Out of the gates: how to avoid overused openings in your manuscript
By David Griffin Brown
Years ago I was involved in hiring student assistants for a university library. There were ten positions and over a hundred applicants. By the end of the first day, I found I was reacting very badly to the word "multitasking." First of all, it's something of a non-skill, at least on paper. What—you can draft an email while simultaneously resenting your boss? Not a miraculous feat.
However, the word was neutral at first. It wasn't until I saw it twenty times that it started to stand out, and perhaps fifty times before it became a red flag along the lines of "sorry but I don't have much relevant job experience."
Literary agents can review thousands of manuscripts per year—at least the opening pages. Many of those manuscripts are barely out of first draft. That means a great deal will feature overused openings and other issues attributed to novice writers. Editors also see much of the same, but we are in the fortunate position of being able to help writers eliminate these snags.
A character waking up
"Erin, when you recount your day, never say you woke up. That's a waste of your time. That's how every day has begun for everyone since the dawn of man." —Robert California in The Office
Waking up is a natural beginning, which means it's also easy. And it means that many, many writers start their stories this way. One agent told me that she's seen as many as six manuscripts starting out with a character waking up in one day.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a character waking up on the first page. In fact, many readers wouldn't consider it either way. However, there is almost always a better place to begin.
Start with stasis (a protagonist's life before the disruption or inciting incident) or start in media res (in the midst of the inciting incident or even immediately after the disruption). However, don't start with a chapter that does nothing more than establish and explain.
Reader immersion grows out of a sense of participation. This is at the heart of the writer's maxim: show, don't tell. Treat your readers like detectives. Give them clues and let them come to their own conclusions. There's nothing wrong with a clarifying detail here and there, especially in the midst of a dynamic scene, but resist the temptation to explain context, motivation, backstory, and world-building.
Anything can be done well, and a short description of weather with direct relevance to a scene can work, but beware that this is another book-opener cliché that may snag with agents and publishers.
Dialog is fantastic, but when you open a novel with a rapid-fire conversation and few sensory details or actions, your readers will struggle to find grounding.
A large block of description
Balance is key. A few lines of description can go a long way to setting a scene. However, the key to a good hook is conflict and character.
A fight scene
It's good to lead with conflict, but a full-on fight scene is usually lackluster. Your readers don't yet know these characters. They don't yet care about them. They don't have a sense of the stakes.
Also, opening with a bullying scene is exceedingly common in middle-grade and young-adult manuscripts.
A dream sequence
Dreams come right before waking up, so this goes without saying!
Disorienting dreams leave the reader disoriented. Dreams that at first seem real leave the reader feeling tricked. Ask yourself whether your novel will still make sense if you don't start with a dream. If the answer is yes, you can probably find a better place to begin.
Are you in mad love with the poetry of your first sentence? First paragraph? Do you open with a florid voice that isn't sustainable for the entire novel? If so, you might want to cut back on the paisley.
It makes sense that many authors endlessly revise their opening pages. Finding the right entry point is no small task.
Not sure where to begin your novel? Consider the moment when everything changes and the protagonist is forced to choose. Consider the first link in the chain of causality that drives your plot momentum. A character makes a choice, the choice has a consequence, and so it goes.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.