The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents

The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents

This column is excerpted from Guide to Literary Agents, from Writer’s Digest Books.

No one reads more prospective novel beginnings than literary agents.

They’re the ones on the front lines, sifting through inboxes and slush piles. And they can tell us which Chapter One approaches are overused and cliché, as well as which writing techniques just plain don’t work when you’re writing a book.

Below, find a smattering of feedback from experienced literary agents on what they hate to see in the first pages of a writer’s submission. Consider it a guide on how to start a novel. Avoid these problems and tighten your submission!

False beginnings

“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”
Cricket Freeman, The August Agency

“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

In science fiction

“A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

worstwaystobegin

Prologues

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”
Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”
Andrea Brown, Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

damntheprologue

Quick note from Chuck: I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. If your query or synopsis or manuscript needs a look from a professional, please consider my editing services. Thanks!

Exposition and description

“Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition – when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”
Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management

“The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress — with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves — sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.”
Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary

Starting too slowly

“Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”
Dan Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter One in which nothing happens.”
Jessica Regel, Foundry Literary + Media

In crime fiction

“Someone squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Good grief — been done a million times.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

In fantasy

“Cliché openings in fantasy can include an opening scene set in a battle (and my peeve is that I don’t know any of the characters yet so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn’t realize how common this is).”
Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary

Quick note from Chuck: if you’re looking for a writing conference, perhaps one of these below is in your neck of the woods. I’ll be presenting at the following events in 2018:

Voice

“I know this may sound obvious, but too much ‘telling’ vs. ‘showing’ in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me. The first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who and how.”
Emily Sylvan Kim, Prospect Agency

“I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story.”
Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary

“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.”
Daniel Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t like an opening line that’s ‘My name is…,’ introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. There are far better ways in Chapter One to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader.”
Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player.”
Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency

In romance

“In romance, I can’t stand this scenario: A woman is awakened to find a strange man in her bedroom — and then automatically finds him attractive. I’m sorry, but if I awoke to a strange man in my bedroom, I’d be reaching for a weapon — not admiring the view.”
Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

In a Christian novel

“A rape scene in a Christian novel in the first chapter.”
Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Characters and backstory

“I don’t like descriptions of the characters where writers make them too perfect. Heroines (and heroes) who are described physically as being virtually unflawed come across as unrelatable and boring. No ‘flowing, wind-swept golden locks’; no ‘eyes as blue as the sky’; no ‘willowy, perfect figures.’ ”
Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency

“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them — it’s in their DNA.”
Adam Chromy, Movable Type Management

“I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story; a story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.”
Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.”
Rachelle Gardner, Books & Such Literary

Other TWL Guest Posts by Chuck Sambuchino:

  1. What Does a Literary Agent Want to See When They Google You?

  2. Tips for Pitching a Literary Agent at a Writers’ Conference

  3. Querying Literary Agents: Your Top 9 Questions Answered
Filed Under: Craft
James Chartrand

Featured resource

How to Create Believable Characters

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271 comments

  • Thank you for this post. The quotes from agents are so useful.

    I recently removed several chapters of pure back story from the beginning of my manuscript. I had to write those chapters in order to learn about the characters, but they didn’t need to be in the book.

    Thanks again,

    Sarah

    • Rene' says:

      I got an idea from my super creative 10 year old and started writing one day. I’m not a writer, but I like what I wrote and think I want to try to make a real novel out of it. The problem is that all I have is a prologue. I don’t know where to go from here. I got online today for the purpose of trying to learn and see how to make this work. This feedback from professionals has been very helpful. I am glad that there are tools like this out there. Obviously, I need a lot of help.

      • I wrote a rather long short story once that was critiqued by a very well-known SF/F writer. She said it felt like it needed to be a novel.

        Perhaps your prologue is really a mini-outline of the book that really wants to be written.

      • Pat says:

        I’ve written only one book, but I can tell you what was very helpful for me. A book called “Take Your Characters to Dinner” by Laurel A. Yourke gave me very detailed instruction on how to write a good novel. I also enjoyed reading “Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson. There a many, many other books you could read, but I found these two books to be very simple to read and follow. They even give examples and writing exercises. Good luck with your novel; you can do it.

