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Please, Please, Please, No More

... what is the best way to start your novel...
ount them. One. Two. I downloaded two thriller e-books from, both published by the author, and they both started the same way: the character waking up and going about some morning ritual.
Both books were in the top 100 bestsellers of Mystery & Thrillers Fiction. Both had many positive reviews. Those facts seemed encouraging, but once I read the opening scene, I stopped. I did not continue.
But James that seems harsh? Perhaps, yes, but the writer is sending a signal with such an opening. It says, I have more to learn about writing thrillers for today’s audience. Why do I say that? Because a waking-up scene is mundane. It’s ordinary. It happens to us everyday. We don’t read thrillers for the mundane and ordinary. We read them for the extraordinary. We read them to live vicariously through the characters. We read them to be entertained. There is nothing in those waking-up scenes that fits those criteria.
But James, once you get through the first few pages, it really gets going. Perhaps, but I never got there and won’t. The author should have started later and cut out the bit about waking up. As Alfred Hitchcock said: drama is life with the boring bits cut out. That’s what readers expect and if you don’t believe me, pick up any ten or twenty thrillers published in the last decade that were bestsellers. See if any of them started with some type of waking-up scene. My bet is the answer is none. Nil. Zilch. Why? Because the writers know it’s not what makes for a good thriller.
And does it get better later? I’ll never know. My assumption, based on such an opening, is if the writer made that mistake, I’m going to find it and others repeated in the rest of the book. I have no reason to believe otherwise. Harsh, but reasonable.
The opening chapter is you wearing your best outfit with your best haircut. Not a pair of tattered pyjamas and smelly breath.
A story, a scene should start as late as possible. No warming up your engine. No flowery description of the weather. No elongated description of the quant town. No list of the schools the character attended. Nor a list of his past lovers. Start the story with action. Get things moving. But most of all, create suspense and intrigue. Raise unanswered questions.
But James, so-and-so wrote that way. Years ago, perhaps, when there wasn’t the avalanche of stimulus people face today. It’s a different world, but some things don’t change. The Greeks knew about this concept centuries ago and it’s referred to by the Latin phrase: In medias res. Check it out and in the meantime, save the waking-up scenes for your journal.
For some reason I am not able to post a comment. Here it is.
I wanted to mention The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung) a novella by Franz Kafka because there are exceptions. Not a mundane morning for his character.
Posted 2011/10/08 at 05h38ET in Fiction, Writing.


  1. Excellent observation. As the saying goes, "Begin as you mean to go on." If the opening scene is a snoozer, I may never get past it to find out how good the rest of the tale might be.

    I even agree, knowing I have just published a short that opens with a waking up scene and that I have a novel-in-progress that starts with a waking up scene. LOL. Both are of the "wake up to your whole reality turned on its ear" variety, so hopefully that's a bit less mundane.

  2. This is one of my pet peeves too. Too many novels start out this way.

    The hook needs to be something that draws the reader's interest and makes them want to read more. Waking up rarely does that.

    Here's a way that I think a thriller should start:

    John pressed his back against the wall, the rough concrete digging into his skin.

    Footsteps echoed in the street. John's breath caught in his chest--would they turn down the alley, or pass him by?

    Great article, James!


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