We continue from last week’s list of premises not to use when beginning your novel. We continue now with:
Heavy description of a character
“Sue stood just shy of six feet, with piercing blue eyes and long, blond hair that reached to her back no matter how many times she took a chainsaw to it. Her frame was slim and willowy, and today she wore a blue sheath dress…”
Piling on details about a character in the opening chapter is incredibly tedious to readers. Use clever exposition to slowly build the protagonist’s appearance in their minds. Maybe try something like:
“When she reached the car, she managed her usual bump on the head getting in. Sue scowled into the rear-view mirror, seeing her own, cold blue eyes staring back at her before she slammed the door and started the engine…She tucked a strand of unruly blond hair behind her ear as she locked up her car.”
Anything relating to “I was about to die”
You’ve seen this a million times. Our brave hero/heroine racing down a dark hallway/abandoned building/graveyard with something insidious at their heels. Suddenly, they hit a dead end. They turn around to face their imminent death. And the next chapter doesn’t start off with this whole thing being a dream. Crap, that was real.
This is similar to the Dream opening sequence, but sometimes the events in a prologue really will happen. The protagonist will face a potentially lethal situation at some point. But not right now. Unfortunately, this falls into the Pointless Prologue category by teasing a reader with the exact scene that’s going to happen later on.
With that said, if this kind of thrilling opening scene happens to be unique and not something you’ve read in every other book, it might actually work really well.
A character doing absolutely mundane things
Novels that start off with a character doing things like going to class/doing dishes/chatting to friends can lose readers if they don’t hop into story right away.
Maybe a guy was taking the trash out – and a bat swooped in. Here the mundane situation had a purpose. If its sole purpose is to introduce a character, consider deleting it. Of course, some scenes are used to cleverly lay out a character’s personality, but there is a fine line between “pointless” and “expository.”
A hot new guy appearing right near the start
You’ve seen it in almost every single Young Adult novel, ever. It usually begins with said Hot Guy moving into some dinky town for some shady reason, hiding an equally shady past, both of which usually have some link to the female protagonist. At this point, every time the new, Hot Guy doesn’t end up being the love interest of the leading lady, I would be impressed.
The one exception to this trope that I’ve seen has been Allen Zadoff’s Boy Nobody. I give that one a pass because there is a good reason Boy Nobody is always the new guy.
Parents dying/sole survivor of a car crash
Sometimes, this trope sets up a story for an exciting ride. A car crash is a much-abused plot device to give your character a license to be weird. From magical powers to the ability to see the dead, the list goes on. It also fills up their “personal troubles” quota to make them seem well-rounded. They now have something to angst about! Eventually, it gets incredibly tiring.
Conveniently missing parents
Adding to the previous trope is the fact that now the protagonist’s parents are conveniently out of the way, leaving them free to do whatever dangerous or crazy thing they like (like dive into an alternate dimension ruled by the fae). A boarding-school setting is a less subtle way of removing troublesome parents or guardians. So if you’re going to use either of those methods, justify it with originality.
Ignorant human not knowing what they are
Why do most protagonists never ever pick up on anything being amiss until they’re in their teens? Harry Potter and The Mortal Instruments get a pass here. Both the protagonists were deliberately shielded from their true identity. But if your novel is starting off with “[name] has always thought she was a normal girl…”, then you need to go back and take a good hard look at all the many novels that have already done this. Justify to yourself why it is essential your protagonist never find out up until now.
Wicked Lovely is a good example of a protagonist who has been aware she wasn’t normal well before her story began.
If you sweep your eyes over a YA display table at your local bookstore, chances are, they’ll hit something with angels on the cover. The angel craze is still here and well over-supplied. Nephilim are cool, in moderation.
Let’s move on to something else now, though. Like aliens.
So How Should You Start Your Novel?
If you’re seeking inspiration for interesting premises in YA, there are many places to try: mythology, fables, even clichés that haven’t been seen in a while. There are so many ideas out there still untapped. Even TV shows or movies can help you come up with an interesting opener or plot. So get out there and start researching. Read classics like Paradise Lost or Dante’s Inferno. You will be surprised how refreshing older literature can be.