Garlic Breath, or What Not to Do on Your Opening Page

“If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”
– Agent, speaking at a recent writers conference

The opening page of your novel is your big introduction. It’s what an agent will read with most interest, to see if you can write (which is why page 1 is often the first thing read in your proposal. You may have spent 100 hours on a killer synopsis, 50 on an irresistible query, but if the writing itself is not up to snuff, the busy agent can save time by tossing the whole thing aside without reading the rest of the proposal).
Think of it this way. You are at a party and the man or woman of your dreams is across the room. The host offers to introduce you. You walk over. There is great anticipation, even from Dreamboat, who is there to meet people, too. So Dreamboat extends a hand, you take it, and say, “Nice to meet you.”
Only you have a horrendous case of garlic breath. Dreamboat winces, whips out a phone and walks quickly away, muttering, “I have to take this.”
Well, that’s what it’s like for an agent reading your first page. He or she wants to like you, but if you’ve got garlic breath, it’s all over. Bad first impression. See you later.
I taught at a writers conference recently, where attendees were invited to submit the opening page of their manuscripts – anonymously. We then put these on two transparencies. The first one as is, the second I had marked up as a tough editor might.
It was quite educational. I got 12 first pages in all, and none were ready for prime time. There were several items that should be avoided at all costs on the first page. Here they are, in no particular order:
Characters Alone, Thinking
This was in the majority of the first pages I reviewed. We did not get a scene, which is a character in conflict with others in order to advance an agenda. We got, instead, the ruminations of the character as he/she reflects on something that just happened, or the state of his/her life at the moment, or some strong emotion. The author, in a mistaken attempt to establish reader sympathy with the character, gave us static information.
Such a page is DOA, even if the character is “doing” something innocuous, like preparing breakfast:
Marge Inersha tried to mix the pancake batter, but thoughts of Carl kept swirling in her head, taking her mind off breakfast and back to Tuesday, horrible Tuesday when the sheriff had served her with the divorce papers. Tears fell into the batter, but Marge was powerless to stop them. She put the mixing bowl on the counter and wiped her eyes. How much more could she take? With two kids sleeping upstairs?
Marge is certainly hurting, but you know what? I don’t care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care that Marge is crying into her pancake batter. The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset.
They won’t. It’s like sitting at a bar and guy next to you grabs your sleeve and immediately starts pouring out his troubles to you.
Sorry, buddy, I don’t care. We all got troubles. What else is new?
Don’t give us a character like that on page 1.
Agents and editors hate it when you open with a dream. And so do most readers. Because if they get invested in a cool opening, and then discover it’s all been a dream, they feel cheated. So you may have a gripping first page, but you’ll ruin the effect when the character awakens.
Yes, I know some bestselling authors have done this. When you start selling a gazillion copies, you can do it, too. Until then, you can’t.
Exposition Dump
In most of the first pages I reviewed there was entirely too much exposition. The author thinks that this is information the reader has to know in order to understand the character and the scene.
In truth, readers need to know very little to get into the story. They will wait a long time for explanations and backstory if the action is gripping, essential, tense or disturbing. My rule, ever since I began writing and teaching, is act first, explain later.
This rule will serve you amazingly well your entire writing career.
Weather Without Character
Another complaint you’ll hear from editors and agents is about “weather openings.” This is a catch all phrase for generic description. Chip MacGregor, agent, described his opening pet peeve this way: “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
If you’re gong to describe weather on the opening page, make sure you’ve established a character on whom the weather is acting. And make sure that character is not alone, thinking.
Point of View Confusion
Another big error was a confusion about Point of View. This comes in several guises.
1. We don’t have a strong POV character. Who does this scene belong to?
2. We “head hop” between different characters on the same page, losing focus.
3. We have the terrible sin of “collective POV.” That is, we get a description of two or more characters who think or perceive the same thing at the same time.
John and Mary ran from the gang, wondering where they were going to go next.
The 300 Spartans turned and saw the Persians approaching.
4. We have First Person narration without a compelling voice. First Person needs attitude.
5. We don’t have a POV at all until the second or third paragraph. We have description, but no idea who is perceiving it. We need that information right away.
So these are some very big don’t’ on your first page. Care to add more to the list?
And next week, I’ll tell you how to write an opening page that works . . .every time . . .in any genre . . .

27 thoughts on “Garlic Breath, or What Not to Do on Your Opening Page

  1. I was worried there for a minute, but I actually reached the bottom of the list without doing a single thing on it. Woo!! At least for the new WiP… I’ll have to go double check the last one. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jim,
    As always, excellent advice–especially since I breathed a sigh of relief once I found I hadn’t made any of those errors in the opening scene of my current novel.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love this list–great advice! We’ll just put aside as an anomaly, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” lol. What worked in 1938 for Daphne du Maurier doesn’t work today.

  4. Great post! I spend more time on my opening scene than almost any other in the whole book. It’s worth the pain as it is, as you say, the most important first impression of all. I also find it’s the entry way to getting into the groove of the book. A poor opening hampers me writing the rest of the book.

  5. Kathryn, I do always think of Rebecca when this advice is dispensed. The difference there is that she tells us she’s recounting a dream from the start. She doesn’t create a scene then, at the end, reveal it’s all been a dream.

    Far be it from me to criticize the divine Daphne. But yeah, I do think times have changed.

  6. Thanks for the reminders, Jim. I’m beginning a new book and value those pointers. I frequently start out with a conversation, but have to come back and change the beginning again and again. Then I find when the book is done I end up changing the first page(s)again.

    I love what Joe Moore said about the weather: Never begin with a weather report unless it’s a murder mystery by Al Roker. 🙂

  7. Great advice. I appreciate how you make me look back at my work and search for those rule breakers, especially the ones that could be deal breakers.

  8. One instructor at a recent writing conference I attended, collected the first line of each of our novels. Then we all voted on whether to we’d continue reading.

    At least you gave those novelists a full page to attract readers. Good post,Jim.

  9. Thanks for those great observations. I’ve recently been judging a contest for a publisher–reading dozens of first pages of fiction submissions. If you feel like adding another angle to this discussion, let’s explore prologues and why they most often should NOT be your first pages!

    I look forward to more great tips!

  10. Good tips. Though I believe I’m good for the opening page, I tend to get stuck in “character alone thinking”, at the beginning of 75% of the chapters. . . and then feel disgusted with myself when I go through rewrites. At least I’m not the only one with this problem, and at least I’m not sticking it right at the beginning!

  11. This is great information and the timing is perfect. I’m in the process of reworking my first chapter, so this information will help me not make common mistakes. Thank you!

  12. This is great information and the timing is perfect. I’m in the process of reworking my first chapter, so this information will help me not make common mistakes. Thank you!

  13. Writing nonfiction but the first pages have to grab ’em or it’s a lecture. boring. goodbye. I sweat bullets over the opening. Thanks a million for helping me understand better.

  14. Uh oh. I’m sitting here, alone at my desk, wondering if I’ve broken rule number one….don’t suppose you’d read it for me?

  15. Great post.
    I often go to the library and randomly pull books off the shelf and read the first paragraph. A real eye-opener as to what grabs my attention, and why.

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