25 January 2012

10 Lousy Story Starts

by Diane Carlisle

When I’m browsing a book shelf for something to read, I typically just reach for anything and read the first page and if it doesn’t hook me right away, I might go to the second page or even to the third page. However, there are a few things that if encountered on the first page, I’m most likely going to close the book with a sideways glance and my nose up in the air. Bad, huh? I know. Here are those things that make me drop a book faster than Obama spending our tax dollars.

1. Please don’t start your novel with a weather report. You know what I mean. “It was a cold, dark night and the rain blasted the windshield like a windstorm in a desert.” This is the modern day version of “Once upon a time…”

2. I don’t like to read a first paragraph that starts with a character driving in a car, traveling somewhere. Why? Because it’s boring. You’re just writing what ten thousand people before you wrote only trying it with an arrangement of different words. It’s painful to read. Readers skip this stuff anyway, so why waste your time writing it? Instead of reading the words, your reader hears a song playing in their head, “I’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places…”

3. How many books must I read which start off with a character waking to an alarm clock or coming home to listen to an answering machine? And that phone call in the middle of the night? That’s not what Christopher Vogler refers to as the “Call to Adventure”. This is just another way for a writer to “start” putting words onto the page. When you get into the groove of writing your novel, please go back and delete this first scene. It’s been done. Over. And over. And over, again.

4. If you’re writing a mystery novel, please don’t introduce a nanny or butler. I will automatically assume they did it and not read the rest of the book. As a matter of fact, if I read the back cover of a mystery novel and it mentions castle, mansion or lost key, I won’t read it.

5. If you’re writing a romance novel, please don’t mention children unless they were killed off along with the ex-wife in a horrible accident years ago, leaving this gorgeous, wealthy, pain-stricken man, with a void in which only the virginal heroine can fill. Is that mean? Probably, but in reality, children and exs are huge in the baggage department.

6. If I read one more horror novel depicting a painting on the wall in which the eyes in the painting follow you and suddenly look away when you peer back, I will scream. And not from the horror of it either. Even the phone call which quietly yet urgently reveals the killer is in the house hasn’t been played out this much.

7. Breakfast in the morning with kids getting ready for school and a husband stuffing toast in his mouth while attempting to dress himself… is not a good story beginning. Why? Who am I to say it’s not a good story beginning? I’m a reader. Trust me, it sucks.

8. If I read more than one ‘ ly ’ adverb in the first paragraph of a novel, it gets put down automatically. This is a no-no. “The Baroness slipped gingerly from the satin covers and stretched effortlessly before promptly placing her feet into her slippers and daintily waltzing out onto the veranda.” Okay, that sucks, even without the adverbs. But, I think the point is made.

9. Don’t start your story with your main character taking a stroll through their house and garden. This is where the writer describes everything down to the detail, from the embroidered tapestry and cherry wood stained crown molding, to the French doors leading toward the rock garden and a ten by ten gazebo framed by white azalea bushes. Not necessary! This is where your character lives, day in and day out, right? Trust me, they’ve seen it before. Writers who do this are doing it for the pleasure of the reader. I get that. But it doesn’t add to the plot and it’s not really character development. Okay, so maybe the writer wants to show the character’s background, maybe give hints to the character’s class? She drives a Lexus; let’s move on. See what I mean?

10. If you’re writing in first person point of view, please don’t start with a physical description while your character is gazing at her reflection in the mirror. This is so jarring. In reality, do you think I’d actually walk up to someone and introduce myself like so, “Hi, my name is Diane Carlisle. I have brown hair, brown eyes and a slim figure. My hair is straight and I have a great smile.” I’d get some strange looks, wouldn’t I? Maybe after a short pause, “Why…of course you are! And, of course you do!” They’d walk away knowing I’m just a special person who rode the short bus.

So, your turn! What makes you put down a book before you even finish the first page?


  1. I was trying to read an anthology last night and couldn't get past a paragraph for any of them.

    Please don't detail the car to me. I don't care about cars. This isn't a book about cars. Why are you expecting me to care about cars when I'm reading an urban fantasy anyways?

