Monday morning, 20°F with snow flurries
Listening to Tame Impala, Skeleton Tiger
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. —W. Somerset Maugham
The story begins with the main character alone and late for work, school, or a date. She has overslept. Curse you, malfunctioning alarm clock/newfangled smartphone! She hurries to get dressed, and rushing about, she stubs her toe. Curse you, secondhand ottoman! She runs her pantyhose. Curse you, patriarchy! She spills her cereal. Curse you, Count Chocula!
While all this is going on, she’s fretting about how disappointed/angry/annoyed her boss/teacher/date is going to be. Or worse, ruminating about her backstory (because it’s just fascinating that she grew up an awkward and bookish only child in Poughkeepsie, but moved to the Big Apple after graduation to pursue her dream of blah blah blah, and if only her stupid boyfriend hadn’t blah blah blah, and back when she was in 10th grade in Mrs. Fitch’s honors English class she should have blah blah blah).
And then, oh, the humanity, her car refuses to start. Curse you, Detroit!
She grouses internally about her mode of transportation or lack thereof while rushing to (what one can only hope is) the real opening scene of the novel. I will throw the book at the wall if her (designer brand) high heels go clickity clackity as she scurries to her work/class/date.
Extra pet peeve points if she looks in a mirror and describes herself during this mess. If, while doing so, she evaluates the perky state of her tits and her taut tummy, and otherwise muses that she doesn’t look half bad for the advanced age of 27, I will find the author’s home and I will burn it to the ground.
Let’s take apart the “late” opener
What it’s doing there?
The late opener is typically a weak execution of otherwise decent (but by no means mandatory) advice. The writer mistakes it for a fulfillment of the oft-repeated exhortations to start the story in media res and include some form of conflict or a hint at the story’s stakes.
Why it’s a problem.
- It’s boring. The “action” of hurrying about, stubbing toes, and cursing traffic is uninteresting. The inevitable frowny faces she’ll be subjected to as a result of her tardiness are a flimsy substitute for stakes.
- It’s lousy characterization. Every action, line of dialogue, or thought committed to the page on behalf of a character contributes to her characterization. This is true throughout the story but is especially important early on when the reader is trying to get a sense of who the main character is. A disorganized, whiny, inconsiderate alarm clock victim who is petrified of frowny faces is not someone I’d want to journey with for another 300 or so pages.
- Unless the character’s lateness causes her to miss the last spaceship fleeing a doomed planet (or dramatically equivalent consequences), the late opener is the wrong place to begin.
How to fix it.
- Scroll and highlight the entire character wakes up alone and late opening scene.
- Click delete.
You know that scene the character was rushing off to? The one that contains other characters who should probably have a greater conflict with the main character than “I’m vaguely-to-somewhat annoyed by your tardiness, here, have a frowny face”? That just might be where the story starts.
CC0 Public Domain image (vintage sketch) by Prawny via Pixabay.