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Book Pet Peeves: 8 Bad Beginnings

I’m doing a series on book pet peeves, which will include things in books that instantly turn me off that book. After my onslaught of bad books last year, I decided to look into what made them bad, what I dislike, and what should be avoided in my opinion. This is part 1: 8 Bad Beginnings.

The first few paragraphs of a story introduce you to a new world. I am not a stickler for “the first line has to be a hook” rule, but I am pretty set on the view that the first few pages have to draw you into the story. If it’s boring, generic, or awkwardly worded, I set it aside right away. Here is a list of some book beginnings that especially bother me and instantly make the do-not-read pile (as well as a few exceptions to each rule and why the exceptions work).

1. “I wake up.”

  • What it is: Any variation of a character waking up to start the story
  • Why it bothers me: It’s annoying. It’s generic. It’s not necessary. Waking up is a daily action that reveals absolutely nothing about the character. There’s no excitement in it, no pull to bring me into the story.
  • Exceptions:
    • Every Day by David Levithan
      • First sentence: “I wake up.”
      • Why it works: Levithan subverts the expectation by a shocking second sentence. “I wake up. Immediately I have to figure out who I am.” That’s different, strange. Waking up becomes something significant to the character because every time the character wakes up, they’re in a different body.
    • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
      • First sentence: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
      • Why it works: Collins adds sensation to the sentence and follows it with an introduction to Prim, Katniss’s younger sister, and the very first paragraph ends with the sentence: “This is the day of the reaping.” Right away we know there is something different about this day, and the reaping does not sound like a good thing.
  • How to make it interesting: If you must begin a story with an “I wake up” sort of thing, be sure to give us the unique circumstances of the story immediately. “I wake up, and I’m in the middle of outer space.” “I wake up, and I’m covered in spider webs.” Or better yet, have another character wake up your main character. Show us the dynamics right away between the two characters. It’s not my favorite construction, but there are ways to do it that’ll keep the reader interested.

2. “It’s the first day of school.”

  • What it is: Any variation of stating that it’s the first day at a school, training camp, etc.
  • Why it bothers me: It’s boring. It’s generic. It doesn’t reveal anything about the character
  • Exceptions: None. I cannot think of one example where this worked.
  • How to make it interesting: Don’t start your story with this sentence, and if you can avoid it, don’t start the story at school on the first day. Either step back a bit to orient us to the world, then start school, or start the story a little while into school.

3. “My name is [Insert Name].” or “There was a ___ named [Insert Name].”

  • What it is: Any variation of the main character stating their name right away or (if third person) the narrator stating that there is someone named something right away.
  • Why it bothers me: Once again, boring and generic. I’ll get to know the character’s name eventually. The author gains nothing by presenting it right away. I much prefer it when the character’s name is introduced either by another character saying their name, or (in third person) by the author using their name in the action of the story.
  • Exceptions:
    • Stardust by Neil Gaiman
      • First sentence: “There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.”
      • Why it works: Gaiman immediately follows it up with an admission that the beginning isn’t unique and then states that there is something unique about this particular young man. It becomes quirky rather than generic and sets the tone for the entire novel.
  • How to make it interesting: If a name is strange, ridiculous, and the cause of most of the character’s problem, then it might work to use it right away. Same goes for an ironic name that means the opposite of what they’re like (and thus subverts the reader’s expectations).

4. “Birds sang in the morning.” or “The sky is bright blue.” or “The sun is shining/hot/bright.”

  • What is it: Any variation of describing the morning by birds singing or the color of the sky or the sun.
  • Why it bothers me: The fantasy genre grabbed hold of this one and I am sick of it. Birds chirping, a blue sky, and a bright sun does not set the tone for a novel. All that tells me is that it’s morning or early afternoon. I’d be happier with “It’s the hottest  morning in July, and I want to shoot all the happy birds down from the sky.”
  • Exceptions: None that I can think of.
  • How to make it interesting: Don’t even try. This goes along the same vein as the “I wake up” start. It’s so ordinary, no pull.

