On Writing: How Not to Begin Your Book

The best-known first line of a novel is “It was a dark and stormy night.” It’s also considered to be the worst first line ever, though why I don’t know. Possibly because it’s a weather report and tells us nothing of what is to come. Readers do like to know a bit about the weather, but instead of reporting it we can weave it into the story. Mentioning the glare of the sun on the snow, the dampness of a brow, water dripping off the umbrella gives the reader a hint of the weather without us belaboring the point.

Even worse than beginning a novel with a weather report is to begin with a dream, which is the most common mistake beginners make. One fourth of the entries I tried to read in the Court TV Search for the Next Great Crime Writer Contest started with a dream, and I couldn’t get beyond that. I know that many bestselling authors do use such a trite beginning, but new authors cannot get away with it. It is a sign of an amateur and guarantees that no agent or editor will ever read the story.

It’s hard to get away from dreams completely — in More Deaths Than One I used dreams to show how Bob’s unremembered past was starting to affect him. I wish I could have figured out another way to do it, but I console myself with the thought that at least I didn’t begin the book with a dream.

The only thing worse than beginning with a dream is to continue it until at the end of the story the character wakes up and discovers it was all a dream. That is the coward’s way out and a sign of an unconfident writer. I know what you’re thinking: The Wizard of Oz. Okay, be honest. The very first time you read the book or saw the movie, didn’t you feel the slightest bit cheated? I know I did.

So, my advice to you is don’t cheat your readers. Think of a better beginning to your opus than a dream, and keep the dreaming to a minimum.

4 Responses to “On Writing: How Not to Begin Your Book”

  1. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I use dreams in my books as one way that the immortals make contact with the humans. It works rather well in those circumstances, but I don’t over do it.

  2. Bertram Says:

    I think it’s almost impossible not to use dreams; they are a big part of our lives and an acceptable story element if used judiciously.

  3. nomananisland Says:

    I do what Suzanne does, just instead of immortals it’s God. I don’t think there’s such thing as an “unacceptable” story element, so long as it makes sense for the story in question.

  4. Ken Coffman Says:

    I have the book that “It was a dark and stormy night” came from (Paul Clifford by Lord Lytton). I don’t think the words of the opening are the problem, the book (and the author’s style) is very “purple” and over the top. I think “It was a dark and stormy night” is famous because it represents a novel that is notoriously bad.

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