Why it Doesn’t Matter How Your Novel Opens

“He was one of those inexplicable gifts of nature, an artist who leaps over boundaries, changes our nervous systems, creates a new language, transmits new kinds of joy to our startled senses and spirits.”  ~Jack Kroll

The way your novel opens is totally meaningless in the larger scheme of things.

Holy smokes, did she really just say that?

Yeah. I did. Here’s the painful reality: If your book is great, nobody will give a rat’s bald ass how your book opened because … well, as previously stated … the book is great. If it isn’t great, then nobody will give a rat’s bald ass how your book opened because … well, as previously stated … it isn’t great.

In other words, NOBODY CARES EITHER WAY!

“Don’t open with a prologue.”
“Don’t open with your protagonist in thought.”
“Don’t open with your main character waking up.”
“Don’t open with the weather.”
“Don’t open with dialogue.”
“Don’t open a novel with immediate action.”
“Don’t open with tons of description and backstory.”

Why don’t you just go ahead and say, “Don’t start your book with sentences … because um … only the good ones work and you may not be able to write any of the good ones.”

I’m SO over the number of authors who blog about this drivel. Seriously, stop with the rules and the strict as iron guidelines. Have you learned nothing from the success of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing?’ It worked, not only because it was Stephen King, but because he didn’t talk down to his audience. He assumed a certain amount of competence.

“But what if the beginning makes or breaks the novel?”

What? Are you hearing yourself? If the opening reeks that critically of the bowels of hellish prose, then nothing can save you. NOTHING. Do you have any idea how many books are on my shelves? Do you know how many of them were good, but not great enough for me to give a damn how they opened? The ones that were great, that stood out, were great because the author chose the opening that best fit the book. And that’s the difference.

There is no universal right and wrong in how to open a novel.

There is, however, a right and wrong way to open YOUR novel. Instead of freaking out over what not to do, why don’t you worry about what you should be doing instead. What does the story tell you? What do the characters tell you? Open your creative mind a little—just a tad—and eavesdrop on what your muse is doing. Deep down, below the industry blogs and posts you’ve got pinned on your FB wall, below all of that … you know how to proceed. You’re not giving yourself nearly enough credit for being the strong, confident author, that I know you are!

Allow me to assume a higher level of competency for you, than you have for yourself. listen to me. YOU. You are capable of writing the best opening for YOUR story. And do you know what’s more? No one else is.

No one else is.

That’s right ladies and gentlemen. Your story’s fate is in your hands and yours alone. You can’t put this off on other people. You can’t blame its success or failure on the weather or rules or Donald Maass. I know … frightening isn’t it? Along with competency comes responsibility.

And it’s your responsibility to focus on only what is true and necessary to the work. Nothing else matters.

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24 responses

  1. Thank G-d there is someone out there who understands! This is precisely the reason WHY I don’t let people tell me how to write or what to read. And since you mentioned King, I loved what he said in Hearts in Atlantis about the books to read. There are some books that have great writing, but crap stories; there are some books that have great stories, but crap writing; then there are those special few that have both.

    When I write, I admit, I do worry about whether my stuff is any good. It’s not whether anyone else will think it is any good, but whether “I” will like the final product. I have unpublished works from several years a decade ago that I look back at, and I groan. The story is good, but the writing is atrocious. “I” don’t like it, and I am reworking it, to bring it up to my standards because I think the story could be a success.

    • I JUST watched Hearts in Atlantis the other night on Netflix. Incredible movie … reminded me why I love King so much.

  2. I confess, one time I googled great openers to novels and stories, something like that, and spent about an hour reading opening lines.
    “On Writing,” changed everything. I damn well love that book.

    • We’ve all been there Blue. Even me. I won’t admit to how many agent’s blogs I was subscribed to at one point in my career. Or, I should say, before my career got off the ground.

  3. I do believe you are amongst the minority, my friend. But, you are right. Some beginnings stink but the story is amazing. Some authors do it on purpose too. I just finished Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. In his essay on writing the novel (which I read afterward as it was at the end of the book), he said that the first 100 pages were supposed to be penance for the reader. In order to get to the good stuff you had to do some work. When I went to post my “finish read” on one of my Facebook pages, someone said that he had shut the book because he couldn’t tolerate the first 50 pages. Bad beginning? Not a chance! Rose is probably one of my all-time favorites, and Eco is a genius. It may very well be that anyone who says that the book stinks because of a non-stellar beginning may not be a very good reader. Just a thought.