5. Prologues with characters that never show up in the story.

  • What is it: A story starts with a prologue about characters years before, or a generic vampire hunt, or some exciting and/or historical background event.
  • Why it bothers me: The author introduces character that we might start to care about and then they disappear forever. It feels like a trick. The author didn’t think their beginning was exciting enough, so they stuck in this vampire chase sequence to let us know “hey, there will be vampires later.” Yeah, there are better ways to do that.
  • Exceptions: I’m sure there’s some. This used to be very big in epic fantasy and urban fantasy, but I can’t think of anything that stands out.
  • How to make it interesting: Use characters that do show up in the story later. Make it the MC’s parents, friends, mentor, or somebody that later on we can connect the image to.

6. Dream Sequences

  • What is it: A story starts with a dream and then the character wakes up and nothing that just happened was real.
  • Why it bothers me: It feels like I’ve been lied to. It’s overdone. It’s annoying. It needs to stop.
  • Exceptions:
    • Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
    • First sentence: “I felt her fear before I heard her screams.”
    • Why it works: The second sentence tells you immediately that it’s a nightmare, that it’s not real.
  • How to make it interesting: Have the dream be something that’s actually happening somewhere or some magic ability of the character to see another character’s dreams. Otherwise, I don’t care. There’s nothing interesting about starting with a dream right away.

7. Starting at the End

  • What it is: Starting the story with text from near the end and literally pasting in the same text from later in the story.
  • Why it bothers me: Normally, it’s a scene that makes it seem like the character might die or is about to die. An example of this is the beginning of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer: “I’d never given much thought to how I would die…” I don’t like this for a few different reasons. For me, it seems a cheap way to put in suspense and danger early on in the story (also lazy if the text is directly copied from later in the story, which it usually is). Secondly, it’s been done so much lately that it’s downright annoying. Thirdly, I don’t care about the characters yet, so an introduction like this has no impact. Actually, I normally forget it almost as soon as I read it.
  • Exceptions: None that I can think of.
  • How to make it interesting: Just don’t. Please don’t. Start somewhere else.

8. Introducing many characters at once

  • What it is: The story starts with a bunch of characters, all with full names, piling into a van or doing something together.
  • Why it bothers me: Too many characters at once. It’s confusing. Which one is the main character? Are any of these other characters important? I’m overwhelmed and don’t feel like reading anymore of it.
  • Exceptions: None come to mind.
  • How to make it interesting: Keep it down to one to four characters in the first scene. Two is usually the ideal number, but three or four can be fine. Make sure the characters are distinguishable from each other. There better be conflict, tension, romance, some type of emotion in there showing their relationship/friendship/familial bond/etc.

 

Well, that’s it for my list. I’m sure there’s others, but this is what has been annoying me most lately. Do you have any beginnings that bother you? Anything that makes you put down a book almost as soon as you open it? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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19 thoughts on “Book Pet Peeves: 8 Bad Beginnings

  1. Brilliant post!! When I started reading I was ready to take notes, but I can happily say that all of these annoy me just as much and there’s no chance in hell of them making it into my book 🙂 When I saw the point about ‘My name is …’ my first thought was Stardust, haha, and I agree that it works. It’s Neil Gaiman, he can make anything work and I’m convinced (and you can’t make me believe otherwise) that he could make the most boring thing compelling.

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    1. Thanks! That’s great. 🙂 You wouldn’t believe how many of these beginnings I’ve seen while editing/reviewing stories for people at Uni. Yes, indeed; Neil Gaiman is a master. (I’m so excited we’re on the same page here!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My first Neil Gaiman book was Stardust too! Yes, definitely play catch up. I’ve liked almost all of the books I’ve read by him. The only exception was American Gods, which was a nightmare to get through.

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  2. My story starts off with a dream but its has a lot to do with the story. I can’t explain it at all because its has major spoilers. I haven’t read enough books to notice anything that bothers me.

