Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Openings that annoy

I started reading a book the other day, and it started something like this (I don't have the actual wording because I've already returned it to the library, hence this post):

"My turn!" he shouted.
"No! My turn!" his sister shouted back.
"It's Sarah's turn," Mommy said. Sure, she sided with Sarah. What else was new. She always sided with her wonderful little pet Sarah.

Jonah stomped away from the merry-go-round. It was a stupid one anyway. It wasn't as good as the one in the theme park. Just a dumb little indoors merry-go-round in the middle of a mall. He looked back over his shoulder and saw Sarah bouncing up and down on a stupid little gray horse, and Mommy next to her, looking nervous.  She was probably wondering where Jonah went. She didn't really care. She just didn't want anyone to think that she didn't care. Sarah was her big favorite.

Etc. This was the opening of a detective novel, to judge by the cover (Another in the Detective Name Name series!). I like detective series novels, and am always looking for new ones. But  I read the first page of this and stopped.  What was wrong with the opening (in my opinion-- obviously the writer and editor liked it)?

1. I presume the son is a minor character in the story. (It's about a murder she's investigating for her job.)  Minor characters can be used effectively for opening scene POV characters, but... but there has to be a good reason {(like the hotel doorman who finds the body slumped on the luggage cart) to put the reader first into the mind and heart of someone who won't be important to the plot.

2. I confess. I probably would have read more if the minor POV character wasn't a whiny kid. I'm not saying it wasn't an authentic rendering of a whiny kid, but, uh, I've had my fill of those.  A child's whine is, by design, unpleasant.  In real life, I could have stopped the whine with punishment (or a candy bar), but with a book, the only way to stop it is to close the book.

3. There wasn't the slightest indication in the opening what the plot was going to be, what the mystery was going to be, how these people even related.  I presumed that "Mommy" was the detective to come, but maybe she was the victim. (Turns out, I guess, she's neither.) Even something hinting like "Mommy didn't want anyone to know that the big police detective didn't care about her own son," could have helped.

4. I imagine the writer wanted to "establish the characters" here, but I doubt the two kids are important characters, and all we see of Mommy is her being a fairly ineffectual but primarily uninteresting mother. I mean, really, been there done that, had my own whiny kid moments at the mall and also didn't handle them in an interesting fashion.

5. Child POV is always problematic for adult books.  For one thing, contrast the "child POV" of an adult novel with the child POV of a children's novel.  I would submit that generally the "adult novel child" sounds childish, and the "child novel child" sounds like an actual human being who happens to be quite young. I'm not saying that adult writers can't write child POV. I'm saying that creating a character is still the first (and most important) step in writing from that character's POV.  Actual children have interesting perspectives, and the really good adult writers of children respect that.  Humans first.

6. Oh, well. I was so turned off by the opening, I didn't keep reading. When I think back to why I put the book down, the main reason was that I didn't have any sense that this writer could write well.  Part of that was the choice of POV character-- but plenty of writers could have written that little boy plausibly and entertainingly. This writer very likely can write scenes with adults quite well... but I didn't hang on long enough to learn that.

I read a lot of openings, both published books and submissions and contest entries, and I often conclude that the author, for whatever reason, has fallen in love with this opening and is going to keep it no matter what. Who knows why?  I mean, opening with a whiny child... not something I'd want to do. But parents tend to think their own kids are really cute, even when they're being whiny, and so they might think replicating some whiny incident will be funny or fun.  Heck, you know, I still quote some "cute things" my kids said as little ones, and they're graduating college this year.  But just because I think this is cute doesn't mean it's the right place to begin this book.

Sometimes we're being self-indulgent, but we're the worst people to judge that, I guess.  How do you know if this is a great opening, or you're just doing the equivalent of the whiny kid argument and turning off readers?

Think about books you've put down after a few pages.  What made you decide so quickly you didn't want to read on?



Ian said...

Last big turnoff in a beginning for me was a bland first-person narrator sitting in the back of a school bus, watching other kids (all cliche high schoolers) get on the bus one at a time. No character interaction, nothing that got me invested in the story at all.

kara said...

Really good post. I don't love miles and miles of internal dialogue in the beginning, the character's thoughts, ad nauseum--because in the first few pages, I don't really care about them (yet).

Edittorrent said...

That's all good. I'm thinking that idea you both mention, that we don't want to spend too much time without getting invested. Hmm. How to do that???

Julie Harrington said...

1st Person. 99.9% of the time I put it down because I've rarely found anybody who can do it well, let alone do it for 300 pages.


