It’s common knowledge that the beginning of a novel is crucial to gaining the reader’s interest and this is especially true in manuscript submissions. If the acquiring editor is hooked, they’ll want to read more and it could lead to a contract. Alternately, if the story fails to grab them, they’ll likely reject the book.
So, I’d like to discuss some of the most common beginning scenes I get in my inbox and which consistently fail to hook my interest. Bear in mind that I’m not suggesting these are inherently bad and can never be done well (there are always exceptions), but know that if you do employ one of these openings, you will need to find some other way (through voice, tone, something surprising, etc.) to make your work stand out from the many submissions that start in a similar way.
The Protagonist Wakes Up
Usually an alarm clock goes off. Sometimes a nightmare jerks them awake. The protagonist groans but gets up. They start their day. Invariably, they go to the bathroom. Eventually, something unique to this story will happen and events will be set in motion, but it takes us a long time to get there. Every one of your readers knows what it’s like to wake up, and most people don’t consider it the most interesting part of their day—it’s just rehashing a common experience. I would consider “the protagonist waking up” to be a default beginning, and it’s risky, because editors aren’t usually looking for defaults. There is no guarantee they will stick around through breakfast and locking the front door to get to where your unique story starts to shine through.
Somebody Is Screaming
Often this happens in a prologue—usually a short flash of something that has happened or is still to come. Sometimes it’s in a nightmare, or is the reaction to one. Only rarely do we get words or a sense of what they’re screaming about. And most of the time it’s used as a cliffhanger. I certainly get the impulse to start this way. It’s very cinematic and instantly disturbing and of course the reader wants to know just who this person is and what on earth is happening to them! So far so good. But when you’ve read dozens of beginnings just like this—like the acquiring editor almost certainly has—it’s honestly hard not to get jaded. The “Somebody Is Screaming” opener can also come across as melodramatic, and particularly when written in the first person, it can feel like the reader is being strung along just for the sake of creating a sense of mystery.
A Graphic Depiction of Sex
There’s no way to write this entry without being crass, but the “graphic depiction of sex” opener is, in my opinion, the manuscript equivalent of an unsolicited picture. It almost always comes out of nowhere and it can really be upsetting, even harmful. Call me old fashioned, but I’d really like to be introduced to these characters before I’m introduced to their genitals. My guess is that shocking sex/masturbation scenes are used to convey edginess or because “sex sells”—and don’t get me wrong, sometimes it can be done very successfully, in a way that reveals something deeper about the plot or more usually character. And of course, I’m sure different genres have different conventions. But in my experience, sex/masturbation scenes without context tend to come across as goofy or gross or, at worst, deeply offensive. Use with caution and sensitivity.
In the “Instant Backstory” beginning, usually there is a line or two about what is going on in the present, in the action of the piece, and then we’re thrust into the protagonist’s backstory. And not their immediate backstory, either—like how they got into this exact situation—but further back, into parts of their life that can’t possibly be relevant at the moment, like their childhood. I’m not necessarily opposed to backstory—certainly I’ve seen it done well—but it can just as easily deflate tension as build it, and if used too early, it will lessen the stakes raised by your hook or opening lines. As a general rule, I want to be invested in the main story and the present moment of the book before I’m brought someplace new.
The Protagonist Is Suddenly and/or Magically Transported
Another variation is the character falls, as in down the rabbit hole. They might even be screaming! Either way, the character is suddenly whisked away somewhere, through means usually unknown to them, to a place they don’t know. We have to get to know this character as they get to know this strange place, and invariably we meet plenty of faces that are new to the character too. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad opener, but it is overdone and I would consider it to be another “default.”
So, if your novel does begin in any of these ways, you might consider if the scene is necessary to include (like the protagonist waking up or having sex) or if there is a more fitting way to introduce your characters, setting, and plot. Sometimes just trimming away the defaults can open up all kinds of new and unique ideas. Remember, editors want to see your voice and your work—we want the story that only you can write. Don’t be afraid to show us something fresh and new!
Constance Renfrow is a New York-based writer and lead editor for Three Rooms Press. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in such places as Cabildo Quarterly, Denim Skin, and Petrichor Machine, and she hosts a monthly open mic series at New York’s Merchant’s House Museum. Recently, she compiled the anthology of millennial fiction, Songs of My Selfie, available from Three Rooms Press, and writes about the book publishing industry for DIY MFA. She is pursuing her MFA in fiction from Pacific University. Visit her at constancerenfrow.com or follow her on Twitter @MissConstance21.