10 Bad Ways to Open a Story

A friend of ours is married to a literary agent. On a day where she works through submissions, she goes through about 100 per hour. That means any given submission gets at most 30 seconds of her time before she decides whether or not to give it a closer look. 

Guess what she spends most of those seconds on?

If you paid attention to the title of this article, you probably guessed right.

The opening!

If an opening doesn’t hook her, or displays one of several rookie mistakes, then she’s done with it. 

The same applies to readers.

If your second chapter is the best set of words in the history of human storytelling, that doesn’t matter if the first chapter doesn’t compel readers to keep turning the page. It’s on us to make our openings as beautiful and addictive as possible.

Here are the 10 worst ways to open a novel that she shared with us. 

10 Terrible Ways to Open a Story

1. Too Much Information

Starting a book is like visiting a new town. There’s a lot to know, but if somebody tries to tell you too much all at once you become confused. You don’t know what to care about or focus on. There are two common ways to make this mistake. 

The first is to start the book with a big block of exposition. A paragraph of introductory information with no plot or character hooks is frustrating and off-putting. Readers don’t yet know why they should care about any given point in the writing, which leaves them caring about very little.

The second is to introduce too many characters in the opening scene. A few years ago, Netflix put out a show with an interesting concept called Sense8, about eight people who were weirdly psychically connected. It flopped despite substantial publicity because a 50-minute show about eight people meant viewers never spent enough time with any one character to develop a meaningful attachment. Don’t make the same mistake when introducing your cast. 

Do This Instead

Focus on a single point, or two at the most, that are important in the first scene of your story. Begin with them, then expand into their context within the larger tale. Add setting details and new characters as they become relevant, rather than putting them all on the table early. 

2. Coming In Too Early

Somewhere early in your novel is a scene that’s important, emotionally powerful, hilarious, exciting, or otherwise super-compelling. It’s the moment when things get extremely real for your protagonist, and therefore they get very real for your readers. 

It’s usually a mistake to start your story much before that scene. Every page before that moment is a page you risk losing a reader before they get to the really good stuff. “Start late, leave early” is some of the best writing advice you will ever find, and this is why the first half of that sentence is important. 

Do This Instead

You don’t have to begin every story in media res, but start as close as you can to a powerful moment. Give just as much information as the reader needs to understand and care about that early super-scene, then dive right in. 

3. Summary, Not Scene

Many bad stories begin with some kind of summary, a top-level description of the setting, a character, or things that happened before the opening scene begins for real. Writers make this mistake because they don’t trust the reader to figure those facts out along the way, but that reasoning doesn’t make it less of a mistake. 

The problem with summaries is that they’re passive presentations of information. They don’t incorporate character, conflict, or emotion in the ways that make a reader care about what’s going on. Do it for too long, and the reader will move on to a different story. 

Do This Instead

Make a list of the information readers need so they can understand the action of the first real scene in your story. Incorporate the information you would have put in a summary throughout the scene, through the observations and interaction of the characters involved. 

4. Not Introducing Your Main Character

Your main character is the window through which readers experience your story, and the sooner you introduce them the better. A story that just presents information for more than a few lines before showing what the protagonist thinks about that information is a story readers will walk away from. 

An even worse mistake is to start the story with somebody who isn’t a main character: the protagonist or antagonist. If you do that, the reader begins investing their emotions in the wrong person, and the switcheroo can be extremely jarring. 

Do This Instead

Like we said about too many details early on, keep the opening of your story tightly focused on the most important characters. If you want to start with something else, do it by showing what the main character feels about what you want to introduce. 

5. Prologues

A prologue is a piece of story before the story, usually setting up details of the world or the characters. These might be essential to understanding key aspects of either, or they might just add flavor. Either way, it’s very hard to write a prologue in a way that doesn’t detract from your opening. 

Prologues used to be a common part of fantasy and science fiction, but the fashion has turned over the past twenty years or so. Many readers, and most agents or editors, reject stories that begin with a prologue out of hand. 