    • Oh, I’m definitely in the minority. No shock there. But, so were the folks saying that the earth was round when the majority said it was flat. I’m not worried, lol.

    • Leah, Not sure I agree that they aren’t good readers, but will say readers want to be drawn into the story from the beginning, even if that beginning isn’t “perfect” (whatever that is). You really DO have to make a start and go from there and get your reader going.

      I don’t like authors who make the readers slog through 100 pages to get to the good stuff. Why should they? If it’s not good and the writer knows it, get rid of it and put in the good stuff. I’m actually surprised the editor let him get away with it, but then I haven’t read the book so now I’m curious…

      I’m of the opinion that a writer needs, no make that wants, to shine every time out. They want to put on their fancy, glittery clothes and their high heeled shoes and strut their stuff, saying “look at me, aren’t I great!” It doesn’t mean we’re going to get it perfect from the get-go, but we can still strive to put the best work we can do in every line of every page in every book. I simply cannot imagine wanting to make my readers do penance.

      Just an opinion from someone who wants to be perfect every time out and struggles because she’s not.

  4. I always love reading your rants on this stuff, J.S., because it’s so refreshing to be reminded that I’m not the only author out there who sees through all of that analytical B.S. that goes around.

    It usually comes down to the analytical minds trying to apply their logic to art – and not just writing, but any art form. I always hated taking any kind of analytical art class, because it’s just so apparent that these people have no idea how a real artist thinks and works, and are always trying to make it more complicated than it has to be.

  5. Oh– so– true! Most of those cautionary bombs are built in excuses for some agents who want reading short-cuts and that will to say no anyway.

  6. This is such amazingly simple, wonderful advice. The kind that’s so commons sense that everyone feels like they should have known it as soon as they’ve read it. Excellent. 🙂

  7. Oh, excellent post, my dear friend! I figured this out a long time ago when people kept telling me what was wrong with my beginning in The Breakaway. NOTHING worked until I shut them all out and just wrote then danged book. I like suggestions, and I like feedback, but I’ve since learned how to pick what works for the book. If it doesn’t, it’s out. I’m also pretty picky about who I let read my stuff these days because too many cooks in the kitchen is just a Bad Idea.

  8. I stopped caring about *how* my story or novel opens, and just write the fucking book. :0)

    One of the things that you missed was: “Hooking your audience in a sentence, or paragraph, or even a page.” :0)

    I shot down the above a long time ago because I *realized*, it can’t be done! Especially when you’re writing 300,000 word tomes like me.

    Oh, um…being told: “You can’t do this or do that–because you’ll be rejected outright.” (So? Are you the one writing the book? Fuck off then! lol)

    I open with a prologue. I open with my characters waking up, I open with a dream sequence, I open up about what the weather is like. Why? Because these are all *instrumental* in conveying a sense of what your world is like or what your characters are feeling/doing. Excluding that, your book will be pretty damned dull–and as you pointed out–nobody will give a rat’s ass about your book anyways. :0)

  9. Pingback: Why it Doesn’t Matter How Your Novel Opens (via Welcome to the Asylum) « Sky's Universal Predications

  10. Well, that was refreshing. Somebody needed to say that!
    I have been fretting over this edit that I have planned for next month, and I keep questioning whether or not I need to chop out a couple of chapters. Some people think I do… some say don’t do it… and then there is me, wondering how the hell I am going to build all this information that is crucial to the book back in once I chop out the beginning. Ah, the joy of editing. Fun times ahead.
    Great post J.S! Thank you for alleviating some of the pain.

  11. Aw this is briliant! I’ve been fretting over how to start writing again, since I made up my mind to write this new book and sat with my laptop staring at me for ages. I keep realising I fancy a cup of tea or really need to take the bins out and other such vital things; it’s all because I’m afraid that I’ll make a hash of the start and I don’t want to keep changing it. Maybe I’ll just do it and see what happens! Thanks for the post – just what I needed.

  12. Hey, JS, you know you ought to write a ‘How To’ book. You could call it ‘How not to write like JS Chancellor – Go write your own book your own way, lamebrain!’
    I think it would sell a million.
    I love your posts! 🙂

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