The Mother Lode of First Page Resources

As many of you know, I run a monthly critique contest here at the blog, where I offer to read first pages and share my feedback. People are so grateful to win, but I have to ask: who’s the real winner here? I get to read story openings no one else has access to with full permission to tell their owners what I think. In the words of Chandler Bing, does it GET any better than that??

Anyway, I’ve been doing this for a while now, and you can probably guess that when it comes to problems with first pages, I see the same things over and over. Because we all struggle with the same issues in our openings, I thought it might be helpful to write up a post highlighting these frequently seen problems and information on addressing them. So here goes…

Need help with your story opening? Check out these common problems and the resource stop help you avoid themStarting in the Wrong Spot

This is the advice I like giving the least, because no one wants to hear You’ve started in the wrong place. Because that means Rewrite your opening. But this is honestly one of the biggest problems I see. And I get it. It’s super tricky. Start too early, and your reader is wading through a flood of backstory and telling. Start too late, and they’re dropped in the middle of a confusing world and storyline going Huh? Unfortunately, the opening sets the tone for the whole story; if people are bored or confused, they’re not likely to read for long. So this is really important to get right.

Action Too Early
Finding the Sweet Starting Spot

Too Much Telling

Show, Don’t Tell. It’s, like, the first five of The Writer’s Ten Commandments. We all know that there are places where telling is ok, but your story opening is not one of them. The reason? It’s BORING. Telling drags the pace and pulls readers out of the story as they have to slog through long passages of passive narrative explaining how magic works, or the history of Couldntcarelessia, or why your hero’s parents’ divorce ruined his life. Once your reader is fully crushing on your main character, you can get away with manageable bits of telling here and there. But the first pages are like a first date: what you see is what you’re gonna get, just way more of it. So when you find telling in your story opening, have no mercy and burn it like the kudzu that it is.

Show Don’t Tell Part One
Show Don’t Tell Part Two
Show Don’t Tell Description Tool Kit 
When to Show Tip Sheet (with examples)

Wordiness and Weak Writing

This happens when writers just aren’t concise enough with their prose. Rambling sentences, repeated words and phrases, redundant words—wordiness slows the pace and creates more work for the reader. They won’t verbalize it as such, but it will wear on them. And editors and agents have very little patience for it.

Weak Writing: The Usual Suspects
Self-Editing for Writers
Crutch Words Tip Sheet

Failure to Create Empathy

Sometimes I’m reading an opening and there’s nothing technically wrong with it. It’s clean, polished, things are happening, but I just don’t care—and usually, it’s the character that I just don’t care about. When it comes to hooking or enticing readers, we’ve got to get them empathizing with the protagonist, otherwise, why will they keep reading?

Tips for Building Empathy in the First Few Pages
Writing Endearing Characters

Overdone or Not Enough Emotion

If you’ve been following Writers Helping Writers for any period of time, you’ll know the emphasis we place on character emotion. Adequately conveying your character’s feelings in a way that engages the reader is one of the best ways to pull them into the story and keep them invested in the character. But this is another area where striking the balance isn’t easy. Emotions are often 1) overstated, seeping into the melodramatic or unrealistic range, 2) understated, leaving the reader not feeling anything for or with the character, or 3) written poorly, in a way that doesn’t engage their emotions.

Fresh Ways to Show Emotion
Dive Deep with Emotion
Capturing Complex Emotion

Too Many Details

This one’s primarily for the fantasy and sci-fi writers who are tempted to throw in all the need-to-know information about their made-up world in the first chapter. But it also applies to any writer who struggles with the tendency to include too many details in general. Check out the resources for more info on how not to do this.

Too Much Going On
Choosing The Right Details

Character Voice

I can hear the lambs screaming, Clarice. Before you freak out, I’m not talking here about your unique authorial voice; I’m talking about your character’s voice. You start talking about voice and everyone gets a little tense, but here’s the thing: to write a good story, the character’s voice doesn’t have to be spectacularly awesome. It just needs to be consistent. And this is where a lot of people fall short—even on the first page. Every word the character speaks, every memory recalled, analogy used—filter it all through their point of view, and you’ll have done most of the work.

Listen To Your Protagonist
4 Ways To Develop Your Character’s Unique Voice
Most Common Writing Mistakes: Weak Character Voice

Other Helpful Resources on Strong Openings

Jim Scott Bell’s List of Things to Avoid
Opening Elements that Readers Are Wired to Respond To
First Pages Tip Sheet
How to Craft a Powerful Set-Up


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Editing Tips, Emotion, Empathy, Openings, Pacing, Point of View, Show Don't Tell, Voice. Bookmark the permalink.
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2 years ago

Great resources, and a big thank you to The Spun Yarn for their generosity. Good luck to everyone who enters!

Traci Kenworth
2 years ago

This is amazing, Becca! Thanks!

M. Lee Scott
M. Lee Scott
2 years ago

Awesome post, Becca! Bookmarking this page. Thanks for looking out for us newbies! Thanks also for the critique opportunity. You rock!

2 years ago

Interesting! As a reader, I don’t mind what a writer does, or what rules they break, provided they make it interesting. But, as a writer, I like to at least know what the rules are before I break them!

2 years ago

True! And, if even a minority of ultimate readers share the gatekeepers’ tastes, they represent extra sales. In mythological terms, the gatekeepers can evolve from fearsome threshold guardians to helpful guides.