      • Dua Khan says:

        I’m also writing a book. Not written any prologue because I don’t like them. Reached 67 pages yet and am continuing. I’m boosting with ideas but will also need help and would be glad to help others too.

      • chris.p says:

        well I like prologues because it gives parts the story before it happens.

        • sharon says:

          I like prologues to. I have an awesome prologue but I can’t figure out how to start it. Its an awesome idea butt I’m only 14 and I’m not that experienced and I got obsessed on making the book perfect, so I just set it aside because it was making me stressed and I write a casual random-ideas-all-put-together kind of book. It really helped,and it was good practice too.

          • Katelyn says:

            I’m a prologue person too it’s more the beginings of chapter one that I have issues with I suck at beginings I can write a good middle and an end but give me a begining to write and I’ll literally be stuck for days as it happens I am right now …. I’ve re written it like three times and im just not happy with it it’s frustrating me

          • Mark Borok says:

            Ignore all this advice when you’re just starting. Just write whatever comes into your head, but keep in mind where your plot is going and what the point of the book is. When you have a first draft, you can go back and fix things, asking yourself if what you are reading is interesting, and if it helps the reader to understand the plot and characters. If the prologue doesn’t work, you can then throw it out or work it into the main part of the book.

          • Dua Ali says:

            I am 15! Nice to ‘meet’ another young writer! Hope you get it perfect and published soon. I would really like to read it.

          • Ted freckle says:

            Try: Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.

          • Tori says:

            Mark Borok, I was eleven when I started on is journey. I had just finished Eragon (he does have a prologue.) and wanted to write an epic adventure too, of my creation. Since then, I’ve plowed ahead, and I have started over because I lost my copy, and such. Or I didn’t like it. At times it is stressful then the other half, it is very freeing! You can spill your anger onto the page and into your character, you can do whatever you please! You can go where you want say what you want. And my take on all this business is, everyone has opinions, everyone has something to say and all advice is different. Follow your heart. Is a common one, so why not do that. Deep breaths. There’s another repeated so it must also be good. So do that! Stress is a big damper of moods, but when you clear your head of “dos” and “don’ts” or even “donuts” things go a lot smoother. I like this blog, but I don’t want to be told what I can’t do, tell me what I can do! And I’m telling you, YOU CAN DO THIS! You don’t need a master degree in English!
            This is YOUR story, and this YOUR adventure. Take a deep breath, trust your heart, and dive in!

          • Trinity says:

            hi this is from a young writer I’im only 12) and i came on this site just to see how to improve my book (which should be out in 2018 yea!) but i just wanted to say thanks to all the people giving advice because it really helps

          • Stephen Reid says:

            I think it’s more important for writers to write prologues than for authors to have them in their finished novels. The prologue is backstory, meaning it happens before the real story begins. It’s important while writing the story to know this information in order to portray 3-dimensional characters right from the story’s start (which always begins as close to the end as possible). It’s also important to know this so you can sprinkle it in as the story develops. It is NOT important for the reader to begin reading anything before the beginning of the story, with the possible exception of books two and onward in an epic series. I often find prologues almost as interesting as sitting through the adds before a movie starts. In my humble opinion, I’d say prologues are most often a mixture of lazy writing and an overly sentimental attachment writers have for the words they’ve written.

            (P.S. I have a fascinating prologue that I’m writing parallell to my fantasy novel, but it’ll never see the light of day in book form.)

      • BrandiBlessed says:

        I’m in the same boat as you are,I believe I have a great story to tell just don’t know how to get it out there or where to start. I’ve been onine searching and looking for Ideas on where to start and I’m still lost any Ideas or suggestions?

        • Someone says:

          I had the same problem… I changed the first chapter for 5 times…
          but someone told me: if you wanna find something, then stop searching for it… so I stopped and I paid attention to the world around me… then I found it… I found how to begin the story…
          If you are thinking about writing a story, then you MUST write it… it may change so many people’s life…
          So don’t worry and go for it.

        • Don’t get so hung up on the beginning that you never finish your first draft. You’ll probably change your beginning more than any other part of your story anyway, because the process of writing the rest will help you learn more about your characters and where the story will ultimately go.

