Off-putting Openings : how not to start a book?

key in lock in door

Image by MasterTux from Pixabay

Recently, I’ve started reading several books that I have swiftly put aside. Why?
Because they had off-putting openings.

What did I mean by off-putting openings? I’d say the kind of start that left me—as a reader—confused, or bored, or annoyed. The kind of start that made me say something like, “if this is the best this author can do, then I have better ways of spending my precious reading time.”

Off-putting openings #1 : a crowd of named minor characters

name badge: what is my name?When should an author give a character a name?

That’s not easy to answer. It may seem obvious that all characters have names—of course they do—but does the reader want to know the name, or need to know the name?

Not necessarily, I suggest.

Less experienced authors often give every character a name, the very first time they appear. Even if a character appears only once in a story, they are still named. So chapter 1 may introduce, say, twenty characters (or more) by name.

The upshot is that the poor reader doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going. Is she supposed to remember all those names? And to know who is who, or who matters? If the reader can do all of that, she’s exceptional. Most readers will drown in such a morass of names. I certainly do.

Possible solutions to off-putting opening #1

So what should the author do? There are no definite rules here, but I have a few suggestions that may prove helpful.

Alternatives to naming characters

light bulb ideaIf a character isn’t going to appear again, don’t give them a name at all. Give them a role or a description instead, such as “the bossy woman”, “Emma’s father” (assuming Emma is a major character), “the head archaeologist”, “the grocer”, “the redhead” and so on. Keep the named characters in the opening pages to those characters who will have major roles as the story develops. Then the reader has a better chance of knowing who to root for and/or who to watch.

Even if a character is going to appear again, perhaps in a major role, don’t name them if, for example, they are merely one of a group, early in the story. Wait until that character stands alone and is actually doing something meaningful in the story before telling the reader more about them. That way, the reader is much more likely to “fix” that character in their mind.

When you have to use names…

When you are using names, avoid having lots that begin with the same letter. (I’m repeating myself here, I know.) In some cases, that can be difficult to do. If, for example, the book is set in Roman times, the number of first names is pretty limited. Even more reason to follow the first suggestion above. Or add nicknames to differentiate characters. Think of “Little John” or “Will Scarlet”. Those were useful differentiators in days when there weren’t all that many first names in use.

As a last resort, add a dramatis personae if you have a huge cast of characters and readers are likely to lose track. Lindsey Davis does that in her Falco books, set in the Roman Empire under Vespasian, and it works well, especially as so many of the names are unfamiliar to modern readers. However, she’s too good a writer to dump a whole host of new characters on the reader in chapter 1.

Off-putting openings #2 : descriptions of the author’s world

Janus opens doors to all directionsI recently started a recommended fantasy story set on an imaginary planet “far, far away.” Five pages in, the author had introduced me to the heroine and two other (presumably) major characters. All three appeared on the page.
Fair enough.

BUT I had also been introduced to a host of other characters—by name!—who did not appear on the page, though they had played a part in the heroine’s backstory, or the backstory of the planet. I’d read about wars; about who won, and how; about the strengths or weaknesses of participants in those wars; about the motivations and machinations of rulers during and after those wars; about the conditions on different planets; and more.

At the end of the five pages, there was a hint of intrigue to come for the heroine. It could have encouraged me to read on. It didn’t. My head was full of a mass of detail that I couldn’t disentangle and, frankly, didn’t care about. And none of it had made me care about the heroine.

So what did i do?dropping rubbish into bin
You’ve probably guessed.

I closed the book and put it into the for-disposal pile. I didn’t care how “gripping and captivating” the blurb said this story was. It hadn’t gripped or captivated me, as a reader. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Possible solutions to off-putting opening #2

I was much struck by a comment from award-winning author (and fellow hivie) Liz Fielding at the RNA conference this summer. We were both at the slush pile slam, where the openings of stories were read out (anonymously) and a panel of editors and agents decided whether they might be interested or not. The editors and agents often made up their minds in a couple of sentences.lecturing an audience

But Liz’s point was not about how the professionals reacted. She was focused on the audience’s reaction. With one particular first page, there was a point where the novel moved from immediacy to backstory. And at that point, Liz noticed, the large audience of potential readers visibly lost interest.

Welcome to the Lunatic Asylum sign on the world

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

There’s a lesson for all authors there, whether they’re experienced or just starting out.

It’s this:

you (the author) may want your reader to understand your world and your characters’ backstory, but you need to take care how and, especially, when you introduce them.

And this doesn’t apply only to fantasy or science fiction. The story that caught Liz Fielding’s attention at the slush pile slam was a contemporary.

