by Anne R. Allen
Clichés exist for a reason. A whole lot of people like them. That means they get over-exposed. Clichés represent a natural way of thinking. So don’t feel bad if your first draft has a clichéd opener. It’s part of the process.
Here’s the most important thing for a new writer to know about composing the opening scene for your novel or memoir:
WRITE THE FIRST CHAPTER LAST
That’s right. I know writers who have agonized for months — even years — over a first chapter, never going on to tell their stories. Don’t do this. Instead, write a place holder. You’ll get to fix it later.
By the time you’ve written the ending of your first draft, you’re going to have a fantastic, original take on your novel’s opener. You may decide to lop off the first (and / or second and third) chapters altogether. Or you’ll realize that the story should have started earlier rather than later than you originally thought.
That’s what happened to me with Ghostwriters in the Sky. I started the story too late, after Camilla had started her adventure. It took a good editor to point out that the story needed to start earlier. Readers needed to meet Camilla when she was in her native habitat in Manhattan. Then when she got the phone call inviting her to the wilds of California cowboy country, the story was off and running. No way could I have written that opener when I was writing the first draft.
So when you’re writing your first draft, jump right into your story and keep writing. Don’t worry about creating a great first chapter until after you’ve written “The End.”
How to Write the First Chapter of Your First Draft
This is how you start writing your novel or memoir: do whatever the heck you want.
That’s right. Go ahead and write down anything that comes into your head. Don’t even think about clichéd openers.
- Describe the protagonist’s bedroom for pages and show her eating her morning cereal, bite by bite.
- Flash back to her childhood, when her uncle Borysko fed her weird buckwheat porridge for breakfast.
- Then flash back inside the flashback to explain why her uncle, brought up in an orphanage in Kiev, has such strange food habits
- Describe the weather in Kiev and the horrors of living in the cold, dark, stone building, existing on cold cabbage soup and dumpster-diving for half-eaten pierogi.
- Then you can go into a bit of historical background, telling how St. Hyacinth of Poland is the patron saint of pierogi, although pierogi were probably invented in Ukraine.
Write it all down. Every word that pops into your head. Sometimes you have to write volumes as you get spurts of imagination and get to know your characters. Those opening scenes can be tension-free and boring to everyone but you.
That’s because all those words are for you, not the reader. You’re probably going to delete 90% of that first chapter — and maybe the next three chapters — in revision, but it doesn’t matter. (But don’t throw those words away. Keep them in a folder for outtakes. You never know when you can plug that stuff about St. Hyacinth into another chapter or story.)
You may need to go through the experience of writing down all that description and backstory in order to get your juices flowing and truly understand your character.
But When You Revise — be Aware of the Following Clichéd Openers.
I’m not telling you that it’s wrong to use one of these openers. In fact, they have become clichéd openers because they feel so right.
Unfortunately, they’ve felt right for so many authors, readers are sick of them. If you use clichéd openers, you need to be really creative in the way you present them.
If you open with a funeral on a rainy day, maybe make it a funeral for Uncle Borysko’s pet iguana. And maybe it’s raining ash from the nearby volcano that hasn’t erupted since before the last ice age.
Here are some classic clichéd openers too many writers have done already:
1) Weather Reports
Let us know the plot before we worry about whether to take a raincoat. In your opener, give a sketch of the setting in a sentence or two — and don’t make us go through page after page before we get to the story.
Later, once readers are hooked on the story and care about the characters, they’ll be more interested in the rainfall statistics of northern Ukraine.
2) Trains, Planes, and Automobiles
This is one I often used in my early writing — a character is en route to the scene of what will be the inciting event. This is a great opportunity to give your protagonist some serious musing time, which will provide the reader with a bunch of necessary backstory, right?
Uh, probably not. But I understand the temptation.
We want to show our protagonist doing some deep thinking as she drives to the remote goat farm her uncle left her. Or maybe she can have an info-dump conversation with the tall dark stranger sitting next to her on the plane. Or she can talk about her uncle with the mysterious Ukrainian woman she dines with on the train.
