Written on 2003-12-10; Read the original post on LiveJournal
Paragraph of action or dialogue, then endless paragraphs of description/exposition. Say your story begins this way:
"Come here, Beldeira!" Syelli called softly. "I don't think that we should be heard, not if we don't want them to break our fingers."
I want to know what the hell Syelli and Beldeira are doing, please. I do not want endless descriptions of the room they're standing in, how beautiful the characters are, what the view out the window is like, and this tapestry over here that displays how the Battle of Rockingroll was fought ten thousand years ago and won by King Avediwhoop. Drop in little bits of description and exposition as you go along, instead of piling them all at once. Nothing like that to bring the action to a screeching halt.
Starting out with an immediate scene designed to make us go "Awwww!". Characters usually have to earn my sympathy. Setting up a scene where the main character gets abused as a child, or raped, or scorned by other characters for nothing in particular is pure emotional manipulation. Case in point: See Mercedes Lackey's Magic's Pawn. The character Vanyel starts actually winning a fight, and is immediately beaten down, has his arm broken, and is scorned by all his siblings. The second chapter consists entirely of whining. Not a good idea.
Once the reader figures out that she's being emotionally manipulated, she's a lot less likely to be sympathetic. Also, another bad thing that this does is present the hero or heroine as a victim, and while it may be an easy ploy to gain attention, it's difficult to turn the character convincingly into a hero after that.
Starting out with a flashback in which the character caps her entire recent history. Yeah, right. Show us by later mentions in the story, please. For a good published example of this, see Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion. The character is first shown walking down a road, obviously in pain for what has happened in his past, but Bujold doesn't immediately go into a flashback on how the past was cruel and awful ohmygod. She gives sketchy details first, telling us that Cazaril was a galley slave, and only later do we see how awful it was, when other characters who don't know the story ask. By that time, the reader's sympathy (or at least mine) is engaged for Cazaril, the way it isn't for a character who takes one step and immediately starts thinking about her nine brothers and sisters and how she has to slave as a prostitute for them.
Having a mythological prologue that doesn't have anything apparently to do with the following story. This was original (I think) when David Eddings did it, setting up legends that were to have relevance to his Quest Objects. Now it seems that every amateur fantasy author starts out with some kind of prophecy or myth of the gods. I do a checklist. Are the gods the main characters of the story? No? Start with the character, please. Is the writer good with mythological language? No (the answer most of the time?) Then stop trying to do something you're not good at. Is the writer using this as an infodump? Yes (as is true almost all the time?) Stop it.
Having no discernible POV. This POV floats from character head to character head, or even describes things no character could possibly know, like how many times the moons have risen since the world began or how the sea has changed the shape of the land over thousands of years. Bo-ring. This has the problems of exposition multiplied, since there's not even a paragraph of dialogue or action to try and hook us. Some authors aim for a 'movie' approach, where first they come in like a camera on a castle or a scene, and then choose the character whose perception they share. I don't think this works very well, since if the techniques of books don't often translate to screen, the same is true in reverse. Movies are essentially dramatic media; they show you visual images, just as drama shows the actors, and they show you what the characters do and say rather than what's going on inside their heads. Books have to have some interiority, or it's really hard to relate, and the interiority needs to stay at least partially constant. I have read stories that bounce viewpoints every few paragraphs, or bounce between chapters and then never return to certain characters, and it's really, really annoying. I think many amateur fantasy authors try for multiple viewpoint characters thinking that's the way they have to write, because they're writing epics. However, most authors should probably wait until they've had some practice with single viewpoints and rooting themselves in them before they try for multiplicity.