          Write something that works for you, then keep going. I’ve seen too many writing friends try so hard to write the perfect opening that they never write the second scene.

      • Daniel says:

        Find a writers group in your area if possible, or on line. They can give you feedback, suggestions, and encouragement along your journey.

      • Aleta Dye says:

        There are so many great books and U-tube videos on writing well. Chuck Sambuchino has several books out (all available on amazon.com). Also James Scott Bell, Holly Lisle, and Shelly Hitz. There are also a number of great blogs and websites on the writing process. This is one of them. You might also check out PnP Authors. This site gives you opportunity to write short stories, get feedback from other authors on what you wrote, with possible inclusion in a yearly anthology. It’s all free. Holly Lisle has classes on character and plot development, as well as how to write flash fiction. Most of her classes are only $9.99 with free downloadable worksheets. Hope this helps. Keep writing.

    • Jim MacKrell says:

      How is this for an opening line. ” Literary Agents are becoming more and more unnecessary but a enormous amount of time is spent trying to please those who probably can’t sell you work anyway…”

      • Nadine says:

        Literary agents may be unnecessary, but editors are not.

      • Yza-Dora says:

        Read an old post dated June 24th, but I agree with you 100%!
        Agents are a waste of time. I gave up after 2 years and went the self-publish route on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords. Good luck in your writing!!!

      • Exactly. Agents have proven time and again they aren’t any better than oridinary people at finding gold in the slush pile (which is an insulting term in of itself). My book features two of those sins (a prologue, and a character dying in the first chapter), but my readers have already proven that they connect well with the story and her death is not a mystery (it’s right in the description so you don’t feel cheated). If people like your story they like your story no matter how it’s dressed up. 🙂

      • john kneeland says:

        It sounds like you’re griping. Not interesting.

    • George says:

      Thank you so much. I have attempted to write many novels and books and manuscripts but they never seemed to work out. now I know what to do and what not to do.

  • I am not published yet, but I hope to be in the future. I agree with some of these points, but there are others where I feel that the person making these comments is just … childish.

    A story that starts in a dream state, waking up to a point where basically everything you just read didn’t really happen. 1:) Such a thing can show the mental state of the character in question. Some may think it bogus, but dreams can have meanings dependent on the person having the dream. — If this makes you feel cheated, then my response to that is simply that’s your point of view. This does not make it a horrible way to start a novel. I’ve read plenty of novels with dream state scenes and I was not turned off. In fact, much of my current work focuses on dream states and flashbacks and mental reverie showing how my main character is warring within himself in regards to the happenings of his life. It portrays how disturbed and jaded he is. It can get repetitive, as with all things, but I won’t be filling the story with them. 2:) My point of view, I think it’s just fickle to want to put a book down for this reason.

    Laundry list description of character’s physical appearance. I agree and disagree with this one. Yes, it can get tedious some times, and take away from the story, but I personally like to envision the world and the characters in my mind as I read. I like to picture the story not just read it. I’ll never state specific definitions, such as heart-shaped face (Because faces are round. The head is round, the face is on the head, therefore the face is round.) or of Empire waists and Tight sleeves. My descriptions involve naming the type of clothing and a general description of how it fits. (i.e. Baggy pants) That’s it, and only when it is necessary. Sometimes, what the main character is dressed in is entirely unimportant.

    Perfection in character description. Let me just say, there are people with wind-swept hair, people with eyes as blue as the sky, but should I approach this from a different view? Why is wind-swept hair perfect? Why is blue eyes perfect? I’m a nature lover. Blonde hair is not my thing. I prefer redheads and brunettes, and one of my main characters has black hair and green eyes. That aside, perfection is unbelievable in my opinion as well, however, that does not mean that we should then label what perfection is. Some people pay attention to their hair, and take care of it till it is wind-swept. I do not consider this a symbol of perfect. In fact, someone who pays that much attention to their hair is foolish in my mind. Too much free time on their hands to keep from worrying about the real problems in life. And willowy figures? That has always seemed to me as a statement of how fragile they are; weak and breakable. No two people are exactly alike in appearance and just as that is true so is it true that no two people’s preferences are the same. While one person may regard wind-swept blonde hair, willowy figure, and sky blue eyes as perfection, there are some of us that are not inclined to view the “Master Race” as perfect. I’m Italian and everyone in my Italian family has dark hair. I have the lightest color hair in the family, and I have brown hair (because my mother’s side of the family isn’t Italian, and she’s a blonde). And no one in the family is willowy. Most are, in fact, more oaky.

