Monday, July 14, 2008

How Not To Start A Story

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm in a bad mood. For the past few days I've been wading through hundreds of short stories. I'm a paid judge for a big contest, and my verdicts are due.

This bad mood has been brought about by seeing the same story mistakes, over and over and over and OVER AND OVER...

So, for the benefit of the newbie writing world, and to save me future pain if I ever judge a contest again, please take the following to heart:

DO NOT START A STORY WITH WEATHER
Yes, you can work weather into the scene. But I don't care that it was sixty-five degrees on a spring morning, and if you make that your first sentence you're going to remain unpublished.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH CHARACTER DESCRIPTION
Your protag may be named Bob McTestes, and he was born in Sunndydale, Ohio in 1967, but you need to work that into the body of the story and not make it the first sentence. Better yet, don't work it in anywhere.

DO NOT START A STORY BY ADDRESSING THE READER
"You'll never believe what happened on July 2, 1943." You're right. I won't believe it, because I just stopped reading.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH PREMONITION
"Phil Assmaster didn't know he was going to die that day." But Joe Konrath knows you're not going to win this contest.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH THE PROTAG WAKING UP
Frankly, it shocked me how many stories began like this. More so than any other way I'm warning against. Opening your eyes because you had a bad dream or heard a strange noise is a quick way to put the reader to sleep.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH CLICHES
Once upon a time. A long time ago. This is a true story. Ugh. Next time, save me the trouble and put the story in your own recycle bin.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH SETTING DESCRIPTION
"Moronville, Ohio was a town of 8371 people originally founded in 1872 by Quakers." Hopefully, one of those Quakers has a gun and will shoot me.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH TELLING
"Josh felt terrible." Really? How am I supposed to picture that? Maybe I picture Josh's stomach aching, his head throbbing, and the hole where his heart is supposed to be. If I'm picturing that, perhaps you should have as well and written it that way.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH DESCRIPTION
I don't care if you're describing a person, place, thing, era, or whatever. I want to read about conflict, not helper words.

DO NOT USE HELPER WORDS
Force yourself to pare away every adverb, and half your adjectives. Also kill any speaker attribution other than "said" and "asked."

DO NOT START A STORY WITH A PROLOGUE
Your short story doesn't need a prologue. Your novel probably doesn't either.

DO NOT USE EXCLAMATION POINTS!
Especially a bunch of them!!!!!!!

DO NOT USE THE SAME FARUQING WORD TWICE IN THE SAME FARUQING PARAGRAPH
Get the faruquing point?

GRAMMER AND SPELING SHOULD BE PREFECT
If you don't care, why should I? Ditto annoying dialect spelling. Y'all get a-ight wit dat sheet, 'kay?

And finally:

DO NOT MAKE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER AN ANIMAL
Ever.

Are there exceptions to these rules? Of course. There are always exceptions. But I didn't see any in the 2000+ stories I had to endure.

Also, for the love of all that is good, use 12 point Arial, Courier, or Times New Roman, double space the text, one inch margins, and indent each paragraph but don't add extra spaces in between them.

Rant over. Ignore at your own peril. Now I'm going to go have some bourbon and scour my eyes and brain with steel wool...

81 comments:

Jason said...

Joe, I understand that you need a way to weed out bad stories very quickly since you obviously don't have time to read every word of every story.

But isn't it possible that out of the hundreds you disqualified for breaking one of the 'how not to start a story rules', a dozen or so could be infinitely better stories overall than the eventual winner?

Doesn't that really bother you?

WayneThomasBatson said...

Ouch! Steel wool? That could leave a mark.

Okay, you've given us the don't ever begin the story this way. Now, give us the 7 ways we SHOULD begin a story.

Jude Hardin said...

I like to start with the Tension-o-meter (patent pending) in the red zone, and then ratchet up the conflict from there.

Solid advice, Joe.

JA Konrath said...

out of the hundreds you disqualified for breaking one of the 'how not to start a story rules', a dozen or so could be infinitely better stories overall than the eventual winner?

No. That's not possible.

I've judged well over 10,000 short stories. When I first began, I read past the stilted openings, givng the writer a chance.

I was never proved wrong. NEVER.

I need to pick 1 winner, 1 runner up. Niether of them will have lousy openings.

I'm not doing this to nuture writers, offer criticism, help them to get better. I'm here to judge the best. Period.

The best will hook me from word one.

JA Konrath said...

Also (and this is important) what favors would I be doing a new author if I allowed them to be a finalist even though they had a bad opening? They won't sell a story with a bad opening--no editor will get past the fourth sentence.

