skipped, and then I got four more.

Unfortunately for the authors, I probably didn’t give those stories a fair shake. Literally, I saw a hundred of those openings in one quarter. In the same way, if you wrote a story about teens taking a journey to the center of the earth, that probably didn’t get you far, either.

Other clichés: the story where a ship’s captain is startled from slumber by warning sirens or claxons; the vampire lover meeting the man of her dreams (tall, dark, handsome, and O+); the human counselor meeting an alien for the first time; a person vomiting; someone getting a really cool tattoo; and the kid who gets picked on in school just because he’s a zombie.

One of the biggest clichés is the fantasy story that starts with what I will call “wandering.” A person is riding a horse down a road and thinking.

Link to the rest at David Farland

David Farland, Writing Advice

32 Comments to “Avoiding Cliché Openings”

  1. I think the problem is that some cliches are obvious, like, “It was a dark and stormy night.” But others are less known. Half the things he mentioned in his article I wouldn’t have known were cliche if I hadn’t read that article, so if I had happened to write a story with one of those…hum.

    Then again, cliche is also often relative. For slush readers like that, they are going to see stories come through with similarities in openings, plots, etc. And it is natural when you see the same thing frequently, to start feeling they are cliche, even if the general reading public wouldn’t give it a second thought, obviously no more than the author who wrote it did.

    One person’s cliche is another person’s original opening or line. Usually someone with a popular book that used it successfully.

    Take Ender’s Game. It starts with a big no-no, talking heads with no idea who they are or where they are. Just dialog. But for that story, it worked.

  2. I don’t know if I totally agree with him or not. If it’s entertaining to the reader why not? I think the only one to nit pik the cliches are other writers or professors.

  3. I think this is one problem agents and editors face, that unlike readers, they are jaded. This makes them unable to spot the compelling, gripping, yet unpolished gem that would make their fortune. This is why publishers pay millions for books they turned down, that they could have had for a few thousand but failed to spot.

  4. On the other hand, intelligent readers are just as capable of seeing overused openings as any editor or publisher. If they read enough to become familiar with a genre, they will catch them immediately. If the writer can’t come up with anything more original for an opening, what is the rest of the story going to be like? A good writer can take a cliche opening and turn it into something exciting, but how many have the talent to do that?

    • I think well-read readers will and can spot some cliched openings. The problem is, editors or slush readers look over how many such openings every day? I’m not sure, but I would guess it runs anywhere from 10 to 30 in a day depending on what else they have going on. No regular reader is going to see anywhere near the number of story opening in a year that and editor or slush reader will.

      That means while a reader might identify some frequently used openings, the editor will see a lot of them, every week. You’ll notice this post was about the entries he’s looked at for mostly one contest. I don’t recall seeing what time frame he was looking at these in, but sounded like it was within a couple of days or a week at most. How many people read 10 openings every week? Only editors and the like.

      Where as a well-read reader will run across similar openings that begin to sound cliched to them every once in a great while, not a handful in a week. And what will start to sound cliched to a reader will happen over a year or five, while an editor may start to feel something is cliched within a week to a month of seeing the same thing, and further drilled in by repeats over the year(s).

      Several years ago, I wrote a flash fiction about a character of mine, a wizard in training, who gets turned into a fly. I submitted it to an online flash fiction mag, and they accepted it. But in their comments in the acceptance, they said something along the lines of, “though we get in a lot of fly-perspective pieces, I feel this one has enough character and uniqueness to accept.” I thought, “Really? You get in a lot of fly-perspective stories?” I would have never guessed in a million years. But to them, the plot idea was obviously overused. But I impressed them enough anyway for them to take it.

      And while I would agree, yes, avoid cliched openings if at all possible, there’s also no way for me to know every opening that someone will feel is cliched. If I’m aware of it, I’ll try to remember to avoid it. And yes, sometimes people that use a cliched opening means they will have a bad novel. But sometimes it doesn’t mean that at all.