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    1. Dreams can work when done right. It mostly annoys me when it has nothing to do with the story, when it’s just an exciting scene to create a hook that pulls readers in. I’ve actually got one story that starts with a dream, but the whole plot is centered around the dream, so it’s not something randomly thrown in. Sounds like yours is pretty central to your plot too! 🙂
      (P.S. If you don’t feel like reading a bunch of books, try short stories!)

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      1. It’s not that I don’t want to read. Though I did enjoy reading a lot in the past I didn’t do it often. I would read only a few books in a year. Now I have barely any time to read anymore expect my own work which I don’t mind reading over and over again. 🙂

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      2. Yeah, finding time to read can be difficult. I’ve been forcing myself to read more lately. Been hooked on short stories since I can usually finish them in one sitting!
        I’m glad you enjoy reading your work over and over. (Lately, I’ve been cringing over mine. I blame editing, makes you extra critical over everything.) I’m so curious about your story. Sounds like it’s going to be fantastic! 😀

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      3. Sometimes I cringe before I start editing a chapter but I force it away and do it. I just think my stories great, writing sucks but it can be fixed. I also laugh over some of my terrible dialogue or descriptions which helps too. I think becoming a writer has kind of ruined my view of things. I look at every book critically even movies. There are tons of things in movies they do wrong or it doesn’t make sense but I still try to enjoy it. Thanks so much. I’ll be posting another excerpt soon. 🙂

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      4. Sometimes I pull out my first drafts for a laugh. That’s a good perspective. 🙂 Being a writer has made me really critical too–for books, movies, even the blurbs on the back of items. It’s hard to turn off that internal editor. I’ve also gotten to the point where many books and movies become so predictable to me. Does that happen for you? You can guess how the story’s going to go before you finish?

        Yay, can’t wait! 😀

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      5. Most movies I’ve seen are predictable because they usually end a similar way. So about 1/2 or 3/4 of the way through it I’m bored and get really disappointed because I know the ending. I recently read a book that was easy to predict but a lot of other people didn’t. I thought the writing was and a few parts were great but it had a lot of cliche and “dumb” moments. Overall it was a huge disappointment compared to the hype it got. :/

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      6. Movies have definitely gotten very predictable over the years. I’m sorry to hear about the disappointing book. That happened to me a lot last year. I tried to read all these popular books and was sorely disappointed with cliches, dumb characters, and unfulfilling endings. What book was it?

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      7. I’m sure you’ve heard of it since you mentioned the author in one of your posts. Its EVE The Awakening. There were some things I liked about it but not enough to make me want to read it again.

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      8. Oh, yeah. Jenna Moreci’s book. I haven’t read it. I did see there was lots of hype about it though. What was predictable? Plot? Characters? Everything?

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      9. The plot was very predictable and I really hated the end. It dragged a lot and I ended up skimming through some scenes. I think the book was too long for what it was. I found some of the characters to be really annoying and stereotypical and I didn’t care about most of them. I don’t want to deter you from reading it, it just wasn’t for me.

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      10. Oh, yeah. I did notice it was over 500 pages, but the cover is so beautiful. (Cover deception is real!) Not really sure if it’s my cup of tea. I read the preview on her site of the first chapter and wasn’t really hooked by it. (Not to mention it combines the dream sequence and waking up beginnings that I’m not crazy about.)

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      11. I thought the cover was nice but I don’t think the light blue color suited the mood of the book. There are a few dream sequences throughout the book but they are basically flashbacks of what happened to Eve when she was younger.

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  3. One thing that immediately turns me off to the beginning of a book is irrelevant detail. I want to open up a book and get to the character, not be told about some radio show someone was in (a recent book I opened). Maybe it’s relevant to the story, but I don’t care enough to keep reading to find out.

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    1. I agree with that too! Usually books with first lines like that are full of irrelevant details. (*coughcough*Robin McKinley*coughcough*) Though if it turns out to be relevant to the story, that means the author didn’t choose the right details. Seemingly irrelevant details can work if they’re interesting in their own right. For instance, “The King killed my canary today” is a seemingly random but very interesting book starter sentence that pulls you right into the story (Goose Chase, Patrice Kindl).

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