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.