I see a lot of vague writing in novel openings: danger and secrets and tension and action, but with no real specifics. If you’ve ever listened to the trailer for an action movie, you know what I’m talking about. A guy with a deep and raspy voice (think Will Arnett) is narrating as the sun rises over a wasted landscape:
In a world of destruction, the danger of explosive secrets will bring one man to the edge.
Vague Writing: Sounds Great, But Where’s the Story?
Sounds great. Really juicy. Until you think about it and realize you have no idea what the movie’s about because of the absence of specific language. Well, this is the kind of thing you want to avoid in your prose and in your elevator pitch. I see this a lot with novel openings. Writers think that they can juice up the tension by making their first few paragraphs sound like action-trailer nonsense. They often do this in queries, also, where they give me even less of an inkling as to what their book is really about.
We get a lot of talk about danger and secrets and tension and action, but nothing is actually communicated. And since it has all been telling, the reader never feels the emotions that those volatile things are supposed to be stirring.
The Antidote? Specific Language
I don’t want to hear about “danger,” I want to see it, and I want to know exactly what it is and what it means for the character. I don’t want to hear about “secrets,” I want to be blown out of the water by them and see their high-stakes ramifications play out on character and relationship. If you find yourself filling your opening paragraph with vague writing, delete it and start in scene, with specific language, action, and characters.
That pretty much does it for my daily “show, don’t tell” plug. Now, I’m off on my day of intrigue, excitement, and thrills!
(Translation: My day of reading a manuscript, taking a lunch meeting, and checking out my new gym. Sure, this line-up doesn’t exactly sound as flashy as “intrigue, excitement, and thrills,” but it is specific, and now you have a much clearer sense of my day.)
Is your novel beginning muddied with vague writing? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll help you develop a compelling opening.