The Clichéd Opening Scenes of Newbie Novelists

cover_277I recently ran out of novels to read.

This wasn’t for lack of trying. I love that I can sample pretty much any book on my Kindle. I simply haven’t been able to get into any of those books.

This situation will soon change, with book 3s of several trilogies–Mistborn, Red Rising, and The Emperor’s Blades–being released in the next few months. But for now I was at a loss for my required doss of nighttime fiction.

So I did something I rarely do: I started re-reading a book I’ve already read. Someone recently gifted me a copy of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, so I dove into it and was instantly reminded of just how good it is. It’s Rothfuss’ first novel, but it’s written with the confidence and skills of a much more experienced writer.

Coincidentally, yesterday I read an article from another author called “10 Things That Red-Flag Newbie Novelists.” If you’ve ever written fiction or want to write fiction, it’s a must-read.

I’ve written the first half of two novels and one complete novel, so I was feeling pretty good as I read down the list…until I got to #9. Clichéd  openings. Not only do my novels (and many of my short stories) have these clichés, but I’ve read a number of books and short stories that shares these tropes. Here are a few from the list you might recognize (I’ll quote from the article, as the author presents the reason behind the cliché and how to fix it for some of them):

  • The most common is the “alarm clock” opening—your protagonist waking up—the favorite cliché of all beginning storytellers, whether short story, novel, or script.
  • Trains, planes and automobiles: if your character is en route and musing about where he’s been and where he’s going, you’re not into your story yet. Jump ahead to where the story really starts.
  • Funerals: a huge number of manuscripts—especially memoirs—start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement. If you use this opening, make sure you’ve got a fresh take.
  • Dreams: we’re plunged into the middle of a rip-roaring scene, only to find out on page five that it’s only a dream. Readers feel cheated.

I think my biggest pet peeves as a reader are the last two. If you ever read a collection of “literary” short stories, I’d bet good money that at least two of the stories will start with a funeral. And dreams…I never want to read a dream sequence. They don’t advance the plot at all because nothing real happens in a dream sequence.

By biggest shortcomings are those first two–I think I (and apparently other authors) mistake the urgency of an alarm clock or the movement of a vehicle for a compelling reason to start the story. But now it makes sense there are much better ways to begin a book.

Regardless, I’m grateful for authors like Rothfuss and their editors. As I read The Name of the Wind for the second time, I find myself admiring and studying all of the little things he does to make every sentence matter.

Are there any clichés in books that annoy you? Or, conversely, any books that you think all writers should read to improve their craft?