Sunday, 7 June 2009

How not to start a novel...

There are many ways not to start a novel. The hero waking (with a start, naturally) is bad, and gets worse if you recount the dream he's just had, then make him get up and stare in the mirror so you can let the reader know what he looks like.

Personally - and this may be to do with my gender - I am unenthusiastic about novels that begin,

He gazed through the windscreen of his Mercedes-Benz SLR, tensely clicking the Halton-Ratchett RK 41.5's safety catch, his white shirt and Graff black diamond cufflinks gleaming in the dusk...

You just know that before too many pages have passed, you'll be meeting his young, slim, full-breasted, sexually enthusiastic girlfriend. She's another bit of his kit, and with about as much personality.

Then there's the author who introduces on page one a character you warm to, only to kill him off before you reach chapter 2.

But my very least favourite first chapter has to be the one that starts with five or six characters sitting round a table; each one says or does something in turn, and in order to get any sort of grip on the story you have to memorize them. It's hard work. Was it Gina who had the fiery red hair, the underprivileged background she's fighting to escape and a media job? Or Stacey? No, Stacey's the tall one who's just been dumped by her boyfriend and has a pet cat...

I've come across several unpublished novels with too many characters too soon, and my question is, can anyone think of a published novel that begins in this way?

Virtual prizes will be awarded.


  1. Uh, mine?

    But in its defense, I will point out that not one is full-breasted or has fiery red hair.

  2. Is this some new book with which I am unfamiliar, Alan?

    Boomerang and The Baer Boys don't contain any of the starts I'm grumbling about, do they?

  3. "[Soon] you'll be meeting his young, slim, full-breasted, sexually enthusiastic girlfriend."

    Oh yes please! If it weren't for Ian Fleming novels, I never would have read much as a teen. As a result of reading spy novels, I tried other books. Some that are now considered classics (not "From Russia, With Love").

  4. Boomerang has a former cheerleader "clothing optional" character.

  5. I know males are less inclined to read than females when young, so I suppose that's one tick for Ian Fleming.

    In my teens I read everything, including stuff I wouldn't bother with now. The only Bond I read all of was From Russia, With Love and remember thinking the gorgeous Russian heroine was practically retarded. And Bond wasn't all that bright, either.

  6. You're right, no waking up looking in mirrors sort of thing. I thought I was going for the too many characters prize.

  7. Alan, sit up straight at the back there and pay attention. I was talking about too many characters in the first chapter.

    Goodness knows, Dickens had loads of characters in his books - he didn't introduce them by the half-dozen on the first page, though.

  8. Sorry about that. Shall I write one hundred times on the chalkboard "I shall pay attention in class"?

    This Dickens character, did he ever make a go of it?

  9. Dickens enjoyed some popularity in his day, I believe...

  10. Ah, then there is some hope.

    I'll bet he never came up with a really outrageous character like the one I just introduced in my Novel In Progress. I'm still trying out names for him but I'm leaning towards Sam Weller. It has a certain ring to it.