This isn't about nurturing, hand-holding, or gently helping authors get better. It isn't about helping them at all. It's simply about which stories are best.

Well, if you want to be the best, you'll learn how to hook the reader immediately, and then how to sustain the narrative.

Rick said...

But there's a great Seinfeld episode that uses exclamation points :)

Mary said...

I forget who said it, but the quote remained with me, "There are already enough bad writers in the world, the last thing we should be doing is ENCOURAGING people to write".

I spent a couple of years running an archive for amateur fiction writers, and by the end I had a recurring dream where I cut people's fingers off so they couldn't type.

You can have a story that starts off well and goes bad, but anything that starts bad stays that way.

JA Konrath said...

Ha! Mary, you rock.

I don't mind bad writers. Pretty much everyone starts out a bad writer.

But in the age of free libraries and free internet and free blogs about publishing can't people at least make an effort to understand what works and what doesn't?

Miss Lissy said...

I think this is good advice. Thanks for sharing!

Thacher said...

Would these just be first line no-nos, or first paragraph no-nos? I definitely see these as all being big problems to start a story with, but when it comes to setting, character and setting description, when do you think you're out of the "danger zone?"

JA Konrath said...

A story needs to hook.

None of these things I mentioned help with the hook.

Setting the scene should not be at the expense of drawing in the reader. Good writers can do both pretty quickly, within the first few sentences.

Now I'm gonna get really freaking mean. So mean that I'm not posting this in the blog entry, even though I should. Chances are the people who need to hear this aren't ever going to seek it out, so here it goes. Newbies take note...

Dear Writer,

I completely respect, acknowledge, and have sympathy and/or admiration for the fact that you:

a) Have children
b) Lost a loved one
c) Are a veteran
d) Are the victim of spousal/child abuse
e) Remember your youth
f) Are unlucky in love
g) Are the proud member of a particular race, religion, creed, sex, color, shape, country
g) Have led an interesting life

But the story still has to be interesting and well written.

Chris said...

This is seriously one of the funniest things I've read in a while. :D

For a while, I was helping read submissions for a small (now defunct) horror magazine. After story number 150 or so, I jumped out the window.

Sadly, I landed on the pile of crappy stories I'd thrown out before me, and survived.

Chris said...

Oh, and at least you're getting PAID.

JA Konrath said...

Chris and Mary, this is TOTALLY INAPPROPRIATE, but I've been hitting the bourbon so I'll say it anyway: I think I may be a little bit in love with you guys.

The sad, awkward, terrible, unfortunate thing is that outside of agents and editors, not many people know of what I speak when I make these egregious claims.

BTW, if you use the word "egregious" in your first paragraph, you suck monster bigguns.

Kevin Lucia said...

"This isn't about nurturing, hand-holding, or gently helping authors get better. It isn't about helping them at all. It's simply about which stories are best.

Well, if you want to be the best, you'll learn how to hook the reader immediately, and then how to sustain the narrative."


Truer words never spoken. Awesome. Thanks.

SpinyNorman said...

So I guess beginning my story like this would be a No No...

Once upon a relatively humid August afternoon in early 1996 my handsome son, who reminded me every day of his dearly departed mother, whose rugged toughness reminded me of all my brothers I fought with in the 'Nam, many of whom had suffered greatly at the hands of their alcoholic fathers in their youth, told me that he had split up with his beautiful fiance and as a proud Italian I was overjoyed because he never should have been with that Metagon Irish princess in the first place and I immediately drew upon my prior life experience as an African Elephant Rangler to offer him some sage advice, which I knew in my heart would lead to the longest day of my entire life.

JA Konrath said...

I love you too, Spineynorman...

SLING WORDS aka Joan Reeves said...

Joe, I had to laugh. Your post reminds me of an entire series I did last year, I think, about contests from a judge's perspective. I had hoped to clue aspiring writers in to what judges look for, but this year in all the contests I still the same old mistakes.

WayneThomasBatson said...

I'm still laughing about your post, Joe.

As a reader hunting for a new book, I definitely look for a hook. I'll read the first sentence, first paragraph, first page and decide right there.

But what I really HATE, and perhaps you'll have a future post on this as well, is when a worthwhile story has a crappy ending. I mean, you invest your time in this story, and then "...and it was all a dream."

Arrgghhh.

A coupla examples are MC's The Sphere--what was that anyway?

And in the movie realm, The Mist had one of the worst endings in cinematic history.