    • Pucha says:

      I…okay I don’t really care about the other stuff you said…but…but are you serious? I hope you know that there are MANY different face shapes. I’m an artist. I study this kind of thing. That is LITERALLY the most RIDICULOUS thing I have read all night and I surf Tumblr regularly. Open up an anatomy book sometime dude. Or even an ART book. Study more. You obviously need it.

      • Michele says:

        Yeah, that and the head is NOT round. It’s egg shaped. Plus some other things you said bugged me, but the whole face and head are round bit is just wrong.

        • Perse says:

          Kenneth Morelli:
          Setting aside the fact that some people disagree with you on face shapes, I found your reply to be very comforting. We’re not picture artists, we’re book writers. I’m currently writing a book called Planet Greenhouse. It’s about a woman, Sandra, who takes it upon herself to correct the actions of a popular marine amusement park, BlueOcean. From the beginning, she refuses to tell her best friend what she’s doing, at first for fear of hurting Lynn and later for fear of being caught lying. Her husband Mike expresses his adamant disagreement with the protest, and when she doesn’t listen to him, he begins to feel more and more betrayed. The story starts with a prologue, where Sandra has already been arrested for disturbing the peace. She wakes up from a dream where the police caught her, and even though the story hasn’t started yet, we can see that she has plenty of internal conflict roiling in her mind over what she’s done. (See? The dream serves a purpose!) Through her interactions with Mike, we can see just how upset she is, and soon the story moves on to a few days in the past, which is actually her telling Mike her perspective on everything that’s happened. Three of my associates have read what I have so far and say it rallies with the other good reads they’ve read.

          When I first read this post, I thought, “Oh no, will no one like my story?” And then I saw all the different comments on this page…including yours, which basically speaks my mind. Perhaps there are recommended and not-recommended techniques, and the agents should definitely be taken seriously, but when it comes down it it, your book is *your* book, written about what comes out of *your* mind, and in the end it’s all about personal preference.

          Furthermore, Pucha and Michele, I don’t think artistic accuracy is the point here. It’s important to create a believable world, but do you really think it matters to the plot whether the character’s face is shaped like a heart or an egg? Personally, face shape description just distracts me from the rest of the plot. It’s unnecessary.

          • Sazanami says:

            Unless you are a professional writer, you shouldn’t think too much about whether other people will like your story. Write what you like yourself instead. If you like your story, that should be good enough. Invariably, there will be more people with interests like yours.

            Don’t put too much stock in a random quote pulled out of context. The criticism from someone that actually read what you wrote – and legitimately tried to enjoy it – is worth a hundred times more.

          • Eggs, hearts, and apples are round as well. Round and circle are not the same thing. All circles are round, but not all round things are circles. So yes, faces are round. But that’s beside the point.

    • mrvanessarose says:

      Here’s the thing: I think there are exceptions to every rule if what you have to offer is legitimate. What I took away from the agent comments were that if you’re going for these approaches to be gimmicky, to try too hard or to perform, don’t bother. If you have a creative way to implement these things or if they’re imperative to your story and you make them unique to your overall approach, don’t let some comments stop you. Also remember not to get defensive. They’re just offering their professional opinion because they read a lot more aspiring novels than I imagine you do. They know what’s been done over and over again and truthfully, do you want to be doing something that’s been done a million times? That’s up to you, of course. Your writing is yours, don’t worry so much.

      • john kneeland says:

        I think maybe what the agents are getting at is that they are reading things that are just not compelling. A great writer can make a prologue that will pull the reader right in. There is always something going on, whether it be external action or mental action. And by action, I don’t mean just a lot of sound and fury. I mean that something is really at stake. Anyone needs to examine what they’re writing and ask, What is this about?

