Story openings present a Goldilocks-like challenge: a story can open too late, too early, or at just the right place.
A story that opens too late often thrusts readers straight into the action. While this can be appealing from a pacing perspective, readers may not have the necessary context or emotional investment to care about what is happening. For instance, if a story opens with Character A shooting Character B, readers aren’t going to be able mourn Character B’s death or the loss of Character A’s innocence in the same way they could if they knew more about the characters and situation.
Late openings can also overwhelm readers with information or make them feel as if they are playing catch-up. If you’ve ever started watching a movie after the first hour has passed, you’re already familiar with this feeling.
In contrast, opening a story too early can leave readers wondering when something is going to happen. Early openings often result in pages that feel flat, static, and backstory-heavy.
The ideal opening balances introducing the characters, action, and setting. If you’re unsure whether your story starts in the right place, consider taking a closer look at each of these areas.
First, how do you introduce your main character? Do readers get a sense of their personality, relationships, life, and motivations? How is this information conveyed? Using a mix of narration, dialogue, and action can make your text more dynamic and inviting than relying on narration alone.
Next, consider how you reveal the setting. What is familiar or unusual about your character’s world? Are there certain details, people, or experiences that your character will long for later in the book that should be highlighted now? How much exposition does your opening contain? Could you condense some of it or show certain details via action and dialogue instead? Alternately, are you introducing your character on the equivalent of an empty stage? If so, how could the opening show your character interacting with the world around them?
Lastly, consider when your story’s core plot begins. On what page does your character begin to take action? When does the status quo start to change? Is there a clear inciting incident—such as the arrival of an antagonist, the start of a journey, or a significant choice—or is your book’s plot more subtle? While there are always exceptions, if it takes more than roughly 20% of your book for the core plot to start, you may need to shorten or reorder the opening scenes.
Long openings can be especially tempting in genres that require additional research or worldbuilding, like fantasy, science fiction, or historical fiction. However, a strong opening doesn’t need to introduce all of the story’s complexities at once; the opening only needs to give readers enough information to make them want to keep going. If you are struggling with a lengthy opening, try to prioritize the details that readers need to know in the moment, rather than zooming out to introduce places, characters, or rules that don’t impact the opening pages. If your story opens with scenes that require a significant amount of backstory and explanation in order for readers to understand what is happening, you might want to consider starting with a different moment or looking for ways to simplify the scene.
Openings are notoriously tricky; you may find yourself going through multiple versions before hitting upon the right scene, or revising the opening after you’ve finished revising the rest of your manuscript. However, the opening pages are also some of the most valuable real estate in your book. Agents, editors, and readers often rely on a book’s opening pages to give them a sense of the story, world, voice, and characters. As such, it’s worth taking the time you need to make your opening as strong as possible.
Of course, once you’ve hooked readers with the opening pages, the next challenge is keeping them invested throughout the rest of your story—which is why next week’s letter will focus on manuscript middles.
Your Editor Friend,
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