Tuesday, February 18, 2020

10 Things That Will Sink Your Novel’s Opening Pages

By Aly Brown, @AlyConnerBrown

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: The opening pages of a novel are probably the most important pages you'll write in that novel. Aly Brown shares ten things you might be doing wrong.

Aly Brown is a newspaper editor and author represented by BookEnds LLC. She recently inked a deal with Feiwel & Friends / Macmillan for a nonfiction middle grade book on Alvin Submersible called The Last Unexplored Place on Earth. Release date 2023.

Take it away Aly...

You’ve polished that query letter to the point of memorization. Even though you’re numb to it, your peers in the writing world still agree it’s solid.

But for whatever reason, it’s not getting the reaction you were hoping for.

The problem many writers face when getting ready to query is that they focus so much on the letter but neglect to take a hard look at their introductory pages. Literary agents and editors will tell you they know within a few paragraphs if the work is ready. So maybe your letter is perfect and your book is in great shape, but you’re not passing the sniff test because you’ve committed one of the following:

1. Forgetting to ground your reader

Is your opening just a floating voice? While you don’t want to bog down the narrative with nitty gritty details of where your main character is in that very moment, you do want to give your reader some idea. Your opening needs to strike a balance between information and intrigue. Don’t describe every flower on a china cup, but don’t let the conversation or thoughts of your characters run rampant without a sense of place.

(Here's more on Three Ways to Ground Readers in Your World)

2. You data dump

I think we all know this one by now, but it’s worth repeating, especially among the fantasy crowd. Here’s the cold hard truth: no one cares about your world ... YET. The goal is to get them to care. They will hopefully root for your MC and laugh and cry alongside them. The thing is, you need to earn that. Some people are reading prologues. Buuuut… most aren’t. And it’s actually a risky move as a writer to query with one.

So think of your world-building more like the journal you found under your sister’s mattress. You open that book and you don’t always know what she’s talking about right away, but you don’t need basic worldly things explained to you, and odds are, you’ll piece more of her entries together as you read further. You’ll also get insanely bored if she lists everyone she knows without getting to the juicy stuff. Your reader is peeking into the journal of the world you’ve created. 

(Here's more on The Power of Explanation Compels You: Avoiding the Dreaded Infodump)

3. You haven’t mastered how to describe your MC’s appearance, and only that shows

I get it, I get it. First-person narrative is tough. But do me, and yourself, a favor: avoid the mirror bit. You know the one ... your character is looking at themselves and needlessly describes every detail of their appearance. Even if you manage to do it well, it’s been so overdone, you’re bound to get an eye roll.

Another easy out is you make the people around your main character describe them. In what world does your boyfriend or best friend describe what color hair you have to you?

While you can't run a police report rundown of your protagonist’s appearances in the way he/she/they view the world around them, you can weave those details into the story. For example:
"I clutched the ends of my dry hair and reminded myself to make another salon appointment. The turquoise hue I'd used over the summer had faded to a sickly dull green and it washed out my pale skin."
(Here's more on How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Characters?)

4. You open with a cliché

Dark stormy nights. You know better.

Your main character waking up. Yawn, in a bad way. A sleepy character trying to put their pants on one leg at a time is no way to engage a new reader.

It was all a dream. It’s a cheap way to get attention without building interest in the real character and their real world.

A gimmicky bait and switch that doesn’t add to the plot. Bait and switches can serve their purpose, especially if you’re luring your reader into believing something different to protect the truth. My idea of a gimmicky bait and switch is one with the sole purpose of shocking readers but it doesn’t pertain to the overall plot. Your switch shouldn’t completely replace your bait. For example, an opening where the main character is confronting a bully at long last in a moment of tension. The next scene, we find out it was a skit for school. As a reader, my personal take on this one is now I have to get hooked into the world anew, because the first intro was a ruse.

Honestly, there will always be an exception to the rule, if done well. Are you completely married to how you’ve opened because you’ve mastered a unique spin on it? Or is there another way you could make it stronger than using a tired opening trope? 

(Here's more on What's So Wrong With Clichés in Our Fiction? This.)

5. You use passive voice

I found passive voice to be more acceptable in a newspaper or corporate communications setting, but within book publishing? Nope. Do your best to eliminate all traces of this in your intro and your entire book, really, but we can forgive passive voice slip-ups once we’re already in love with the book. 

(Here's more on The Real Problem With Passive Voice in Fiction)

6. Too many sentences begin with Ands or Buts or Becauses

Because it creates impact. And sometimes it’s more conversational, like an article. But like anything that creates impact, it can lose its effect if used too often. (See what I did there?) I am still guilty of this one. I’m getting better, but my agent makes me search my document and rework about 90% of the sentences that begin with And, But or Because. It does make a difference.

7. You have a crutch, and you don’t know it

We all have writing crutches, those habits we’ve leaned on. Maybe we’ve formed them to help us show instead of tell. Does everyone frown or smirk or shrug all the time? Maybe you’re overusing a certain word like “just.” Maybe your narrative voice asks open-ended questions at every turn. Much like the point above, anything done too often loses its effect. 

(Here's more on Writing Tip: Get Rid of Your Crutch Words)

8. Your verbing is out of control

Another habit I used to have was what my agent calls “verbing,” using the weaker form of the verb with an -ing. Think of it this way:

“She was walking to the store” vs “She walked to the store”

“He was standing up” vs “He stood”

You use too many little words when verbing, which weakens your sentence structure, which leads me into my next point...

9. You use more words than needed to say the same thing

Looking at the last example above, you can see how “he was standing up” has the same meaning as “he stood,” but the latter cuts your word count in half. More often than not, if you can say the exact same thing with fewer words, the result is a stronger sentence. 

(Here's more on The Overwritten Novel: Identify & Fix Purple Prose in Your Novel)

10. You don't end chapters with a cliff-hanger

Cliff-hangers will look different for different genres. A thriller will have obvious cliff-hanger chapter endings, but that doesn’t mean a women’s lit is off the hook. Get it? Hook? If your women's lit novel ends the first chapter in the middle of a tea party, unless something of interest is happening, that's a one-way ticket to snoozeville.

Not every chapter should have an explosive close, because (once more from the top) it will lose its effect, but the end of every chapter in your book should propel the plot forward and dangle some kind of carrot to keep the reader turning pages. Many agents are going to ask you for the first three chapters, so they can see how you handle the progression. 

(Here's more on How to Write a Real Page-Turner, Part 5)

A parting thought…

Before you submit, read aloud. In Peter Ginna’s book, What Editors Do, one editor from a publishing house reported the editorial team would take about three days to read a book aloud to one another before it went to print. There is something about forcing every word through your mouth that is less forgiving than skimming the pages with your eye. This will help you catch awkward phrases or character dialogue that doesn't quite ring true.

Happy writing!


  1. Thank you for the very useful information. Have a beautiful weekend. Michael

  2. Thanks for these quick pointers and reminders.

  3. Thanks for the shoutout to WHAT EDITORS DO! Just a note, the contributors who read their work aloud did that BEFORE sending it to their publisher. See the chapter by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. Many other successful authors recommend this practice also!