Unfortunately, readers are going to think we’re vamping. To them, we haven’t started the story yet. What you need to do is start the story later, when she has arrived at the goat farm, or earlier, when she hears about her uncle’s will. But cut the travel time to a minimum of musing/infodump opportunities.
Because so many people’s lives are changed or uprooted by a death, it’s a great place to start, right? A huge number of novels — and even more memoirs — start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement. If you use this opening, make sure you’ve got a fresh take. Like the iguana funeral.
Or maybe your protagonist is a serial killer who likes to go to the funerals of his victims?
Or there’s a mysterious Ukrainian woman who invites a bunch of strangers she met on the train to her own funeral.
This is where the reader is plunged into the middle of a rip-roaring scene, only to find out on page five that it’s only a dream.
I know why new authors write this opener. Writing gurus tell you to start out with conflict. So why not begin with the protagonist fighting a dragon and his witchy consort, a gigantic were-weasel named Popazilla? And just as our hero is going to be forced to dive into the boiling Lake of Doom, he wakes up and he’s late for baseball practice.
Here’s the problem: if — just when the reader is starting to get into the story — you say “never mind” and toss him into a mundane world, he’s going to be seriously annoyed. Like annoyed enough not to buy another one of your books.
5) Conditional Perfect Narration
“If only I’d known…” or “If I hadn’t been…”
Starting with the conditional perfect seems so clever — I used to love this one — but unfortunately a lot of other writers do too.
If you’re writing comedy, you may get away with this. It’s still a nice set up for a joke. But be aware it’s well-trodden territory.
6) Personal Introductions
Starting a novel with, “Hello. My name is….” has been so overused that a lot of readers won’t go any farther. Especially in YA fiction. Resist the temptation.
7) Group Activities
Don’t be tempted to start with a crowd scene. Those can work in film because the camera can immediately focus on your protagonist. But in a novel, too many characters in the opener will confuse the reader.
I did this once in what I intended to be a second book in a series. I started with a room full of the characters from the last book. Not one of my beta readers could figure out what was going on.
Give your readers a break and only give them 2 or 3 characters to learn about in the opening scene.
Beginning authors love them some internal monologue. I sure did. I remember the stony faces in the workshop where I read my novel opener that consisted of a whole chapter of a Baby Boomer musing about the state of her generation.
The workshoppers were not kind, but they taught me a must-needed lesson.
9) The Mirror Scene
This is when the protagonist looks at herself in the mirror, and describes her looks in loving detail. Beginning authors figure this is the best way to describe the protagonist without hopping into another character’s head.
But as somebody pointed out in a “reader pet peeves” survey, real people “look in the mirror and — usually — think ‘God, I look like crap.’” The readers also didn’t believe people muse about their “lush, wavy auburn hair, thick eyelashes and full lips” when they’re on their way to a crime scene.
And the truth is you don’t need as much physical description of the characters as you think. Just give us one or two strong characteristics that set them apart. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks.
10) Action, Action, Action
Yes, they tell us to start with a bang. But if too much banging is going on before we get to know the characters, readers won’t care.
That big battle scene; the attack by a herd of flying elephants; the epic fight between Trekkie vs. Star Wars nerds in the lunch room — those can all be great scenes, but save them until the story gets on its feet and we know the main characters.
11) The Alarm Clock — Queen of Clichéd Openers.
This is when the novel opens as the protagonist wakes up in the morning and prepares for his/her day. Readers are over it.
Whether your characters are preparing to slay dragons, spy on Nazis, or face the mean girls in the school cafeteria, avoid starting with them waking up.
Or if you do, this is the scene you lop off in revision.
Nobody cares about tooth-brushing, or how the toilet looks when it flushes. Move along to where your character is wide awake and actually facing the challenge of the day.
Of course, if you use one of these openers in an especially clever and original way, you may delight your readers. But be aware these openers are overdone.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) August 15, 2021
What about you, scriveners? Do you write your opening chapter last? Have you ever written any of these clichéd openers? Are there any other clichéd openers that you’re tired of?
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