Joshua James said...

I always believed a story should begin with an action of some sort.

A director I knew once gave advice for writers as such:

:There are no real rules, but basically something should happen in the beginning, another thing should happen in the middle, and then at the end a third thing should happen.

And it would be nice if they were somehow connected."

Something should happen. It could be a big thing or a little thing, but an action.

So I try to start with some sort of action . . . like a changing a tire, or ordering a drink, or shooting someone in the face . . . or burning the pot roast.

But that's just me.

SpinyNorman said...

Come on JA...that opening was a disaster of epic proportions...I should get some kudos for including every one of your notes.

Chris said...

I am SO going to work Phil Assmaster from Moronville, Ohio into one of my stories. (And don't think I won't do it -- I managed to work a pertinent Simpsons quote into every one of my papers for two semesters when I was going for my MBA.)

Oddly enough, I didn't feel too bad about the short stories. The only time I've ever felt bad about critiquing was one book I was supposed to review. It was seriously the worst-written book I've read in my life, but the guy was a REALLY nice guy. So, rather than reviewing it, I actually wrote a LONG critique for him, and sent back the ARC -- I just didn't have the heart to slag him as bad as I would have needed to in order to give him an honest review.

Ty Johnston said...

I think this might possibly be the funniest thing I've read in weeks. I wish I could get a few editors and a lot of writers I know to follow the advice. And I can say that with an exclamation point!

Anonymous said...

I remember hearing Nora Roberts speak about opening hooks. She gaven an example of one that would catch her interest:

"From the waist down, he looked promising."

(Someday, I want to start a short story with this line, but since I write fantasy, it'll have to be about a centaur.)

On the other hand, an opening that goes for shock value can fall flat big time. I read a lot of historical fiction. One book I picked up during a bookstore browse was set in the early days of the Roman empire, and it started with this line:

"On the day I turned four years old, my father publically castrated himself."

That starts with an action, and it's almost guaranteed to raise your eyebrows. But an inducement to turn the pages it is not.

Oh, and I'd add one more thing to the list: within the first couple of paragraphs, the main characters should not look into a mirror/lake/puddle/window/shiny reflective surface of a Valkyrie's breastplate that tosses back clear but weirdly distorted images and tell the reader what they look like.

ec
www.elainecunningham.com

I have GOT to figure out how to get a new Goole/Blogger ID.

ben said...

Joe, sage advice my friend. I know that this is a publishing blog, but keep the "how to" and "how not to" write posts coming. The way you break something down, it just makes sense.

Chris said...

I just realized something... did you say that people actually used PROLOGUES in a short story?

What was the flippin' word count limit on these things?

(Also, am I the only one who went through the stories I have sitting on the back-burner just to make sure I didn't start them with any of these things? The good news is: I didn't)

Kat and her Cat said...

Chris- No, I did that right off. I went back to my novel and perused my opening three chapters for any matching bits.

Mister Konrath, anyone who expects a contest to be a hand holding experience has been hit in the head way too many times. I am certain that these writers think they know what they are doing but perhaps you should take a rubber stamp to any comments pages and stamp the url to your blog and website onto the pages? Maybe they will get the hint on some cold day in hell?

Hope you finish and or feel better and or find a good set soon!

Mike Cane said...

Link luv x 2:

Think You Can Write? Then Read This!
Free eBook: Publishing

Thanks!

Mike Cane said...

Link a third time (thanks, Mary!):

Quote: Mary

JD Rhoades said...

Great advice, Joe. Now, you could probably find great stories that break each and every one of these rules. Looking through THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2007, I find one story that begins with setting, and another than begins with character description. But those are by Robert Andrews and Jim Fusili, who can pull it off.

Mark J Daniels said...

As somebody who has started to write a story more times than I care to remember, this is great advice.

I'll probably still struggle to start the story, however.

JD Rhoades said...

I've also heard "don't use flashbacks because they slow the story down." But James Lee Burke's story in the above mentioned anthology is about half flashback. So you can get away with it...if you're James Lee Burke, which you're probably not, and if you are, can I have your autograph?

Basil Sands said...

Hooks are what it takes to draw fish and fish are for eating and eating makes one happy. Therefore hooks are good... and good hooks are...gooder.

Once I wrote a short story about a guy crashing his spacecraft in the desert shortly after take off. The first sentence drew the reader, the rest of the whole two page story kept the reader, then left the guy in the desert.

It worked as a hook, because several distraught readers of the story on my Gather website begged to find out what happened next. There was no next. But because the hook set so hard I had no choice but to make a next, and it became my first novel, Karl's Last Flight.