Woman obsessing over shoes and/or clothes.

Fiction books that not-so-deftly lecture about weight control and/or health issues.

Whining. I don't care if it's a man, woman, or child. If the voice comes off petulant or shallow or annoying, the book gets dropped.

History. LOL. I'm horrible with this one, but anything overtly filled with historical facts is rejected too. I just don't enjoy it.

As for how to get invested in a character... I think you have to put them in a situation where you're intrigued about what's happening/about to happen rather than, necessarily, the "who" its happening to. When I'm out and about, it's a gesture or a remark that will catch my attention with people and make me wonder, "Hmmm, what's going on here?" I don't know them or know anything about them but I'm interested because the events catch my eye and make me want to know more. I think the same applies to fiction.


1000th.monkey said...

Okay, it was more than a few pages... I can't remember the title, but the book was about a girl growing up in Ireland.

About 1/4 into the book, suddenly the narrative came to a halt with a line like, 'Okay, I can't do this anymore.'

...and suddenly you find out that a guy broke into an old woman's house, she's dead, and he's writing a fake memoir of her life to somehow cover up the death...



Yeah, that is the only book I have ever returned to the store I bought it from. Nothing on the back cover gave any indication that 1/4 of the story would be about a *fake* character.

green_knight said...

I think the most annoying for me - bar openings that are just badly written - are the ones that openly seek to manipulate me. All the 'sympathy builders' (character being bullied, threatened, treated badly) don't work if I haven't gotten to know the character - the boy might be a brat who feels entitled to three turns on his own *and* who hits his sister when Mom isn't looking. And equally, doing something that's supposed to make me go 'aww' (Saving The Cat or stopping for an acccident) don't work on me because I consider many of them to be ordinary behaviour for decent people; and sometimes they're done *to* score points, so before I praise the boy scout helping the old lady across the street I want to know whether she really meant to go.

pulp said...


Long stretches of nothing happening. Unless you're Ruth Rendell, that doesn't work, and even she gets to the action and mounting dread pretty darned quick.

Too many lit fic contortions. You literary writers, pretend I'm a frog and gradually turn up the heat on the metaphor soup. Michael Chabon uses two similes and three metaphors in every sentence, and he's great, but I do have to gear down for it, especially if I just read someone terse and crisp.

Now I'm wondering about the opening of my as yet unsold novel. I loved the opening; thought it was perfectly dramatic and sympathy-inspiring; wrote it to heighten the suspense...but this discussion is making me wonder if it's whiny. One agent, a big dummy, said she didn't like the voice as much as she'd hoped. Hmmph! The voice is perfectly delightful, thank you very much. But could there be whine? Is the heroine not being heroic enough? Must convene beta readers!

Selah said...

For me, voice is everything. If I'm hooked by the voice in the first few paragraphs, I'll hang in there no matter how egregious the info dump or the irritating character. In this case, the voice doesn't engage me.

Unlike you, I instantly assumed the child was the victim. Kid wanders away from mommy and gets grabbed by bad guy? Pretty standard for a detective novel. I probably would've hung in till I got a look at whomever snatches the tot, then put it down.

Terry Odell said...

I have this ingrained "clean your plate" mentality, and there are few books I don't finish. When I do give up, it's usually because I can't find a reason to like the character. But I don't even start books if the opening doesn't work for me.

I'm turned off by anything written in present tense. For whatever reason, it feels less real to me than past tense, regardless of person.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Lynda K said...

Last one I walked away from was historical fiction where there was a glaring geographic impossibility on page 6. The author was describing the location of the main setting and used specific, real places, but her directions were backwards. The reason I picked it up was that the setting was relatively local. I put it down when she got it wrong. If you can't do the research, I won't give you my attention.

Thanks for another great post!

Julie Harrington said...

Ooh, present tense is another good one! I loathe present tense. it makes me feel like I'm back in grade school reading the Choose Your Own Adventure books.


Jami Gold said...

Like Terry said, it's rare for me to not finish a story once I start. But I'm not likely to start if the opening situation is boring.

And Selah is probably right about the boy being the victim, but I didn't think about that until I saw her comment. Even so, why is the scene in *his* POV? Unless some clue about the bad guy is revealed to the reader by seeing the crime from his POV, it doesn't make sense.

Edittorrent said...

Alas, the boy wasn't the victim. And I wonder if the author realized that most of us would assume he was. Hmm.

Yes, lecturing is a big turn off for me. Whining too.
But how do we start with a not-pleasant POV character? Some books start with the villain, and they are so seldom boon companions!