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