This morning, I got out of bed, washed my face, looked in the mirror and sighed. I haven’t had a hair cut in ages, and trying to do anything with my shoulder-length, dishwater-brown hair is hopeless.
I just put you to sleep, didn’t I?
It’s a boring way to start a blog post, but it’s a worse way to start a novel.
Much like New Year’s Day, a morning feels like a new, and natural, beginning; the perfect place to start. But unless you’ve got a very good reason for starting there—meaning the narrative absolutely must begin with the alarm clock—you’re more or less guaranteeing that your novel’s going to take too long to get going, and you’re going to lose the reader’s interest as a result.
I can think of a few exceptions to the “no mornings” rule:
-a story that takes place in the course of a single day (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day)
-a story in which hitting the snooze button or forgetting to set the alarm (or something else that happens in that very first early morning scene) sets off a chain of events that form the core of the story (the 90’s film Sliding Doors)
-a story that starts off being about the banality of the protagonist’s life (the film American Beauty) or the opposite of that (Kafka’s The Metamorphosis).
I’d love to brainstorm some more examples in the comments—I’m sure you’ve got some great ones!—but suffice to say that most of the manuscripts I see that start with this trope are not doing so successfully.
Likewise the character’s appearance. Unless an element of that appearance—a missing limb, perhaps-- is the single most defining characteristic of that person, why on earth should it be the first piece of information you give your reader?
Awful examples of this one abound—and could start their own Bulwer-Lytton style contest, if one doesn’t already exist. Maybe we’ll run a “bad character descriptions” contest (your own inventions, not ones you’ve found elsewhere) sometime soon.
If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you know that I’ve (as of a year or so ago) started taking on a lot of romance and women’s fiction clients. I mention this because it feels like romance, as a category, should be the easy exception to this: of COURSE it matters what the characters look like, because the whole point is that it’s a love story. Especially if you’re telling a “love at first sight” story, it may well feel like, yes, the heroine’s auburn hair IS the most important detail to lead off with.
I think you’re wrong.
I’m not saying you should never give your readers a physical description of your characters. I am saying that when you give us that description, you need to find a way to make it feel organic, like that moment in the story is the only possible moment at which to deliver that information. For romance, why not the moment when the hero/heroine first lay eyes on one another?
One last thing, a Tip for the Day, if you will, that a friend and colleague alerted me to. The modern world is full of resources for writers in the most unexpected places. When you’re writing your description of your titian-haired detective, and a phrase pops into your mind, start typing the phrase into a Google search bar. If Google “suggests” the description you had in mind, that’s a pretty good reason to come up with another one.