    Don't focus on mundane things when something exciting is happening. I think this is one of those things where writers are told 'start a scene late and end a scene early' but they aren't skilled enough to pull it off gracefully. I don't care about the bar's decor when you just got shot at.

    I think the most jarring thing, though, is just having someone who is trying way too hard to be *blank*. It always comes off as really hard to get into.

    *Note that a good writer can pull off all of these scenes and not put people off, but the average writer should just focus on finding their own voice, rather than trying to force in someone elses. Just my two cents!*

  2. I think number 8 is my book. Where did you find that? Of course in mine it's a prologue which is even worse. I know, I know. Thanks for the painful post Diane!

  3. Point of view slips (or omniscient narrator will do the trick also), as in:
    John walked around the house. His blue eyes sparkled as he called out for Jane.
    No. Really, just no.

  4. lol, Eve! Actually, #8 was originally that I hate restaurant/bar scenes that serve no purpose, but my husband pointed out that I was being a bit mean to the "James Bond"ish type stories, so I had to change it out. :)

    Anjasa - "I don't care about the bar's decor when you just got shot at."

    Preach on!! :D

  5. I'm not a fan of describing the setting in the first page. I like action right away.

  6. I can't grasp that omniscient narrator either. Ran into one story where even a rabbit twitched it's nose at the smell of corn beef wafting from an open window. I was like, "Really?"


  7. Anything that is way far out there. Like the MC steps off the side walk and gets hit by a bus. Sure, it happens, but unless it really shakes the entire story, leave it alone.

    OK, maybe that's a bad example.

    I can't stand writing that goes into way to much detail. If it's a first time writer, then sure I get they are still learning, but the book shouldn't be published at that point anyway.

  8. Me too, Kelly. James Scott Bell's advice is to have movement on the first page, even if it's a rock skipping across a the surface of a lake.

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  11. MamaStrong, #11 any character dying by motor vehicle accident. If you get to kill off a character, make it big. :D

  12. lol I loved this post. I think for me, if there's a lot of backstory, I close the book. I need action!! Don't tell me what happened yesterday; tell me what's happening right now! :)

  13. What a list! I have to agree with he descriptions and people talking about their own appearance. I point that out a lot in my crits, but not just in first person. For instance, if you're writing from a dudes pov in 3rd person, you shouldnt say "he ran a hand through his dark brown hair." unless it's omniscient.

    All the other stuff can be cliche but not if done creatively.


  14. I think you've summed them all up! I can't tell you what makes me stop reading, but I certainly know it when I read it.

  15. I actually like reading about divorced life and children and single parenting and the challenges. That's a part of life...part of a life I have lived and so I identify with it. It makes things more realistic, in my view.

    I agree with your other points.

    It's interesting to see diverse likes and dislikes. We're not all the same so we all like and dislike different things.

  16. Welcome back Vicki and Lara! And my anonymous Mysti. :)

    I agree, these things can be done well by better writers. But they're like door to door sales folk. When they show up, you just want to shut the door.

  17. I understand your point, Corina. I can settle down with a book about true drama and real life story which tackles complex family issues. I just get distracted in the Romance genre when there's more than the man against woman dynamics in the story. I've even been accused of being borderline manly in my views about the romance genre.

    However, maybe that market of cross genre does need to be addressed in our society today? For example, I argued with some writing colleagues that I would like to experience sub genre elements of romance in suspense and horror.

  18. I totaly look in the mirror and talk about how awesome I look, everytime I go to the washroom.

  19. Haha Love them Diane! Totally agree with your list.

  20. I'm not a huge fan of prologues or names I can't pronounce or made up languages.

  21. If it's written in present tense, you won't get me past the first sentence. I made an exception for Hunger Games and it was a mistake. I just hate it and 1st person present is even worse. I guess some writers (evidently) feel that it has its place but to me it feels like a gimmick and I resent gimmicks...especially distracting ones. Grrr.

    Whenever I browse through CC queues for things to critique I find so many stories that look interesting then they let me down in the first few words. Pity, because I'm sure they were lovely ideas. Luckily for those authors there are plenty of people more accomplished than me who can appreciate them. But really? I don't understand why it's so popular all of a sudden!

