We might tell someone who can’t escape our company a prelude to what just happened to us, but readers expect the first line of a novel to plant them in the “happening.” They can’t be expected to care about a backstory until they’ve had adequate opportunity to care about the hero. Backflashes at any stage in the novel should be minimal. Most often the information they contain can be woven into the “happening”.
TOO MUCH EXPOSITION
Let me show you around the town, my room, this alien world. Beginnings bogged down with exposition and description stall the reader. A master storyteller doesn’t need to prove how well he can capture a setting. He needs to prove how well he can tell a story. Set the scene with specific and minimal language—with power, not flower.
MEET THE CAST
This is my mom, this is my dad, this is my best friend, and he’s my nemesis. Introducing the hero’s inner circle isn’t how readers want to encounter the cast. Bring your characters on, let them do their bit, and we’ll get to know who they are… gradually, as in life.
A version of meet the cast, meet poor, despicable me. I’ll describe my hideous traits, but you’ll appreciate my humility and we’ll bond. It isn’t going to happen. Nor will readers care if your novel opens with the hero giving us a rundown on his despicable life. Show us. When things happen, stories move.
THE WAY WE WERE
Life was despicable but now it’s not, or vice versa. A novel beginning with the hero bemoaning his past—which is the writer setting readers up for a whopping event—is heavy-handed and cheap. It’s equally maudlin to begin with a moving van sweeping away every trace of a life he loved. These events aren’t bad in themselves, but find a creative starting point. Don’t resort to structural clichés.
WHAT DREAMS DID COME
Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants a sleeping hero. However weird his dream may be, however it may reflect the nexus of your theme, don’t open a novel with a dream. And don’t open a novel with a waking hero. Give readers something they don’t do every day.
The worst opening of all is sloppy writing. Beginnings might be the toughest challenge to writing a novel, but readers should never see you sweat. Your lead needs to give merit to the mass of words to follow. No, that still won’t do. Your lead must make the novel in their hands irresistible.