    • Genesis says:

      Mr Vanesarearose I do get where u are coming from. For every rule they list I’m sure there are exceptions. However, I think a lot of it is not necessarily saying that its a sign of poor writing to break these rolls, but more that it’s been done so many times, even if you feel it’s right for the story you run the risk of looking boring overdone or the kiss of death “cliche”. Gasp! Lol.

      The truth is when literary agents look at the work of a first time writer they are looking for reasons to reject the work not accept it. So don’t give them any. They see a lot of crap. These are good tips of what not to do so that your work doesn’t get thrown on to the scrap heap before it’s ever given a chance.

    • James says:

      I’m sure you’ve read plenty of times each of these things has been done, and done well. But, not being an agent, I can only imagine how bad the stories they’ve read really were.

      Think again about laundry list descriptions. Every word of description slows the story; there’s no reason that the story should spend an entire paragraph slowing when you could put each detail with a different action. Sure, everybody likes to visualize the story, but there are details, and there’s trivia.

      If the characters ignore a detail, then shouldn’t we?

    • Furie says:

      The point with the laundry list descriptions was not that descriptions are bad, but that dumping a load of description all at once as soon as you meet a character is bad. By all means have flowing hair on a character, but perhaps have him or her brush it back as a mannerism. Yes, have them wearing specific types of clothing, but mention that as you get to know the character and make it worth knowing (For the first time since we’d met, she wasn’t wearing one of those over sized band t-shirts her dad had left her. I knew then that today…). Spreading the description throughout a piece lets you constantly build on the character and make them seem more complex and realistic. An info dump of description as soon as you meet them either leaves them hanging from then on or will be reiterated throughout the story. Either way it’s superfluous.

      Having said that, the laundry list of detail should be somewhere for you to go through. You can mark off things you’ve mentioned then and see bits of description that still can be fit into the book somewhere. It’s also handy to make sure you don’t mention they have green eyes in one spot and then blue in another. Just don’t put that info dump into the actual book, is all they’re saying.

      • Great explanation, Furie. As a reader, the info dump is frustrating to wade through as well!

        Heather
        TWL Assistant Editor

      • Jan says:

        One other thing …a laundry list of anything is unlikely to stick with the reader. Pick a couple of things about a character’s appearance, if that appearance is important to the story, and present them through the eyes of another character, if possible.

        If you’re writing a romance, and the protagonist meets her intended for the first time, what attracts her to this guy? There will usually be one thing about him that stands out, that pulls her in at first glance. What is it? That characteristic will stick.

        You can add other characteristics in a similar way as the story progresses, but an info-dump of hair colour, eye colour, age, height, weight, shoe size and overall body type will not stick.

    • Elle says:

      There’s a Henry James quote: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” Using dreams in fiction is dangerous since readers generally interpret them as the writer trying to force-feed the reader a metaphor. You know, how everyone cares about their own dreams but not others?

      Anyway. Rules can be bent, but some rules can make you a better writer. I have to say though that I love that you say you hope to be published, and then proceed to complain about publishing advice. Not everything is written in stone, but take heed the experiences of those who have read a ton of manuscripts. They know how to ID good writing.

    • Sarah Anne says:

      I agree that dream scenes to start out a book can be effective. I think these people are just stating that opening a book with an intense scene that is later surprisingly revealed to be a dream is overdone. Personally, to avoid that, I’d just state right away that the character is dreaming, although indirectly (he “tossed and turned amidst the sheets,” rather than he “was dreaming”).

      Also, I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I didn’t take what they said to mean physical perfection, even if that’s how they might have meant it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been turned off from a potentially good book because the main character has no personality flaws, the whole world is against him/her, but he/she can do no wrong, etc. It’s just not relatable.

  • Paul Garcia says:

    Excellent post Chuck!
    I appreciate the valuable information straight from the pro’s.

  • You know what? I had my doubts about this article, but after reading it — I agree with everything they said, because it turns me off too.
    — Let me add my own personal pet peeve — The book begins on a now, but they go back to tell the story. So basically they tell you where it’s going to end before they tell the story. I hate that.