  22. >> faster than Obama spending our tax dollars

    We should always be looking to strengthen both the prose and the emotional accuracy.

    .... faster than a Kenyan Muslim Socialist burning through our tax dollars

    >> The rain blasted the windshield like a windstorm in a desert.
    Is that one of yours? IMO it's a staunch opening, strong enough, incongruous enough to make me want to read more.

    All really good points. I suspect it's simply a case that becasue these are so prevalent, they are easy and therefore hint at a shedload of cliches to follow. Each one also has the possibility of riveting exceptions.

    Mr. Jenkins, the buttler at Carlisle Hall, opened the door almost before Denise could take her finger off the buzzer. Everything about him, from immaculately pressed tailcoat to clipped accent, whispered old world sophistication. Everything about the silencered Beretta in one white-gloved hand screamed blue murder. "Please do enter, Detective," he murmured.

  23. lol @ magic and Puzzle. I like your butler, too.

    I also can't do 1st person present, Donna, but I think 2nd person present can be interesting.

    Rena, I skip prologues, but just the other day I discovered a John Saul book that had a pretty long prologue. Hate them myself! :)

  24. Great post! Thank you for stopping by my blog and sharing your story as well. Congrat's on your degree.

  25. Thanks Debra. Love me some blog hopping and making new friends! :)

  26. I hate long, boring descriptions, especially when they have nothing to do with the story or plot.

  27. I hate point of view that keeps skipping to every character. First you are in the detective's mind, then the psycho's mind, then the victim's mind. Yuck! I don't care what the victim is thinking since they will be dead in a few pages. I also hate long drawn out descriptions which I usually skip over.

  28. Deb, Dean Koontz does that in From The Corner of His Eye, but he does it very well. I really would like to read that book all over again, but ONLY from the POV of the killer. Awesome book!

    Charity, I'm with you on the long descriptions. If I can't visually be there (or at least feel like I'm there) while reading the descriptions, I get very impatient.

  29. I think I've pretty much covered number One in my earlier short stories LOL.

    My, but there must be a lot you don't read...

  30. Gary, I've covered number 1 as well in some of mine. :D

    That's why I can hold my head down when I list it. But hey, Puzzle had something positive to share about it that I wasn't aware of being a strength.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  31. I agree. Good points to add to my check list!

  32. Thank you, Southpaw, and glad you stopped by because now I have your recipe for the vanilla bean cupcake! :D WOW

  33. No weather reports or travels to and fro. Give me action. Intrigue me. The best opening sentence I ever read was by author Pat Conroy in the Prince of Tides: "My wound is geography."

  34. First in a short:

    Dead, in his casket, I wonder if he'd sit up and say something to me.

  35. This is a great (and funny) summary. I am not sure what does a book in for me - but I know it when I read it.

  36. From a writer's perspective, these tips are immensely helpful. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you for stopping by! When you read a lot, you start to see patterns. :D

  37. Hi Diane! I found your blog through Rena J. Traxel (am a fellow Liebster Award winner!) hehe!

    Great blog. I look forward to reading more. I agree 100% with all of the above. These paragraphs would have been revolutionary back in the day, but they have all become over-used and cliched, especially the husband getting ready quickly with a piece of toast in his mouth!

    And I hate detailed descriptions. Especially so early on in the book!

    I am a new follower!

    1. Congrats on your award! :D

      I agree with you on early beginnings. Make it quick and to the point and leave a lot of the "explaining" and "detail" until after I'm intrigued and taken in by the main character.

  38. LOL what an awesome list. I'm sure I've committed some of them in my day.

    I can do first person -- it was a Linda Howard book that grabbed me -- as I'd always put a book down in first person before hers. I'm a die hard Howard fan and will buy anything with her name on the cover.

    I actually wrote a first person -- and it wasn't planned. It just happened, LOL.

    First person present is my biggest issue. I hate it. I will always hate it. I will read it if it's an awesome book--but I still despise it.

    I sit in the car. I turn the key. I puke as I read.

    Ok, rant over


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