The other day, my agent (Polly Nolan, for those who are new to the party – hello! Welcome!) posted an interesting Tweet. Here it is:
The opening of your novel is so important. It’s the bit that will draw in not only agents and publishers, but also readers. It should be true to your ‘voice’, open a window into your fictional world, give a clear impression of your protagonist and a hint about what’s facing them as your story unfolds, and – if possible – it should avoid a few classic mistakes.
As Polly says, ideally a strong opening to a novel shouldn’t feature weather or a character waking up from sleep, particularly if it’s due to an alarm clock ringing or because of a nightmare frightening them into wakefulness. In my opinion, a novel also shouldn’t open with a character describing themselves, either, particularly if it’s achieved by having them look into a mirror.
Not that I’m anyone to judge.
My first ‘novel’ – completed, but never shown to anyone – began with a little girl looking out her aunt’s window watching the rain fall outside and wondering how she was going to pass the time until it stopped. Also, I once wrote half a novel which opened with a girl waking up from a recurring dream which had been bothering her for months. She returns to sleep and when she wakes up again – properly, this time – she and her sister help one another to dress, enabling me (the extremely novice writer) to describe what my protagonist looked like through her self-deprecating self-comparisons to the other girl. I then go on to describe the day outside and what the weather was doing, for no real reason.
All in the space of the first four pages. Yeah. Clever, huh?
It’s no surprise that neither of these stories went anywhere. The first was just nonsense, and I felt the second was too similar to every other YA-kidlit dystopian narrative out there. Parts of its story world did end up resembling another novel (in one of those weird ‘My-idea-has-been-STOLEN-from-my-very-BRAIN moments which happen to everyone at some stage), and I felt the other book had handled it much better than I ever would. So, I chucked my own story. But I thought of these books with a certain fondness when I read Polly’s Tweet. Everyone has to make the same mistakes when they’re starting out. It’s a rule. Or maybe a law. I was (and am, because I’m still learning) no exception.
The strange thing is that even though nobody ever read these proto-books of mine, and I had no feedback on my writing at that point in my life, I somehow picked up, probably from reading other books, that these methods of kicking off a story weren’t good ones. It’s important to say that this isn’t because they’re not good places to start off a story, per se; it’s more to do with the fact that everyone does them. These methods of beginning a story have been used so often that they’ve become almost instinctive (which is why so many beginning writers default to them), and they’ve become so clichéd that Madeleine l’Engle parodied them in the opening to her most famous novel A Wrinkle in Time. I’m sure agents see them in their hundreds, week after week – and that’s what you want to avoid, if you want to get their attention. (Other things to avoid: bribes, ‘presents’, scented paper, threats to burn their offices down unless they take you on, pleading, personal photographs of you, and general weirdness. Word to the wise. You’ll get their attention that way, too, but for all the wrong reasons).
However, I do have to admit that thinking about this issue got me wondering whether it’s ever a good idea to begin a story with an alarm clock ringing or the weather or your protagonist looking at themselves in a mirror. Just for fun, then, I put this together:
Katie woke from a deep sleep to the sound of an alarm. Half-conscious, she wriggled her arm free and slapped at her bedside table, searching for the clock as its relentless brrrrrrring burrowed into her brain. Her knuckles knocked against something cold and unfamiliar, something which clanged like hollow metal, and it jerked her more fully awake. What on earth had that been?
Consciousness crept over her, confusion coming with it. The mattress felt weird; harder than usual. The air smelled cloying, with a tang like blood. Her breath caught in her neck as she opened her eyes, feeling the sharp pull as a layer of encrusted… something broke apart, tugging at her eyelashes.
Everything was dark.
She blinked, but the darkness stayed absolute.
Then, like she was inside an egg being cracked with a silver spoon, light burst across her vision, slashing her retinas. She recoiled from it, hissing, as she raised her hand to shade her watering eyes. All she could see was light, like a scalding yellow sun. Gradually, it began to show her the smooth, domed ceiling above her, the featureless walls. This is a dream, she told herself.
The alarm never stopped its ringing.
’99-097-31!’ shouted a voice, clanging inside Katie’s skull. She rolled her gaze around, wondering what she was enclosed in. A capsule? A cell? ‘On your feet!’ Like the words had triggered her muscles, Katie swung her legs out of bed. The floor was cool on her bare soles, but the light-filled gap was widening, permitting the brightness of a desert day to pierce Katie’s world. The heat was rising with every breath. The snow and ice that had been there, outside her window on the street where her house was, where she’d grown up, where her parents were in the next room and where she’d gone to sleep just a few hours before, had been replaced by unrelenting sun and cracked earth. A broken ruin lay somewhere on the horizon. As she struggled to stand, her feet slid across the metal floor in pools of sweat, throwing her back against her thin mattress. Her heart thumped painfully beneath her collarbone.
‘What’s happening?’ Katie called. ‘Where am I?’ But there was no reply.
As she gazed around, desperately searching for answers, a telephone, a door, she was transfixed by an image in the metal wall opposite. Her reflection. She saw a skinny dark-haired woman sitting on a sleep-tossed bed, bright blue eyes staring out of a hollow face, stick-like arms clutching the thin blankets. A scattering of dark moles pocked her face like ash on milk. The reflection’s thin, chapped lips stretched as Katie gasped, raising a bird-boned hand to her face. She felt rough fingertips touch her blistered mouth, and the movement was echoed by the mirrored woman.
But the reflection showed someone Katie had never seen before in her life.
So, there you have it. Maybe starting with an alarm, the weather and a character’s self-description isn’t always a bad idea.*