      The important point, I think, from the piece, is to make sure the opening grabs a person’s attention to some degree or another. But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean the ship has sunk. There are plenty of classics and others who have poor openings, but sell well anyway.

      Also, I think avoiding cliched openings is more important if you are planning to submit to editors, for the reasons listed above, than it is if you are selling direct, where by and large, the reading public isn’t as sensitive to them as editors are, as a group.

      • “Where as a well-read reader will run across similar openings that begin to sound cliched to them every once in a great while, not a handful in a week. And what will start to sound cliched to a reader will happen over a year or five, while an editor may start to feel something is cliched within a week to a month of seeing the same thing, and further drilled in by repeats over the year(s).”

        Actually, a heavy reader looking for something new will come across these quite frequently. I see the same cliches over and over when I’m looking for a book to ready. It doesn’t take years. Even my teen-age son, when he was collecting a series of adventure novels (for the covers), recognized the same devices and patterns being used regularly.

        • Granted, everyone’s experience will be different, and I was estimating based on what one might expect in general and admit that estimate might be off some. So one example doesn’t prove or disprove the estimate, however.

          That said, the point is, your son probably doesn’t read several of these openings every day and week of a year, and so isn’t going to be bombarded by them with nearly the intensity an editor will. There are in all probability, some openings he’ll only see once or twice a year that an editor might see every week of the year not only because of the sheer number of books, but the editor is looking at unpublished manuscripts from lots of people where your son isn’t (given that some self-published work is about the same as slush, but still, of the published books, you’ll run into less of the cliches *in general* that an editor would).

      • Regarding fly perspective stories, in my university writing workshop a fellow student presented a story about a disintegrating marriage narrated from the perspective of a very philosophical fly.

        Still, I would never in a million years have thought that fly perspective stories were common (thankfully not based on the quality of that particular piece).

        • Back in the 90s, a creative writing instructor told our class, “Please, no stories from the point of view of the family dog.” Perhaps back then, he would have found a fly story refreshing.

          • I think we got so many dog POV stories at our workshop that I actually wrote a poem parodying dog POV stories. Needless to say it was not well received.

  5. If you’re supposed to begin with something that is a hook, that draws the reader in and makes her/him care, and want to read more, it is easy to see that the vagueness of ‘Who am I?’ isn’t going to do it.
    There has to be some compelling reason why THIS ‘who am I’ is important, or different, or startling – and then you’re away from the cliche already.
    The trick is to start with a match and keep adding more and more tinder until you have a roaring bonfire, giving a little more with each sentence.
    Easier said than done, but no one is going to read further if you can’t manage it. Nor should they.

    • The problem is that every one of those beginnings could be at least a good start to a story.

      For example:

      The wind battered at the window, drops hitting it so hard I thought shards of sharp glass would implode into the room. My baby cried as the front door slammed open and a great bear of a man strode into my house uninvited. He stood there gasping for a moment, water streaming off him onto the carpet, sucking in great gulps of air.
      “It’s the dam, Chris!” Helzog shouted, “It’s cracking!”

    • “Easier said than done, but no one is going to read further if you can’t manage it. Nor should they.”

      Absolutes are always wrong. ;)

      I’m sure some are not going to read further. There are obviously a lot of people who aren’t as hung up on it as others, judging by how such works have sold very well in the past and currently.

      Take the wandering thing. Exactly how Lewis’s space trilogy starts out, with Ransom wandering down a road and thinking. Not much of a hook, really. Yet its been widely read and some consider it a classic.

      So while I agree with the sentiment. It simply is untrue that no one will read further. Lots of people probably would and do.

      • Bingo. We’ve no idea how many great novels have rotted away in a trunk because editors wouldn’t read past the first few ‘cliched’ paragraphs.

        A good opening is important when trying to sell a story to the first few readers, but a good book will eventually compensate for a bad opening through word of mouth.