All that from a simple hook.

Basil Sands
www.basilsands.com

AstonWest said...

This isn't about nurturing, hand-holding, or gently helping authors get better. It isn't about helping them at all.

Amen to that...

Though I do wonder whether my favorite short story (of mine) violates the rules with the following opening (premonition?):

I never thought I would one day become an addict.

Terry Finley said...

How can you share a conflict
without describing it?

Thanks for sharing this. It is
a big help to me, personally.

Terry Finley

http://theterryfinleysite.blogspot.com/

David Michael said...

The exceptions to these rules are not usually those where the rest of the story is so good you can forgive the lame opening, but rather the ones who know how to make the best and proper use of whichever device. Case in point: Jack London tended to prefer dog/wolf main characters to humans, and darn if he didn't make them work well. Call of the Wild is a book the riveted me even as a 5th grader, and there are barely any humans around for most of it, and even less dialogue.

And ruling out key descriptions such as character and setting for openings seems a bit stringent. Didn't Steinbeck open The Grapes of Wrath with a vivid description of the Dust Bowl? Sure worked there. Some writers do it just 'cuz they don't know what else to do, but sometimes it really is an excellent kick-off. Maybe sometime you should make a list of good story starters.

stevemosby said...

Joe - it's an amusing post, but I think you're being unfair. In fact, I'm with Jeremy here. (It's lonely, though).

The rules themselves ... they're just backward attempts to generalise about the characteristics of bad writing, aren't they? What I mean is these things are symptoms of bad writing, not causes. A good writer can - and would - break any of them if it served the story.

In your first reply to Jeremy, you imply you've started to abandon stories that begin in this way, and say it's "impossible" any of them might have been a more worthy winner. And yet, in your original post, you acknowledge there are exceptions to the rules. Which is it? Could that weather turn out to be an extended metaphor: one that builds to a resonant and affecting ending? Well, you'll never know.

(Although I suspect - hope - that you did no such thing, and that rejections were made because of actual bad writing rather than by formula: the weather examples being closer to the one in your post than, say, the opening sentences of "The Neon Rain" or "Neuromancer").

In the outside world, a story needs an immediate hook to grab attention - like a dog in a pound. It needs to stand out to an editor, or a casual reader. Otherwise, pressed for time, they'll move on. But that in itself doesn't make the story 'good' or 'bad'; it just makes it instantly accessible. There might be an excellent story that requires a little patience and work from the reader but delivers huge rewards. The one situation where a story shouldn't need an immediate hook - in my opinion, anyway - is a contest where a judge is being paid to read it. I'm sure it's tedious to read them all - in fact, I can barely imagine - but then, you don't have to take the money.

Chris said...

I think what you guys are missing is the context. These aren't novels or novellas we're talking about here -- they're short stories. Based on contests I've entered and been part of judging, most run in the sub-5K range for word count -- many run much, much less.

If you spend the first 100 words of that story (which is the equivalent of the first 5-8 pages of a normal length novel) talking about the weather or Uncle Zeke's penchant for horse buggery, and it doesn't do anything to grab the reader's attention, then, odds are, the story isn't worth reading.

I haven't had to read the sheer volume of stories that Joe has (and couldn't imagine doing so), but, out of the 200 or so I once read over the course of a week, maybe 20% were even remotely readable. Out of those 40, I probably eliminated half if the first couple paragraphs weren't worthwhile. And this was for a magazine, where there were going to be 8-10 shorts (depending on length), so the odds were at least vaguely decent.

When you talk about over 2K stories, and only a handful of winners (even if they have 5 "places", you're looking at about 1/4 of 1%), the odds that a person whose story starts badly should even come CLOSE to the top 5 is astronomically small.

So, is it possible that someone starting a story with one of these "techniques" is going to have a blockbuster story (especially one that beats the 1/20th of 1% winner)? It's possible -- but not bloody likely, and the odds are so small that it isn't really worth considering.

I'm sure most of you have written short stories -- probably more than a few if you're anything like me. I don't know about anyone else, but have to cut the mess out of my stories when shooting for submission length. Every word matters, so I don't feel pity on someone who can't strip away a bad opening when there's likely many more important details that need to stay in.

Poor Joe. He likely wasted his advance from Fuzzy Navel on a lobotomy to scour away the pain of the contest.

BTW: I highly recommend that every writer judge a contest or help read submissions for a magazine. It will give you a whole new perspective on this business of ours.

