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?


7 Responses to “The Clichéd Opening Scenes of Newbie Novelists”

  1. Joe Babbitt says:

    As I recall, I recommended that you pick The Lies of Locke Lamora back up. And I *was* the one who introduced you to The Name of the Wind, so you know that my tastes in fantasy are impeccable. Ran out of novels? Poppycock. 🙂

  2. T-Mac says:

    I know I’m jumping to movies, but is Inception the exception to the dream sequence cliché or are movies totally different?

  3. Jasmin says:

    Out of novels to read… I don’t believe you. Anyway, did you know about “All you need is kill”? It’s a short novel that Edge of Tomorrow based on. If you haven’t read it, you might like it. And have you heard of the Xanth book series? Is that any good?

  4. Sam says:

    I second Lies of Locke Lamora and also highly recommend the Lightbringer series by Brent weeks (first book is Black Prism, 4th book to be released this year) — excellent world-building on both counts. Finally, the Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett rounds out my top 5 fantasy series after Kingkiller and Stormlight Archive.

  5. annerallen says:

    Thanks much for the shout-out for my post! Of course there’s a reason for cliches: they’re usually very clever. The only problem is that lots of other clever people used them first. Reading a lot is a great way to find out what’s being overdone. Sounds like you’re doing a lot of that.

    As far as T-Mac’s question, movies are different, but a lot of the same cliches are overused. Inception is different because it’s actually about dreaming and the nature of reality.

  6. Jamey Stegmaier says:

    I’m so sorry for the delayed reply to these wonderful comments! WordPress currently has a glitch that doesn’t send comment notifications to my e-mail.

    Joe: Fair point. Though, in the meantime I’ve gotten into The Oddfits, and the new Brandon Sanderson book came out today.

    T-Mac: Indeed, I would say Inception is the exception.

    Jasmin: Thanks for the recommendation! Is it very different from the movie? I haven’t heard of the Xanth series.

    Sam: Awesome, it sounds like we have similar tastes–I’ll check out both of those series.

    Anne: Thanks for chiming in and for writing the excellent article!

  7. Jeff says:

    I’ll take you up on that bet about “literary” short story collections. I think you’re painting with way too broad a brush with that one, but I’m in total agreement with you about dream sequences. A pet peeve I have is what I call a “wall of exposition”–starting a narrative off with so much backstory or external details given out of context that I feel I have to scale the darn thing before I get to the actual story itself. The source post mentioned something similar with too much internal monologue.

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