        • ‘Absolutes are always wrong’

          Yup, that’s how the ‘Writing Rule’ gangs get rounded up and baying for blood. They have battle-cries like. You must never: start with a storm, start with a battle, start with *it* (really I read some blog that said you should never start with the word *it*); you must always: start with action, start in the middle of something, start with the word ‘Discombobulated’ (I may have made that last one up).

          There are no rules and no absolutes in story-telling. There are a few in grammar, but none whatsoever in telling a story. There are just things you can get terribly wrong.

          Mr Farland did not use an absolute, he gave advice. I’m not a massive fan of Mr Farland’s dispatches from the front, they generally seem a bit prescriptive for my taste, but in this he just laid out the pitfalls.

          That said.

          A man walking down the road thinking about something can work as a hook if what he is thinking about is not exposition. However, a great writer (or a good writer on fire) can start a book with a man ambling down the road reviewing the entire history of the world in a bunch of wandering expositional paragraphs. And it will work. Because talent can do anything. It’s us craftsmen that have to take care with stuff like this.

          IMHO

          • Discombobulated Smyth-Jones the Third (“Bob-three” for short) sighed at the latest batch of junk mail. As usual, the letters were split between misspelling his full name (Smith-Jones), or assuming he was the lady of the house.

            • :)

              Discombobulated by the light, he reeled backwards into the arms of the waiting dragon. This was not a good start to his day.

            • Discombobulated, Tom thought, muzzily waking and wondering why that word was in his mind. He peered through the bars of the cage, smelling antiseptics and urine… Then memory forced its way through his drugged thoughts. Oh, damn, the vet.

            • Discombobulated, but still ducking and diving, spinning and side-slipping, buzzing and shaking his small head, Jack dodged another swipe of the newspaper. Transference, he thought, instead of arguing about the lipstick on his collar she’s attacking me. She should really self-actualise her inner strength and gird her loins to leave this…oh crap….

              Splat

      • I also wonder how many great books have been passed on by the editor’s attitude. It comes across as elitist, like he’s saying, “If only the masses understood how stupid they sound.”

        • Since Mr. Farland is not an editor, probably none. However, it might be wise when reading advice from experienced writers to at least considering the possibility that there is something to it.

          Nowhere did Mr. Farland say “there is a rule that you can never do X.” Rather he said certain openings are cliches because they have been seen many, many times. I believe he implied that readers (whether slush readers or buyers in the bookstore or Amazon) might yawn and go elsewhere.

          I’ve used them–easy to do in Fantasy. I’ve gotten bad reviews because of it. In the future, I’m trying to think just a TAD more outside the box instead of doing it the same way it’s been done a thousand times before.

  6. Douglas Grant Johnson

    Film director Frank Capra once said something about film I’ve always thought applied just as much to writing:

    “There are no rules in film making, only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.”

  7. One of my all time favorite books, Nine Princes in Amber, begins with a character not quite being able to remember his identity.

    Maybe it was a fresh idea when Zelazny first used it and has only become a cliche since then? I dunno…

    • EXACTLY the example I was thinking about when reading that article! I am glad Zelazny got it past the editors lol.

      What isn’t a variable of a cliche’? My first book starts with a radio message to a pilot asking him if he is declaring an emergency…isn’t that like a ship’s captain awakening to alarms? Arrrgh, where is the unpublish button lol.

      An author can also have fun with cliche’s and other sins. I had one character tell another to “get real” because this was reality and not some fictional story. I hope the readers got the same chuckle reading that as I did writing it.

      How many fantasy or romance books break with the traditional plotlines for their genres? And when they do…well, don’t we all hear that getting too far away from those traditions makes a book unmarketable? No wonder we all get gray hair and look pasty.

      I spent more than a decade.not writing because I felt I didn’t have an original idea. A lost decade. I did not realize that it has ALL been done before, possibly many times. The truth is that an author’s particular combination of characters, plot, and voice has never been done before.

      But what do I know.

      Splitter

    • I don’t know but when Zelazny does it, it’s brilliant. I love that opening every time.

      • But is it really a good idea to copy Zelazny because he did it well? Or maybe we should try to think of something else?