Alternatives to describing your world/your characters’ backstory on page 1

Instead of using the first few pages to describe, say, what kind of warriors the XYZ-ians are, apply the description to a single XYZ-ian character later in the book. It works especially well in dialogue. Something like this:

“I was always told that XYZ-ian warriors were brave but foolhardy. I didn’t believe it, because I knew you. Or I thought I did. But after your idiotic actions in yesterday’s battle, I’m beginning to think that the popular wisdom about XYZ-ians was right.”

This establishes the received wisdom about the XYZ-ians. But it also provides background about individual characters and sets up conflict. Three birds with one stone? What’s not to like?

kill two birds with one stone cartoon

only 2 out of 3 dead birds available today, sadly

This example is fantasy/SF but you can apply this approach in many genres. Think, for example, of a member of a spendthrift family in a contemporary story being brought to book by their best friend for spending money they don’t have. Isn’t that better than the author telling the reader, on page 1, that the family are all spendthrifts?

When and how to provide backstory

man riding snail to target slowlyDribble the information in very, very slowly. [At this point, I resisted the temptation to provide a picture of a dribbling baby. It was a close-run thing, though 😉 ]

Provide detail a little at a time so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed with information about character X. Try to provide as much as possible via dialogue or action on the page. So, for example:

“I didn’t go to that nightclub,” X protested. But his left eye flickered a fraction.

Y sighed. That eye-flicker was a classic tell. X was lying. Again.

This establishes that X is a habitual liar and that Y knows it. More scope for conflict because what is Y going to do about this blatant lie?liar shown up by long-nosed shadow

Is your backstory really necessary?

Ask yourself, very sternly, why the reader needs to know every single item of information you’re planning to tell them. You, the author, need to know vast amounts about your characters, of course, but does the reader need it all?

man holding no entry sign in front of faceMuch of the time, the answer will be no.

Perhaps your heroine’s ex-husband abused her, physically or psychologically. Does the reader need to know the details of what he did to her? Probably not, especially if said ex-husband doesn’t appear on the page.

It might be enough to have something like this, later in the book, once your heroine is establishing her independence.

Your heroine’s best mate might say:

“You look so much happier—and younger, too—now that you don’t have that bastard ex of yours controlling your every move.” Claire shook her head sadly. “You should have ditched him yonks ago, you know.”

For a moment, Julia was tempted to argue, but her new, more resolute self told her sternly not to be such an idiot. She’d spent far too many years defending John. She’d promised herself she wasn’t going to do it any more. Not ever. So she took a deep breath and said, with a slightly wobbly smile, “Do I really look younger to you?”

If there are details of the abuse that the reader needs to know, introduce them at the point when the readers needs the information because it matters to the plot.

If, for example, Julia is confronted by her ex and he tries to take control again, she could fight back. She could tell him that he might have been gaslighting her before, but she’s not letting him get away with anything like that any more.Woman's Hand With Text No

This way, your reader knows what the abuse was but you, the author, have not had to use info dump to tell her. What’s more, your reader is rooting for your heroine as she tells her abusive ex where to get off.

Off-putting openings #3 : endless scene-setting

For this, dear reader, I refer you to the first chapter of any novel by Sir Walter Scott.

I learned, at the age of about 8 or 9, that Scott wrote great stories but that it was best to start them in the middle of chapter 2. And that’s what I still do.

Are there other kinds of novel openings that put you off? Please do share. Then, between us, we might be able to suggest what authors could do to avoid the pitfalls.

Joanna Maitland author

Joanna who makes these mistakes, too. Don’t we all?

22 thoughts on “Off-putting Openings : how not to start a book?

  1. lesley2cats

    I recognise all of these. Starting with #3, when I was teaching, I used to tell my students that Thomas Hardy would never get published today. Those endless pages of description – did they really matter? Right at the beginning? No. And going back to #1 – this happens on stage, too. I once played Sleeping Beauty’s nurse in pantomime – quite important in that first christening scene, I’m sure you’ll agree. But poor old Nursey never made another appearance until the end, and audiences – and reviewers – wanted to know why, because she had been made so much of at the beginning. A warning to us all – thank you, Joanna.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Great examples, Lesley. And they go to prove that all sorts of authors do it. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that modern readers are so much less tolerant of that kind of book/panto? I blame it on social media. Bah humbug 😉

  2. Alison Morton

    Ha! Waking up from a dream. 🙄
    Often the first chapter of the first draft can be discarded at the editing stage; it’s often a mechanism for writing ourselves into the story.

    1. Sarah

      So true, Alison! I generally know where I want my book to start, and write the back stories of the main characters in a separate document, for my eyes only.