Also BTW: Even if you "give back the money", you've already committed. Deciding not to do something is a very good way to guarantee that you won't get asked again (and a good way to make sure you're seen as a flake among this fairly small industry).

stevemosby said...

Chris: thanks for the reply. I wouldn't disagree with a lot of what you say. I certainly don't believe a story that's badly-written - at the beginning, or anywhere else - deserves to be placed, or even necessarily read through to the end.

Where I disagree is over what constitutes 'bad writing'. In his post, Joe says not to start a story with weather, or description, or a premonition (although the example he gives isn't one), or a character waking up - he says these are mistakes. They aren't.

To take just one example - are you seriously supporting the idea that any short story beginning with someone waking up because of a strange noise can automatically he discarded? A magazine you edit is up to you, of course - but from a competition to find the best story?

Harker said...

I now know how i must start my next story.

A Disfigured Platypus wakes up during a severe thunderstorm in a small town of 200 one armed typists.
The first sentence:

DAMN!!!!!! Wat a bag dreum I haz. It bee raiinuning in my smul toun of 200 single arm typer-people.

Bless you Joe.

DA.

Susie McCray's On the Scene said...

Great advice. Especially about the prologue now I don't have to stress over that part of my novel.

I like your writing style as well, hardnosed and straight to the point.

JA Konrath said...

Hi Steve--

You raise some good points, but this really is a case of "walk a mile in my shoes."

When I first began judging, I really gave every story a chance. But if it started badly, it never got better. Never never ever.

When a newbie author starts a story like I've described, it raises a red flag. They're starting the race several lengths behind.

Do I sometimes read on anyway? Yes, for some subconscious, unknown reason, sometimes I'll go onto the next paragraph. And the stort just doesn't get better.

I wound up selecting one winner, one runner up, and a hundred honorable mentions. Out of these, maybe four or five stories were good enough to be published. And these were the best of the bunch, the ones I read though completely.

I had the pleasure of editing an anthology a few years ago. I didn't get stories from newbie writers, only established pros. The difference was enlightening. Pros began their stories with hooks. Every time.

The hook doesn't have to be some huge conflict. The hook can simply be a well-crafted sentence.

I could count the number of well crafted first sentences from this contest on one hand. These examples I gave are the ones I saw many many times, the ones that were so glaring that I was able to turn them into rules.

Making the rule "Don't start a story with a poorly crafted sentence" isn't really helpful, because it's subjective. Yet, like pornography, you know it when you see it. I saw thousands, and the majority of them broke one of the rules I mentioned.

Sure, there are exceptions. But I didn't see any.

Again, it isn't about being fair. It's about finding the best. And the best asserts itself in obvious ways.

I often blog and lecture about money flowing toward the writer, rather than away from her, and caution against paying for anything. Including contests. If you've written a good story, send it to an editor and get paid, don't pay to enter it in a contest.

Was I unjust? Maybe. But I wasn't nearly as harsh as editors and agents would have been...

Chris said...

To take just one example - are you seriously supporting the idea that any short story beginning with someone waking up because of a strange noise can automatically he discarded? A magazine you edit is up to you, of course - but from a competition to find the best story?

I wouldn't say that it should be instantly discarded. You could have the best crafted "waking up to hear a sound" story in the world. In fact, I'd venture to guess that there isn't a writer alive that hasn't used that start at least once in a story (I know I have) -- whether or not they got it published is another thing.

The problem is that the intro has been used so many times that it's become cliche. How exactly is the reviewer supposed to differentiate between your "waking up" story and the 20-30-100 bad ones that they've already read?

Your only, and I mean ONLY chances of success with that type of introduction are:

1) You've crafted the introduction in such a way that, even though it's a cliche'd intro, it reads as "not cliche'd". But, then again, it likely wouldn't fall into the poor intro to begin with (if that's the case).

2) You're among the first 5-10 stories the reviewer has read, while they're still reading the entire stories, and haven't hit burnout yet. And, trust me, you'd better be REALLY early, because after reading a bunch of bad stories, you tend to start skimming pretty quick.

3) The submission pool is small enough that the possibility of duplicate intros is fairly small.

4) The rest of the entrants have read this blog entry and aren't using the introduction that you use.

5) Your submission has a check or logon to a Paypal account attached to it.

P.A.Brown said...

Great post. It still amazes me that writers still make all these mistakes no matter how much they are told to avoid them.

Yes, we all know rules can be broken successfully but it's almost always by big names who know their craft. Not by unpublished newbies who are usually doing it out of laziness

Caryn said...

