Earlier this week I posted the first line of my work-in-progress to Instagram, with the comment that I knew I was breaking a rule by starting my novel with the main character waking up. I asked what everyone thought and the general consensus seemed to be that I was breaking the rule well enough for it to be good. But not everyone knew that this was a rule. So, in the spirit of learning the rules so we can break them, here are some ways that my obsessive reading of articles written by agents and publishers about what gets their attention has taught me not to start a book…
1) Waking up
It seems like such a natural place to start. Your character gets up in the morning and goes through their daily routine until something happens that throws them off. Great. Except this is a big turn off for agents and publishers. They read countless versions of morning routines. It’s boring and cliched. It doesn’t grab their attention. All is not lost though. Delete all that stuff about them waking up and agonising about their first day of work, school, interview, date, etc while they brush their teeth. Start the story at the point in which they actually do that thing instead.
Starting with a dream is a lazy technique that just makes the reader feel cheated. For example ‘Sonia teetered on the precipice, knowing she couldn’t save herself, didn’t even want to. She took a deep breath and jumped. The wind knocked the breath from her as the ground rose to meet her… Then she woke up.’
See? Promising beginning that’s then ruined by the fact that, oh yeah, it’s not actually happening. And the other problem? The real beginning is actually the character waking up, which we’ve already discussed.
Writers love prologues and readers hate them. I’m both so you can hopefully trust me when I say that prologues are an old fashioned device and generally serve no purpose other than to confuse the reader. When I see a prologue my first thought is that the writer has put it in in the hope of showing me that things will get exciting soon. Which usually means that the beginning of the actual story is slow.
Bang! Crash! There’s your originality going out the window.
I was taught this method as a way to start a story when I was at school. The problem is that it still sounds childish. Particularly if it’s something like- Briiiiing, Briiiiing went the phone on that fateful morning. ‘I wonder who that could be?’ said Harry to himself. Little did he know etc etc. Just tell us that the phone rang. You can even say urgently if you must.
5) Setting the scene
You’ve probably seen this done more often in films. We get a few minutes of an idyllic setting before everything goes horribly wrong. It’s a lot quicker an easier to do this in films, though. In books no one is going to be gripped by your description of tea at the vicarage or a picnic in the park. Especially not an agent or publisher, who’s attention needs to be caught at once. So cut right to the action and trust the reader to fill in the blanks. We can. If you show us a rumpled blanket on the grass with an overturned basket then we will grasp that your protagonist was having a pleasant picnic before disaster struck.
Breaking the rules-
So, now we know the rules we can work out how to break them! For instance, The Hunger Games starts with Katniss waking up and going out to hunt- as she does most days. If I Stay begins with a, rather stickily sweet in my opinion, scene of the protagonist’s family interacting happily. And no doubt like me you’ve read plenty of books that start with a prologue. So the rules aren’t hard and fast. But you need to know them so you can break them well enough to get away with it. And if you can do that then that in itself may catch an agent’s or publisher’s attention.
I hope you found this post helpful. And if you’re curious about my rule-breaking first line mentioned at the beginning then check out my Instagram.