    • Perse says:

      I would hate that too. But keep in mind that sometimes authors write a prologue that takes place only halfway through the actual story. Three of my associates read what I have so far (ten chapters and a prologue) of Planet Greenhouse, and one of them told me the mystery of how the story got to the point of the prologue had them riveted. Another suggested I pull a variation of the “surprise ending.” Surprise, readers: you thought you knew the ending but that’s only half of the story! That’s my current plan, since that’s definitely the direction the story’s taking.

    • Seanna says:

      Some stories that start in media res are actually quite good! But I get what you mean, though. When the story starts a bit too far into the plot, it can be really confusing/annoying. I find that the more experienced the writer, the better they can pull off the “in media res” start.

  • Ken Farmer says:

    I always get a kick when I read some agent or another decry prologues. Maybe someone should inform Clive Cussler…he of over one hundred and forty million novels sold…that prologues are not a good idea. Thanks for the laugh.

    • That’s because accomplished writers can pull off a great many things that the vast majority of writers–even some fine, well-published writers–cannot.

      • quickstride says:

        It’s not about being accomplished. It’s about the prologue being appropriate, as Cussler’s are…

    • There is a place for a prologue. However, most people haven’t a clue how to write one. You can tell this because they go on for pages. A good prologue is never more than one or two pages long, it provides something vital to the overall story that doesn’t fit into the regular story line and is always tightly written.

      • Neal Sayatovich says:

        I agree, mine is only 1.5 pages. I think they have a purpose, but people drone on and on with stuff that has no bearing in the story later.

      • quickstride says:

        Cussler’s prologues are often pages and pages long….and they WORK…because they are appropriate to the story…THAT is the important thing

    • quickstride says:

      Well said, but slightly misleading in my opinion.

      Cussler is one of my all time favourite authors. He writes genuinely enjoyable stories and Dirk Pitt is one of the best protagonists I’ve seen, but the fact that he uses prologues cannot be used to justify them.

      He needs prologues in his books, and NOT short ones. His stories are based on historical events and his prologues are never set in the present. They create a sense of what to expect from the rest of the novel, without telling you anything about what is going to happen in it. It is a masterful way of keeping the reader guessing, specifically because you are nearly constantly trying to figure out where the prologue is going to fit in.

      It makes you pay attention to the details and specifically to the dialogue, which I believe is one of the more entertaining parts of his work.

      Overall though, I think prologues are dangerous if not handled really well and I honestly believe that very few people handle them very well, regardless of the length of the prologue.

      It’s not about the word count of the prologue, it’s about WHY it’s being written…

      Just my two cents…

      Thanks for reading.

      • Perse says:

        Yes. All you people talking about prologues, I’m addressing you:
        It’s not quantity, it’s quality. A lot of authors don’t know how to use quality in their prologues so they go for quantity, and that’s what makes us think good prologues need to be short. No! I’ve written quarter-page prologues and four-page prologues and have received high praise for both! Just saying, it’s possible!

    • Gene in L.A. says:

      One of the first things we were told in a class on musical composition was, learn the rules so well that they come automatically, then you’ll know when and how they can successfully be broken.

  • Kay says:

    I’ve seen many a published author commit these sins; James Patterson especially, but he can get away with it!

  • Brian McGlynn says:

    I’ve been writing since my teens — I’m 64 now — and have made a great living at it. All of it journalism, much of it the legit kind and some corporate. I’m just starting on the road to fiction-writing land. Much of what Chuck wrote was familiar to me because I’ve been saying it for years to myself and my staff members. Yes, there are times when you can break the rules — color outside the lines, if you will — but the one basic truth is that a good story is a good story, and most are best told if the writer gets the heck out of the way and lets the story tell itself. Once you take the ego and personal angst/drama out of the process it’s really not that hard. The problem, of course, is finding a good story and a good editor.

    • Barbarann K. Ayars says:

      Oh my Goodness, Amen! Writing in the zone, when the left and right brain shake hands and agree to write the story after they’ve elbowed me out of the way, is when the works shines, when it’s fun, not painful, and I’ve allowed the little star of the story to own her own life right there on the page. That’s when the purple, the flowery, the over-written falls away and leaves me alone to just write it real. Nirvana. And rare.