I had to laugh when I read this entry, especially when you mentioned starting off a story with waking up. I'm a recovering English teacher, and it was amazing how many of my students insisted on starting their stories that way -- especially the memoir assignment. Then they moved on to describing what they wore that day and what they ate for breakfast. No matter how many times I showed them much more interesting ways to start stories (including an entire lesson plan built around great first lines from published works) many still couldn't get past, "When I woke up it was cloudy outside..." May your words today have more impact than mine seemed to.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how anyone can argue the beginning of a story doesn't count as far as the overall quality of the piece is concerned. The beginning is part of what Joe is judging. A very large part.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how anyone can argue the beginning of a story doesn't count as far as the overall quality of the piece is concerned. The beginning is part of what Joe is judging. A very large part.

And he's not the only one. Assuming a story managers to hook an editor and land a book contract, it's job is far from finished. Readers browse in bookstores, read sample chapters on author websites and excerpts posted online. If the first line doesn't hook them, they might read the first paragraph. If they're still on the fence, the first page. Then comes the big decision: turn the page, or move on to one of the 10,000 OTHER new books.

Gotta get 'em early.

ec

Anonymous said...

Oh, crap. I KNEW I should have taken a handful of Motrin with a large vat of coffee a hour or so back. Obviously, that should have been "its" in the previous post, not "it's."

Sheesh. ::facepalm::

ec

stevemosby said...

Joe/Chris - cheers for the replies. When Joe says "making the rule "Don't start a story with a poorly crafted sentence" isn't really helpful"- yeah, I agree. But it's all there is, so that would be my cue not to formulate other rules. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree, but I appreciate the responses.

In case the anonymous people are talking about me, I guess I should clarify my point, as I never said the opening isn't important. It's as important as every other part. I don't believe your protagonist waking up (for example) is a really great way to begin any old random story - perhaps because you didn't know how else to start and then couldn't be bothered editing. But it's fine to open with that if it's right for a particular story. So it can't be dismissed as a mistake; it's not a rule for good writing.

As for the hook, I think it's important because, yes, there are 10,000 other stories out there. The reader or magazine editor has no way of knowing the story might be brilliant. They have limited time and a lot of choice, so they move on. There's nothing more to it than that in quality terms, but it's a mistake in a browser's market: we all know that. I do think a short story competition is different, though. For me, that should be about judging the overall quality of the piece, and not whether it's easy or instantly accessible. A judge is not browsing.

JA Konrath said...

Again, I understand what you're saying, Steve.

But the winner will have a good opening, so why should I read beyond that? I'm being paid per job, not per hour. I stop reading as soon as I know the story isn't going to win. Often, that's within the first few sentences.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Steve.

I get what you're saying, but I still think the "hook 'em early" advice is sound.

I also agree that readers browsing in a book store generally take a more casual approach than editors who must choose 12 stories out of 137 or judges who must choose the best three stories out of 200. Sometimes, though, you really don't need to read the whole story to know it's not going to make the top three.

It seems to me the concept "there are exceptions to every rule" has been well established. I've no doubt that someone sufficiently talented could could write a story that ends "...but he woke up and found that it was all a dream..." and make it seem fresh and new and surprising. But people just starting out often don't KNOW that something is cliche or ineffective. That's why posts like this one can be very helpful to Newbies.

It's possible to break any "rule" and do it well. If this post had appeared in a blog entitled "I'm Here To Explain How Hemingway and Chekhov Got It Wrong," I would heartily agree with most of your points. But posts like these are, imo, precisely the sort of things that Newbies (and not-so-Newbies) need to hear.

ec
www.elainecunningham.com

E.E. Knight said...

Great list, Joe.

I feel your pain. I've judged too. By the end of it I was making Martin Sheen at the opening of Apocalypse Now look like a Promise Keeper.

(I do have a series where the main characters are animals, but then I write fantasy.)

JA Konrath said...

Have you ever read good stories? Have you ever read bad stories? Do the good stories have some common traits? Do the bad ones?

Then you can make a list of those traits and figure out what makes a story good, and what makes a story bad.

Or, because "good" and "bad" are subjective, with no universal intrinsic attributes, you can substitute the words "publishable" and "unpublishable."

The majority of published stories do many of the same things. If you've had the opportunity to read any amount of unpublished stories, you'll also find commonalities.

Are these rules, set in stone? No. But if your goal is publication, it's your job to learn what works and what doesn't.

