Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 40: 3 Rules You Can Break To Start Your Story


Welcome to week 40 of Anthony's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here

Goal setting
  1. Spend an hour or so reworking the opening scene of your novel.
Breaking it down

As we wrap up work on our first drafts, it might be a good idea to look at some of the writing ‘rules’ we’re told not to violate in the opening pages of our novels – whether it’s a plot device, style, or characterisation. When do we follow the rules? When do we ignore them?

1.  Never start your novel with a prologue
Somewhere in the past ‘prologue’ became a dirty word although no one really knows why. Maybe, like any device, it was simply overused. We’re told never to use prologues if we can help it. On a recent trip to my favourite book store, I browsed through the titles on the shelf.

I can’t tell you how many started with a prologue – from bestsellers to more literary works. Maybe not all of them were explicitly marked as a ‘prologue’, but they were definitely ‘teasers’ or ‘hooks’ to rouse the curiosity of readers.

If the opening chapters of your novel are a bit slow, perhaps a prologue would work for you – almost like some bloodied chum in the water to pull the reader in. For my novel, I have a prologue – a taste of the climax or flash-forward. Whether it will survive the final draft, I don’t know.  Perhaps I need to look at making the beginning of the first chapter stronger.

I think a simple litmus test is: Does it actually help the story? Or is it window-dressing? If you feel your story can’t live without a prologue, there’s no reason why you can’t you use it to its full, if blatant, effect.
2.  Never start your novel with a description of the weather
I think this one started with the infamous line, ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’  We’re cautioned not to start with lengthy setting description, but to rather have the character or characters doing something.  However, if done right, where’s the harm in it?

I think readers like a certain amount of familiarity when they pick up a book for the first time. They don’t want something that’s going to intimidate them from the opening line. So It was raining in Paris may not be the worst place to start your book.

Just as long as you bring in some action soon after your well-crafted description of the weather.  So It was raining in Paris and the sniper on the roof of the Hotel Bertillon trained his rifle on the presidential limo below is probably a bit better.

In my prologue, I commit this ‘sin’ – the opening scene starts with a cold winter rain storm. But I think if the weather is extreme enough and suits the tone and mood of the story, this is another rule you can break. However, perhaps I’m pushing my luck here with two strikes against my opening. It may be time to re-think those first few pages.

3.  Never start your novel with your main character alone in bed
Back at that same book shop, some of the titles I picked up started with a character alone in bed or waking up. Not that many, I’ll admit, but even in the mega-successful The Hunger Games, Katniss wakes up alone on the day of the reaping.

However, I’ll concede that it's probably a lazy way to start a book – having your character in a state of inertia. It’s probably because we want to start the story on the day everything changes. But maybe skip ahead – your character is brushing his teeth, jumping in a cab, rushing to the office.

Of course you don’t have to have your character alone in bed.  You could open with a sex scene. Many would say this is another ‘cheap trick’ but if it works for your story, it can be an intriguing start. Pacific Heights by Paul Harper does this well and sets the tone for a great psycho thriller.
Timelock — 1 to 2 hours

Spend one or two hours reworking your opening pages, chapter or – wait for it – prologue.

5 Quick Hacks
  1. Rewrite the opening scene of famous novel just for fun and to get over your nerves. Try Rebecca, Lolita, Anna Karenina, or Moby Dick.
  2. Try to remove as many of the adverbs and adjectives as you can from the opening scene.
  3. Make sure the first time you introduce your character, he or she is as compelling as possible.
  4. Try to orientate the reader as quickly as possible. Who is the character you want them to focus on? Where is the story taking place?
  5. Build in some intrigue to the opening pages – don’t over explain or overplay your hand. You want the reader to be anticipating ‘what happens next?’
Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘Beware of advice – even this!’ — Carl Sandburg

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

 by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

If you enjoyed this post, read:
  1. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 39: 3 Big Questions That Demand An Honest Answer
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 38: 3 Criteria For A Perfect Scene
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 37: Rules Of The Game

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7 responses
Thank you for addressing the "nevers." Such rules stemmed from these types of beginnings being overdone, clichéd, or uninteresting. But if an opening is unique, captivating, and relevant to the story, then who is to say it is wrong? A "never do this" rule ultimately limits the creativity of writing.
Well put, Eva. I couldn't agree more.
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