I’m not saying to never open with a prologue; know that if you do then you’re handicapping yourself so make sure you write the best damn prologue that ever got prologued. 

Do This Instead

Take all the information you would have put in the prologue. Eliminate half of it, then sprinkle the rest in with the first ¼th of your book. Use flashbacks, contemplation, and dialogue to show why it matters to the characters, and in the situation.

6. No Conflict on the First Page

A story without conflict isn’t a story. It’s an essay. There’s a time and a place for essays, but not in the first pages of your book. This one doesn’t need a lot more explanation. Never open a story in a place without natural conflict. If you feel like you have to, open your story somewhere else. 

Do This Instead

Identify the earliest relevant conflict in your story, and begin it with the onset of that conflict. If you really can’t, then open with some kind of other conflict, then transition to the main conflict of your tale. 

7. The Maid and the Butler

A “Maid and Butler” conversation gets its name from an all-too-common first scene in English plays, fiction, and radio dramas from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Also called an “As you know…” or “As you know, Bob…” dialogue, it consists of two secondary characters having a conversation that exists for the sole purpose of introducing the key characters and other points of the story. 

It’s tempting, and has been used as a trope since the time of the ancient Greek playwrights, but ends up feeling slack and cliched most of the time. That’s because it’s really just making mistakes 1, 3, and 6 from this list but with dialogue instead of exposition. It happens at a remove from the people and action of the story, so it’s hard to make it happen well. 

Do This Instead

It’s okay to open with dialogue, but keep it on point. Make your main character one of the speakers, and have them talking about something immediate to the opening scene. You can sprinkle in other details as they become relevant.

8. Dream Sequences

Dream sequences are a big problem for two reasons. First, it’s a huge cliche. For reasons we’ve never fully understood, many authors seem to equate dreams with some sort of deep or intellectual statement, so they feel the need to open a story with a dream. Avoiding cliches is important. 

Second, it’s another switcheroo. The beginning of your story is when you establish the most important things that are true about your setting, character, and conflict. If you get readers attached to a certain context, then suddenly change the entire context, you risk losing their engagement altogether. 

Do This Instead

Don’t ever open with a dream sequence. In fact, seriously reconsider dream sequences in general. They’re overdone, and very hard to do well.

9. Mirrors and Reflection

It’s important to open with a strong connection to your main character, but don’t open with a physical description. Especially don’t open with a physical description by way of having them look in a mirror, a pond, or some other reflective surface. This is another trope that’s bad simply because it’s overdone to the point of becoming cliche. 

Another kind of reflection to avoid is personal reflection and introspection. Too much navel-gazing by your protagonist early on means you’re not opening with action or meaningful conflict. It makes your opening boring, and a boring opening does not encourage the turning of pages. 

Do This Instead

Reveal what your  main character looks like over the course of your first few scenes, focusing instead on the conflict and action. Or, as long as it's irrelevant to the story anyway, just limit or eliminate the description of your main character so that the reader can imagine themselves in their shoes.

10. The Weather

Like dreams, the weather is one of those places writers seem compelled to open their stories with. But remember another cliche, about how people talk about the weather because they can’t think of anything more interesting to talk about? The same goes for your writing. You can almost always come up with something more interesting to open your book with than what the sky outside is doing.

There are exceptions. Naval stories, where the weather is a serious threat (or even the primary antagonist) might begin with weather to great effect. But even in that case, the story opens with conflict and characters interacting with the weather. 

Do This Instead

Avoid opening with weather unless it’s a key part of the story and that scene. If it is, still open with characters and conflict, as they pertain to the weather.

Okay. So Now What?

Now that you know the most common mistakes people make when starting a story, it’s time for you to go out and make new, unusual, exciting mistakes of your very own. Even better, use these guidelines as a way to craft a riveting opening that pulls the reader into your story whether they want to or not.