Writing is a craft. Learning a craft involves an amount of study. The best writers I know are the ones who understand why they used one word over another, why they added a scene and trimmed a different scene, why the story works.

There are rules. You probably already use many of them. It's in your best interest to figure out why.

Gigi said...

Ouch! Okay then I know who not to share a story with lol. Hmmm good tips cause I would have f--ked up my story..

Picks By Pat said...

This is great advice, and on reflection, quite humbling to see these examples paraded before my gaze. I've made most of these mistakes in my own writing...except opening a scene with the protaganist waking up. I hate to get up in the morning, so why make my protag suffer too?

ORION said...

I will say that I for one like animal MCs
the art of racing in the rain
Black Beauty
Call of the Wild
Edgar Sawtelle
Lassie
Smokey the Cow Horse
Marley and me
Kafka's Metamorphosis
Insect dreams
Among others.
With respect to rules? As in all things.
It's all in the execution.
JMHO

Jim said...

I start all my books the same way, with two lesbians, a midget and a donkey (on a dark stormy night). You get that hook right away, and can then segway into just about anything.

Jamie Ford said...

Ditto on the Art of Racing in the Rain. The dog POV hooked me from the beginning. Um, and ditto on the midget and the lesbians...what's your book called?

Lisa said...

I am impressed with any post that can weave faruquing into a sentence, much less three times in one post. Is that a verb or adjective?

Oh, and this would be my opening:

I felt bad on that dark and stormy morning when I woke up from a bad dream, but at least I didn't realize yet that it would be the day I would get smashed by a large boulder shoved down a soggy hill by a bunch of very, very, very unhappy people from Ember, Nebraska, a small town established in 1852 by the former mayor of New York.

Jude Hardin said...

That opening might actually work as parody, Lisa, kind of like this one from By the Light of the Moon, Dean Koontz's spoof of technothrillers:

Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he'd never before imagined, Dylan O'Conner left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.

Jill Sorenson said...

I've actually started two of my books with a wake-up. You're right, it's unoriginal. I probably won't do that again.

Good advice, for the most part.

Anonymous said...

frakking not faruquing

Kaye said...

All I can say is, we are lucky to have JA. The bad writing doesn't just come from newbies either. Everyone who is a serious writer knows this. I've found some really bad writing in published novels from my chosen genre. It makes me rather mad. Do your homework. Get it right. I sure am working on that. It's good to have you around, Joe.

JA Konrath said...

frakking not faruquing

Frakking is Galacticaspeak for "fucking."

Faruquing means "repetitively using ten dollar words which call attention to themselves."

Anonymous said...

Generally good advice, and yet professional authors routinely break these rules. For example, how did Louise Penny get away with this opening from "A Fatal Grace":

"Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift."

Not only did she get her book published, she's been quite successful. How is this?

Gayle Carline said...

Louise Penny gets away with it here because it's the dark humor in the sentence that trumps the premonition setup.

The truth of the matter, I think, is that a brilliant writer can break every rule in the book and readers will love them. A good writer needs to follow the rules to get readers to like them. A bad writer needs more than rules - they need to find a new hobby.

Catherine said...

Didn't bother reading anyone else's comments. But I'm glad I found this article, because I found it very helpful. And if other people didn't find it helpful, they're taking it too literally. You said there's exceptions to every rule, so HORRAH! you know it too. This is still a good list of things to avoid if you can think of something better. Personally, I'm also bored with stories that start in these ways. I'd much prefer a story with a clever opening line, or that somehow sucks you right in--without "premonition" as you called it. And when people start giving boring details about towns like POPULATION and dates... I usually just start skimming.

But man. I've done the stuff on this list too. You would've hated reading my young authors' contest entries. No wonder I only ever won with a poem xD

JA Konrath said...

A bad writer needs more than rules - they need to find a new hobby.

That's freaking awesome. :)

The Self-Publishing Review said...

Great post, great comments. I, too, am in love with Mary and now claim her for my own.

Amber said...

I agree with everything you said, except for the prologues. I don't know where you got that from, but have you read any new books lately? Plenty of them have prologues, thank you very much, and they are necessary. Have you read Rebel Angels by Libba Bray or The Sweet Far Thing? If you took out their prologues, some things wouldn't make sense.

I think what you're trying to say is that a lot of people tend to abuse the prologue. A lot of writing books adress that prologues are wonderful as long as they aren't abuse. James Scott Bell said that. So did Stephen King.

So, regardless of whether you accept it or not, sometimes a prologue is necessary. It will either provide background information, or information necessary for later in the book.

