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…
Starting 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.
Too Much Telling
Show, Don’t Tell. It’s one 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Other Helpful Resources on Strong Openings
Other Mother Lode Posts
If you found this collection of resources helpful, you might be interested in some of our other compilation posts.
How to Write about Character Occupations
How to Show (Not Tell) Character Emotions
How to Write Conflict that Has Maximum Impact
How to Write about Your Character’s Pain
How to Write about a Character’s Emotional Wounds
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.