Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 22, 2012

Five Novel Opening Blunders – Writing Tips

Back in May, Mary Kole left Adrea Brown and took the position of Senior Literary Manager in charge of Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Picture Book properties at Moveable Type Management.  Anyone lucky enough to have had a critique with Mary knows the depth of her knowledge.  Here is an article Mary wrote for Sprouts Magazine.  I think you will find it very helpful.

Five novel opening blunders—and why it pays to avoid them

Writing Tips by Literary Agent Mary Kole

I read a lot of novel openings. The easiest way to catch my attention is to do something fresh and organic to your story, to show me something I haven’t seen before. The easiest way to get me to move on to the tens or hundreds of other submissions in my pile is to start your novel with a common blunder. I’m not here to curb your natural creativity. But I read a lot more submissions than you do. Since writers tend to be oblivious of what most other writers are doing, I want to give you a slush-eye view of five novel opening mistakes I see all the time: 


This is cliché number one. When faced with the daunting task of writing a story, a lot of writers seem to start right where their stories start every day: the blare of the alarm clock, someone calling from downstairs, the satisfying punch to the snooze button. Writers have the right instinct. They want to start their story on a specific (and, I hope, unusual and interesting) day in their character’s life. But that doesn’t mean you have to start that day at its beginning. (Avoid this and you’re ahead of 1/3 of my slush!)


T.S. Eliot coined the term “objective correlative.” It means that the environment mirrors an emotion in one’s writing. A storm, a breeze, leaves dying on the trees, clouds rolling in … those are all great ways to set up unease and tension in your story. But there’s a reason that “It was a dark and stormy night” ranks as one of the worst opening lines of all time. Relying on the weather to be your source of tension at the beginning of a story is a cop out.


I can’t tell you how many writers open MG and YA novels by discussing how ordinary a kid’s life is and how ordinary the kid and how everything is just hunky dory and completely, totally normal. Then, of course, it all goes abnormal. This is, of course, the way a story should start: a kid’s ordinary life is turned on its ear. Edward meets Bella. The moon shifts a few degrees. Katniss volunteers. A box of tapes shows up after a classmate’s suicide. But don’t spend your first few pages telling us about it. Show it happening. 


Writers hear that setting their story in medias res—Latin for “in the middle of things”—is a good thing. In most cases, it is. By getting right to it and starting your story with action, you engage the reader. Just make sure the action has context and we know what you’re talking about. I can’t tell you how many stories begin with a character regaining consciousness, completely disoriented, or an action sequence where the character is battling or being chased. Great action, sure, but we don’t know the character or story yet, so we can’t care about the character or the outcome of their dangerous situation. The other issue with grabby, action packed beginnings is that the tension usually plunges in the next few pages. The writer hopes readers will ride the drama of the first scene through some less exciting chapters. That, again, feels like cheating to me. 


On the opposite end of the spectrum from the disorienting beginning is the really slow beginning packed with information. You’re not sure your reader will get it if you plop them down in medias res, so you spend time by explaining (usually in really dry dialogue) what your world is about, what the problem is, who the characters are, and what’s going on. There’s no action, just solid information. The ideal beginning will give the reader enough context for the story, but won’t slow down the pacing with unnecessary information. There’s always time to flesh things out later.

When most writers read a piece of cautionary advice, and find themselves guilty, they start to rationalize. “But my character is an insomniac/narcoleptic/Sandman/dream-wizard. She has to start her story by waking up, because the story is about sleep.” Or “My beginning is too boring. Without a really catchy first scene, the reader will lose interest.” There’s also “My story is just too complex. Without all the information up front, the reader will be lost.” These are poor excuses. If your premise deals with sleep, start with the character awake and out of their element. If your story is too complex, find a simple entry point and start there, then weave your information organically as the story develops. If your beginning is boring and you fear you’ll lose your reader, start somewhere exciting and keep them riveted from page one instead of relying on gimmicks.

Whether you revise your beginning is completely up to you, of course. My guess, though, is that you could easily play around and find a stronger, more extraordinary beginning for your tale. And you’ll be glad you did. Remember, your novel opening is usually the first and only bit of writing that I get to see. Instead of repeating a cliché, like most other writers in my submission pile, you know better now. You have a chance to show me something new. Take it.

Mary has a great blog: You can read more about her using this link:   Use: for Moveable Type Management.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I remember this article! It was excellent then, and it’s excellent now 🙂


  2. Excellent, excellent article! My college professor used to say, “If I read one more novel opening where an alarm clock is ringing…” 🙂


  3. this is great. On to the wiki it goes!


  4. Great advice. Rewriting my opening.


  5. Great advice on openings.


  6. Thanks for some other excellent post. Where else may anyone get that kind of information in such an ideal approach of writing? I have a presentation subsequent week, and I am at the look for such info.


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