        That we can think of a dozen or more times it has been done is a good hint that it’s a cliche. Like that novel in which my characters met in an inn simply because I was so lazy that I didn’t bother to think of something fresher. Cliche much?

        Has it been done? Yes. And successfully? You BETCHA. That’s why it’s a cliche, old chum. :)

        • I see and agree with your points, J.R., I would just say that it is a matter of degree. And as someone else said, Farlan did jot give absolutes.

          I just fear is paralysis by analysis. If a writer wants to completely avoid cliche’s, they might end up writing something totally illogical or confusing. Or, they might get stuck forever trying to write the unique.

          Of course, if they just follow formulas, they end up re-writing Tolkien or King.

          Still, even when you lean toward the unique, someone will come along and compare your writing (even favorably) to another author. That happened to me and I had never even read ANY of that other author’s work at the time. When it happened, I thought about deleting the book, just killing the project. Then, I realized it was a compliment (after reading the other guy’s work….truth is, he’s great and any comparison is unfounded lol).

          I just rememeber my own struggle to be different. It is ongoing. I have stopped trying to eliminate all cliche’s that might lead to comparisons because of someone wants to see them, they will be there in any work.

          Maybe the answer is awareness and moderation.

          Splitter

  8. My first book started out as a writing challenge on a writing forum. The challenge was to have your charecter wake up in a padded room and wonder how they got there. However, when I turned that scene into a novel I didn’t start it with that scene. (Also I changed the details of the scene itself a lot.) So, starting a book like that might be wrong,

    it might work to inspire a book.

  9. As a reader, I don’t really care whether an opening is cliche or not as long as it is interesting. And just because a technique has been used often before does not make it magically become bad. It still has the same chance of an author either using it well or using it badly. And as a reader I’ll easily forgive a less than original opening if you deliver me a satisfying ending. Too often lately I find people focus so hard on making their opening original and clever and then write a climax and conclusion that falls flat. Endings are more important to me.

  10. If only the rules worked, no books filled with cliches would become bestsellers. Although, perhaps that’s another benefit to self publishing. The reader decides what is acceptable rather then the agent/editor who has seen too many books that start with an awakening.

    I have been there, sighing in frustration at something that doesn’t grab me. Knowing it might grab my readers’ attention because it’s not the 100th submission this week with the same opening, but not knowing exactly which one to read further.

  11. As a writer, you have one very good reason to avoid what Mr. Farland refers to here as clichés, and that is if you are submitting short work to a magazine or an anthology. In that case, the editor has to choose stories that are different — as different from one another as possible given the theme of the anthology or the topic of the magazine — and if there was a story from the POV of the family dog in the magazine in the last five years, the editor is liable to catch holy hell from his readers if he prints another one. That doesn’t make dog-POV stories bad; it just makes them unsalable to that particular market.

    In fact, ‘cliché’ is the wrong word to use for these kinds of story elements. A better word is ‘fashion’ or ‘vogue’. When dog-POV stories, or vampire Nazi stories, or lesbian zombie time-travel romances, are in fashion, every magazine editor will be inundated with the things and will never get away with publishing more than one of each. But writers want to write the things for the same reason that (some) readers will want to read them. They have caught a noticeable share of the public imagination.

    All these things came into fashion for a reason. Presently they will go out of fashion (and this, for an editor who is buying stories today for an issue to be published next year, is a serious worry). Meanwhile, the thing is not to eschew the fashions but to make the most of them while they last. Self-publishing is an immense help in this respect. If paranormal Tibetan legal thrillers are the flavour of the month, by all means get yours out as soon as the virtual pencil-marks on your copy-edit have stopped smoking. It won’t be the flavour of the month next month. By releasing the ebook next Tuesday and not a year from Tuesday, you seize a priceless advantage that nobody in traditional publishing ever enjoyed. Printing presses are slow; the Internet is just under the speed of light. Exploit that, and let them worry who must about buying this year’s stories to fit next year’s styles.

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