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Thread: Are we judging story openings too harshly?

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  1. #1
    vacuous eyes, will bark at shadows Norman Mjadwesch's Avatar
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    Mar 2018

    Are we judging story openings too harshly?

    It occurs to me that because loads of people are writing and not being published, that we are being overly harsh on ourselves and on others when it comes to critiquing the openings of our various stories, perhaps in the expectation that if we agonise over every aspect of our writing that someone will value it enough to offer us a book deal. There is an obsession with getting everything perfect (fair enough, or else why bother with improving our skills?) but has it gone too far? The prevailing view seems to be that there absolutely must be action to hook the reader from the get-go, that scenery and setting is of secondary importance, that the introduction of a protagonist must include an interaction with a major plot point. We are all required to stick to a fairly rigid formula that only sees a very few aspirants succeed.

    Instead of expressing an opinion either way on the matter, I decided to go for a bit of a web search to see how many classic novels follow this template that requires immediate action, based upon the content of just the first chapter of the works that were listed. I didn’t read every one, limiting myself only to those that were familiar to me in a good way, but I was intrigued to discover that hardly any of those that I did read followed rules that we currently insist upon. The bulk of the books that I looked at did not even hint at the genre that they represented, but instead gave introductions that we would consider as weak beginnings if they were written today: family connections, minor descriptions of a town that seem irrelevant, and so forth. Only one of the opening chapters I read had any action at all:

    Frankenstein: genealogy, respectability. No castles, no lightning, no bodies.
    Huckleberry Finn: soliloquy. No pranks, no mischief.
    Moby Dick: telling, not showing. No ship, no sea, no conflict.
    Peter Pan: philosophy. No hint of magic.
    Robinson Crusoe: long-winded genealogy. No promise of adventure.
    The Three Musketeers: hooray! Revolution!
    White Fang: this was the only one that reads as a normal modern novel. The setting is moody, with a promise of things to come.

    Have literary tastes changed so much that most of these books that we consider to be iconic would not make it past a first beta read without being found wanting?
    Last edited by Norman Mjadwesch; 03-01-2019 at 11:00 AM.

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