A month or so ago I was once again struggling to write an opening chapter that worked, one that followed all the rules and wowed the reader. Searching for inspiration, I downloaded samples of half a dozen popular young adult books onto my Kindle. I hoped seeing how other YA authors started would provide some insight into how I could improve my own opening, which I knew needed work.
As I was researching how to begin my book the ‘right way,’ I began to notice something: none of the books began the ‘right way.’ Nearly every opening chapter I read started in a way at least one agent, editor, or writing book has said to avoid. One started with a second person appeal to the reader. That’s right, an “Imagine you…” sequence that although it did set up the premise of the plot, did not directly introduce the characters or start the sequence of events for a good three pages. Another started with an entire chapter describing the setting. Then chapter two started with the ever-dreaded dream sequence. Oh God! Agents and publishers should have been running away screaming.
But they weren’t. In fact both these books are from popular series that each were made into television shows on major networks. So did these authors just get lucky in finding agents and publishers who were willing to look past these rule-breaking beginnings? Are the agents and editors at writing conferences giving bad advice? Perhaps. But I think there’s a better explanation.
Great books can break rules, because great authors break them in a way that is interesting. They put a new twist on an old trope, or turn a cliché on its head, or snag the readers’ heartstrings so tightly they don’t care what method was used.
The two books mentioned above? Well, the one that started with a description of the setting happens to use that setting almost as a character itself. The description is written in a manner that instantly sets the tone for the novel, and if one reads into it, the potential for conflict is there. The second person appeal worked because it hit a chord with its audience. Teenage girls reading that opening would absolutely be able to imagine themselves in the situation described. The untraditional narration has them hooked into the story before they know the characters, because they could be the characters. Both authors knew what they were doing when they set out to start their stories.
So why can’t we all break the rules of writing? Why tell wanna-be authors at writing conferences not to send in opening pages with prologues, second person appeals, or dream sequences? Because, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’re not all great writers—yet. And if we rely on over-used openings and cookie-cutter plots, we never will be. For most of us, writing within the rules for that first book or two is where we’ll shine and where we’ll grow.
And as we get to be great writers I think we’ll begin to see it’s not about breaking the rules, it’s about reinventing them.