  • I was just procrastinating my to do list of the day.
    1. Remove the boring backstory from chapter one.

    Thanks for the motivation!

  • Genesis says:

    Can I add one? Giving me 15 different character names in the first chapter to try to keep track of. Tip, only give characters that matter a name. The waiter doesn’t have to have a name. Just call him the waiter if the reader is never going to read about him again. It’s ok. You won’t hurt his feelings.

    • Aleta Kay says:

      I am an author with a lot of growing and learning still to do. My 2nd (and most recent) novel “Mending Fences” starts with a prologue that really should have been chapter one. It starts with action, ends with tragedy (not to the main character). The second chapter (labeled chapter 1) picks up the story seventeen years later.
      The main character does have a recurring dream, which doesn’t appear until later in the book. The purpose of the dream is him trying to figure stuff out about his life that his conscious mind doesn’t want to deal with. However, the dreams are kept to a minimum.
      It is self-published and currently only available as e-book. Self-publishing is great, but without someone to critique for you, you lose the opportunity to see where you can improve your story and correct errors before publishing. Once it’s out there, so are all of the weak points and errors.
      What I have learned: If I’m tired of reading it, put it away for awhile, as long as necessary, in order to come back to it with fresh eyes. Then take it to a writer’s group or study some of the books available from amazon and Writer’s Digest on self-editing and revision before publihing.

    • Sharon Todd says:

      A good example of not naming characters is used in the book “Balzak and the Little Chinese Seamstress” by Dai Sijie.

  • This is fantastic material! I totally loved it!

  • Looking at the Christian Novel advice I am floored. Do people really do that?

    • Nic Nelson says:

      Yep. Agents and editors just protect the literary public from them. Kind of like silent superheroes keeping out of the limelight; we will never know the deep debt we owe them.

      • Greta B. says:

        Ha ha, love it! But, that is so true! I can’t imagine how much horror they have spared us from… I just hope that my novel isn’t one of those horrors… I am writing a historical fiction novel on a topic I love but, it is very hard to write… I am not quite sure if that is a good thing or not.

        • Perse says:

          Sometimes the hardest books become the most brilliant. I think it’s a sign that your mind is working on a realistically complex story. Just take it through plenty of your own edits when it’s done.

  • K.E. Wright says:

    I think there’s a lot of good advice in this :))

    I’m an avid reader and I’ll just close a book and forget it for most of those reasons, though it concerns me that books can still get published with some of these!

    I do disagree about the prologue bit, though. I don’t use them often, but I usually try to set up something big in the story with a prologue –on one occasion, the death scene of a character that ends up motivating the rest of the story. I think that if they are written properly, a prologue can be incredibly important to a story’s development.

    It’s also good to see some of the genre clichés laid out, so I know some missteps to avoid.

    Thanks for some awesome advice, guys.

  • Mike McLeod says:

    http://Www.wattpad.com/mikemcleod3

    This is my first story its called Game On
    I would appreciate some feedback … I think I made none of the above mistakes

  • Our editors concur 100%. We see every one of these things, often. Many of these types of openings can be, and have been, done well (with the likely exception of the excessive adjectivia). But they are nearly impossible to do well by any but the most accomplished, experienced writer. If you’re Dickens, you can do pretty much anything you want. If you’re not, follow this advice!

    • Joe says:

      But how do you know that you’re not reading a future genius, like Dickens, who may be an exception, if you stop at the word, “prologue”?

      • Nic Nelson says:

        Three ways an editor knows they are “not reading a future genius, like Dickens, who may be an exception”:
        1. They already read the query or proposal that came with this excerpt, or they trust the agent that sent it to them, or they met the author in person at a conference and were impressed. Every submission arrives with some kind of context which increases or decreases an editor’s patience as they approach the manuscript.
        2. They understand WHY the bad beginnings don’t work. Detecting the existence of a prologue doesn’t trip an “Auto-Reject” circuit in their mind, though it might elicit a sigh.
        3. They love good stories. That’s why they are in this business. So if your prologue or your laundry-list-description is actually good, interesting, draws them in, then they will keep reading. At first this will be automatic, but editors are generally quite aware of WHY they like what they read. They will be conscious of how your clever prologue differs from the previous hundred info-dumps that crossed their desk that morning.. and why THEIR AUDIENCE will enjoy it too. Remember, editors are like designated shoppers, always looking for stuff their clientele will enjoy.