If it doesn't provide neither, than it isn't necessary.

Anonymous said...

You told us how not to start a story. I want to know how to start a story.

Ana C. Nunes said...

If I should follow theses advices then ... I should not start my story!
Really now ... don't start with weather (I agree), don't start with character, don't start with location, don't start with description. What are we supposed to start with?
I seriously don't understand your point here. You just denied almost every possible start. Should we all start it the same way then?

Don't take me wrong because I enjoy most of your advices, I just think you overdid it this time around.

And what's so wrong with a main character that's an animal? Under the right circumstances it might even be a very good idea.

Anonymous said...

you've judged over 10,000 short stories. I think that maybe you could use a break,or perhaps it makes you feel better to cut the legs out from under aspiring writers. FYI lots of really great books and movies have leading characters that are animals: the Lion King, 101 Dalmatians, and the great classic Bambi just to name a few. also, Kay Hooper uses prologues and Dean Koonts has been known to use an EXCLAMATION POINT or two, both happen to be bestselling authors.

JA Konrath said...

perhaps it makes you feel better to cut the legs out from under aspiring writers.

Better I pat them on the head and tell them "nice job"? If aspiring writers want to get published, they should learn to avoid these newbie mistakes.

FYI lots of really great books and movies have leading characters that are animals: the Lion King, 101 Dalmatians, and the great classic Bambi just to name a few.

You named three Disney movies. Show me a hundred bestselling books with animal protagonists if you'd like to make a point.

also, Kay Hooper uses prologues and Dean Koonts has been known to use an EXCLAMATION POINT or two, both happen to be bestselling authors.

Kay and Dean are master storytellers who can get away with a lot because they craft compelling tales laced with conflict.

There are always exceptions. Surely you're not comparing a bunch of contest shorts to folks who written close to a hundred novels?

Corrine said...

Firstly, I would like to applaud you for posing this. I found your obvious annoyance with crappy writing to be refreshing and positively hilarious.
Secondly, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be to read "Jeffery woke up that morning and was sad." at the beginning of a book time and time again. If I had to do that, I'd probably go insane (that is, if I haven't crossed the border of sanity already).
Thirdly, I'd like to say this: you have inspired me to make my story suck less so that I'm not one of those infuriating people who writes terrible novels.
...Unless I'm too busy scrubbing my own eyes with steel wool from reading amateur writing.

AEDS said...

Oh, I don't know. Combined these don't make for too bad of an opening sentence:

The temperature outside was sixty-five degrees, it was a fine spring morning, when Bob McTestes, of Sunnydale, Ohio, reflected on what happened on July 2, 1943: Phil Assmaster didn't know he was going to die that day, even though he had awoken from a bad dream (now this was a long time ago, when Phil lived in Moronville, a small town in Ohio with 8371 souls that was originally founded in 1872) and Josh, Phil's friend, felt terrible when he learned of it, and this without requiring his friend to describe the dream at all, but just that he said so, as though his look was prologue enough to the dream, and he didn't have to spel it out for him, or twang it in some strange dialect, "Why?" you ask, because Phil was a blood hound, Bob's favorite hunting dog!

Anonymous said...

As a successful writer, I must say--this was interesting. I agree with the advice, but could do without the ego along the way.

Maria said...

I really want to read that Platypus story that someone started in their comment.

Good writing just is. In a truly well-written book, I can open to any page and be drawn in. I've actually accidentally read to the end of a book once, standing up in the bookstore.

As far as whatever Dean Koontz and Nora Roberts did. . .I've never been a fan of the bestsellers; I think they've written some good books, and now have an audience of people who are looking for something comfortable and familiar to read. So the "hook" is the author's name on the cover and they can do whatever they want with their opening.

Dr. Debra Holland said...

I made it through the list without having to cringe from having made one of those mistakes. (Although I do have a couple of books with prologues.)

I also have a friend who's great at writing stories with animals as the main characters. However, I have LOTS of writer friends, and only one (that I know of) who is good at this. :)

Thanks for the great article. I'll pass it on.

nilocolin said...

It's funny how people who never 'make it' turn into judges,
both The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn start out by addressing the reader.... hmmmmmm they must be terrible books

Anonymous said...

And finally
Do not ever take advice from someone who has never been published nor works in publishing. I have seen screenplays and books that start exactly as you loathe published.
Actually three of my favorite books start with the main character addressing the reader. One of them is by the best seller named Jim Butcher author of the "Dresden files", who always starts hiw novels that way.