  3. Sarah

    A great post, and so well timed, Joanna, since I am just starting a new book! I have quite a back story worked out for my characters, because I need to know it all for the opening scene when they meet again after six years. This post is a timely reminder that my reader doesn’t need to know much at all in these first few pages. As you suggest, I shall drip feed it in throughout the story. You make so many good points here, thank you.

    Another pet hate of mine – and perhaps one for another post? – is how not to end a book. I read one recently that didn’t start too well (I only persevered because a friend asked me for my thoughts on it), but by about half way through it picked up and I was interested to know what happened. Then it ended on a cliff hangar. No closure at all on any of the major plot points. Now, I knew it was the first of a series, but I want at least some closure on book one before I follow on to book 2. Having invested so much in the book I was very, very disappointed the author left so many loose ends (almost all of them, in fact). I shall not be reading any more by that author. Ever.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I might indeed do a post about endings, Sarah. You make really good points there. If I’d read the same book as you, I wouldn’t be investing in book 2 either.

  4. Liz Fielding

    So many ways to turn off a reader, Joanna. And it’s not just the opening. I was well into a book recently when the main character acted in a way that was so stupid, so unbelievable, that I just stopped reading.

    Start with something happening, a world changing moment for one of the major characters and, as the late, great Charlotte Lamb once said to me, keep it simple. Make sure the reader knows what’s happening. And definitely keep the backstory to dribble in as and when necessary.

    1. Joanna Post author

      If I’d gone beyond openings, Liz, my blog would have been novel-length, I think 😉 And your advice is bang on. I wish writers would take it. I’m not sure editors are all up to snuff these days, either. The 5-page book that so turned me off was a commercially-published one and, presumably, professionally edited since it was a well-known publisher. Sigh.

  5. Sophie

    Excellent piece and very timely for me, Joanna. Thank you.

    But, oh dear, I still do all these things. Sometimes several times in the course of a multi-draft novel!

    Actually I’ve learned that, no matter how much I may tiffle along the way, the last thing I write is the opening chapter.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think we all do these things, Sophie. The crucial point is that we realise we’ve done them and go about fixing them. Sometimes tiffling has a purpose 😉

      Re first chapters. I wrote a book that my eventual publishers rejected twice. Later, realising what I’d done wrong, I gave it a new opening chapter and lo! they took it.

  6. Jill Mansell

    Loved this. Really interesting. My own pet hate is the heroine waking up, then looking at herself in the bathroom mirror and wishing she didn’t have such big eyes, long lashes, creamy complexion and a heart-shaped face…. 😩

    1. Liz Fielding

      LOL, Jill. I’ve read a few that start just like that. I’d say it’s a lack of experience but, alas, some of them were published. Fortunately, a style that’s gone out of fashion.

  7. Lorna Read

    Loads of good advice here. As someone who has spent decades editing and critiquing other writers’ work, I agree with everything you said. With regard to introducing a vast number of characters by name, I really struggled with The Ink Black Heart (Robert Gailbraith a.k.a J. K. Rowling) because many of the main characters also had cyber names, so trying to remember who was who became well nigh impossible and I very nearly gave up on the book. (Actually, I feel she was trying too hard to be different with this one!) Your point about Scott was interesting because when I gave the manuscript of my book Perfect Lives to a beta reader, she commented that it would be best to lose the first chapter and start with Chapter 2. She was quite right. Another turn-off for me is when a book opens with the description of a dramatic dream, conning the reader into thinking they’ve been launched straight into some exciting action – which turns out not to be the case, as the protagonist then wakes up, cleans their teeth and has breakfast, resulting in a total loss of pace and momentum.

  8. Elizabeth Bailey

    Oh, the dreaded info dump: stopping the story to tell the reader a potted biography of the character. No, please. As you say, drip-feed only what needs to be known at a relevant point in the story. Writers forget, I think, how much contribution a reader makes to a story all by themselves. They are very good at picking up on hooks and making connections. They don’t need or want the author to tell them everything.
    I learned this early regarding description, for example, when my fellow workers were also my first readers. To a man (or woman) they had completely different images of the main characters, none of which tallied with my written descriptions! Lesson learned. Be brief. Sprinkle. Don’t empty a bucket over the reader’s head.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Really good point about the role the reader plays. Readers are not just passive recipients of our pearls of wisdom. Ursula Le Guin said something similar. I can’t remember her exact quote but it was something like “words are just marks on wood pulp until a reader reads them”.

      I shall remember (and use!) your last sentence: don’t empty a bucket over the reader’s head.

  9. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I loved this – it’s so true! I once had to report on a novel where the author introduced over thirty characters in Chapter One alone! Suggested she discard all the also rans – about twenty-five of them.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Which only goes to prove, Elizabeth, how often we authors make this rather obvious mistake. Thanks for dropping by. Hope the access problems now resolved?

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