        Trust me, most editors have read more exceptions to these complaints than you or I ever have. They will recognize another exception when they see it. But if a certain kind of opening fails way way WAY more often than it succeeds, that’s when it occurs to them “Hey, I ought to mention this in my response to Chuck’s question about bad ways to start a story.”

        • Joe says:

          I just think, by and large, that agents are missing a plethora of good novels. There is a lot of crap being published, some make money, others don’t, but they are published on some obscure whim. There shouldn’t be any hard or soft rules to getting an author to print. I feel that it is much like the old Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd movie, “Trading Places.” What if these literary agents actually stepped down from their “high horse” and took a chance on some hard working, struggling writers who aren’t polished? Would the literary world end? No, it might breathe a breath of fresh air into it. And the new authors’ ending might be better than any of Stephen King’s ending.

          • Nic Nelson says:

            Joe, I agree with you: I was reading out loud to my daughter and found myself editing it on the fly as I spoke, to make the prose better. (I do NOT normally do that.) Most traditional publishers responded to shrinking profit margins by laying off significant portions of their editorial staff, and the results are obvious.

            And yes, there are many “proud and lofty” agents out there who don’t remember what it was like to pitch their own work, and have no empathy for writers who don’t meet their arcane criteria for potential greatness.

            The good news is that there are a lot of “humble and hungry” agents out there who dream of finding a diamond in the rough and sticking with that unpolished but hardworking writer all the way through their increasingly-successful career. I know several of them personally, and they can attest that there are many more like them out there.

            The trick, for both author and agent (or acquisition-editor– remember all the small publishers and independent presses out there who are desperate to grow their booklists), is to find one another. That’s where WritersDigest’s agent-related stuff comes in: those “meet-the-agent” emails are like personal classified ads: “Journeyman Agent Seeks Bright Cheery Chick-Lit Authors” or “Fantasy/SF Agent, Branching Out to Mystery and Suspense: Seeks Unpublished Talent with a Jagged Edge to your Darkness”

            Even better: writers’ conferences. “High-horse” agents go to be admired. More relationally-intelligent agents (and acquisition editors) go fishing for new authors. Meet as many of them as you can. They WANT to have coffee with you during the break, or find your manuscript/proposal in their conference critique pile. Conferences are their best hope to meet new talent. You won’t fit everyone’s bill, but you could be just the author that one of them is looking for.

          • Joe says:

            Great stuff there. Thank you for the encouraging advice.

            Sometimes I get very jealous of all the American Idol/Voice/America’s Got Talent shows or the countless cooking channels/shows that give unknowns a chance to display their talents, and there’s nothing like that for writers. I often wonder where Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson or even Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Pickler, non-winners, would be without A.I. there to give them a chance. Would they still be struggling at their day jobs and hitting karaoke clubs at night?

            Anyway, thanks, again, for the advice. Much appreciated.

          • Nic Nelson says:

            …and there’s always self-publishing. I’m a writing coach as well as a freelance editor; I’d be happy to help you do this successfully.

            (In all fairness, I must say that James Scott Bell, Randy Ingermanson, Laura Christianson, Kathy Ide, the author of this blogpost himself, and many others that don’t come to mind, could all serve you excellently in this capacity too! Google around, you’ll find a writing & publishing coach in your city, I’m sure)

          • HS says:

            I totally agree. Prologues have their place. If I remember right, Tolkein went on and on with flowery descriptions. Now he’s an iconic writer. I think it’s OK to step outside the box if done the right way.

          • Joe says:

            Amen! I wonder if people would reject tolkein today because of his use of flowery descriptive language. Having any rules: hard or soft, to determine eliminate pieces of work is bad. Judge the writing by the actual writing, not because it has broken one of the silly rules.

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