5 Common Story Openings to Avoid—If You Can Help It

morning coffee

For unknown and unpublished writers, a lot rides on your story opening because it’s the first impression you make. If it’s a lackluster impression, an agent or editor will rarely wait to see if things improve. Rather, they’ll just move on to the next submission in the hopes that it’s good from page one.

Here are the most common and lackluster story openings I see when reviewing clients’ work. While it’s not wrong to open in these ways—and a great writer can make even the most pedestrian series of events read as fascinating—consider if you can find a more advantageous way to begin.

1. The waking up scene

This is where we meet the character waking up in bed, then perhaps getting ready for school or work. Maybe they’ve woken up because the sun is shining through the window, or maybe they receive a phone call or text. In the case of young adult fiction, a nagging parental figure is frequently seen. It doesn’t really matter how or why they wake up—only that it’s a waking up scene.

Perhaps it’s a very important day for the character and that’s why we’re seeing it from the very first minute. Or perhaps you want to establish the character’s everyday world or routine—then disrupt it.

But morning routines and literal wake-up calls rarely make for great reading. They put a lot of pressure on the writer to have a compelling point-of-view character or literary style—to give the story life, charm, or tension that keeps us reading.

If it is in fact a very important day—one the character has been waiting for—how about starting the story during or after the big thing that will occur? That can help with not just tension, but story pacing.

If you start with an important call or text, does it really need to be dramatized (shown) on the page? Maybe it does. Make sure you’re not starting there by accident or because it was the first idea that came to you.

2. The transit scene

Ideally, we want an opening situation that presents tension—a character who’s not getting what he wants or meets opposition, or that seeds a larger story problem that will emerge and develop.

Transit scenes—describing characters moving from point A to point B—often lack this. Or if there is tension, it’s one that we’re all too familiar with. Traffic. Bad subway companions. Mundane annoyances of life.

In other words, it has a little too much in common with what agents or editors experienced that morning. Transit can make for a slow and ordinary beginning unless something quite odd is going on or we have an entertaining voice.

However, transit scenes can be tempting if the character is embarking on a big and wild trip or heading to some important event. Or they might help establish an unusual setting or world.

Consider: is the pacing brisk enough in your transit scene? Is enough happening, or are you using it as a way to establish back story (see #3 below). Will an agent/editor get impatient with the amount of detail you’re including? Think through every line: Why is this description here? What purpose does it serve for the larger story problem or characterization? Is it needed at this moment?

Sometimes writers are told to “show don’t tell” so often that they show absolutely everything—they slow down every moment, and go over every bit of the setting—without regard for how the detail or perspective might serve the forward-moving story.

3. The rocking chair scene

This can be a cousin to the transit and waking up scene. It’s when your character is typically sitting alone and contemplating life—whether recent events or their entire history—just thinking, thinking, thinking, perhaps with some commentary on the scenery. This might serve to establish the character and give readers the back story needed (in the author’s mind, at least) to understand what’s ahead.

If this sounds like your opening, count how many pages it takes before someone else enters the picture. Rather than having the character think about someone else, can you put them into a scene with that person? Can the character think about past events for a line or two while also engaged in an activity relevant to the forward-moving story?

Extended internal monologue in the opening usually only serves one purpose: to deliver back story to the reader. See if you can convey that back story in a more evocative or interesting way, and parcel it over a series of chapters. The more you can begin with the character engaging with the world rather than reflecting on it, often the better position you will be in from a submissions perspective. It’s of course possible to have a successful reflective opening, but it’s far more difficult to pull off and tends to rely on the author’s command of voice.

4. The crisis scene

If we meet a character who is in crisis or pain from line one, we have something tension-filled on the surface, but it may not raise any interesting questions or reasons to keep reading if there’s not sufficient context. In some openings like this, we don’t even get the character’s name—just the fact they’re in wrenching agony.

Such openings tend to emphasize physical, bodily description, and showing, not telling. They might deliberately avoid identifying characteristics and try to increase tension by making us wonder what’s going on. However, this can be false suspense. This tends to be especially true of vague chase scenes where an unknown character is under extreme duress, but we don’t know why, or who/what the threat is.

While it can be to a writer’s advantage to begin with action, don’t forget the opening also introduces us to character. For a story to take shape, we need to see what’s happening through their distinctive viewpoint. As Peter Selgin says, “No point of view = no story.”

Note that pain in this case could be physical pain or psychological pain. Focusing on a character’s intense grief in the opening can be a risk if the reader lacks insight or context as to how this grief is unusual or important to this particular story.

5. The dream sequence

I often see dream sequences combined with crisis moments: a character is suffering in some way, then at the end of the first chapter, they wake up and it’s a dream. A prophetic dream, usually—it’s an ominous sign of what’s ahead, used as foreshadowing.

This is a common trope and a tired one. Just about anything else would be better unless you’ve found an amazing new way to frame it.

Final advice

Whether you ought to change your opening and revise is never an easy call. Pulling on one strand of a story to fix something possibly minor can unravel the entire thing or introduce new problems. If you receive a pattern of feedback that amounts to the same advice, though, you should strongly consider a revision.

Keep in mind that after the first five or ten pages are another five pages, and another. If challenges exist in the opening, that might indicate other challenges down the line—which is why agents and editors use them as an indicator of overall manuscript quality.

Posted in Getting Published.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Priscilla Bettis

Such wise advice. Openings are hard. I’m struggling right now with a novel opening. I’ve decided to go on with the rest of the book then come back and write the first scene!

Vicki Weisfeld

I’m a fan of the Facebook Page “First Line Monday,” and while the first line of a story isn’t as revealing as a whole first scene, it’s interesting to read thirty or so first lines every week and see what works and what doesn’t (for me, anyway). I can see why Elmore Leonard wrote, don’t start a book with the weather. Most of the time it’s simply descriptive, not story-centric, as a line like this would be: “Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Crescent City.” The other opener that usually leaves me “meh” is the excited dialog snippet prevalent in… Read more »

Harald Johnson

Excellent post, Jane. But a little more on your #2 The Transit Scene… I think a great opening with a transit scene is in Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow.” The main character is riding the NYC subway, but OMG, the tension has you hooked by the end of the first page. I guess it follows your words “Or they might help establish an unusual setting or world.” In this case, the first line does that, and it flows out from there. As you rightly state, story openings are critical. On my next-to-last book, I went back and forth and finally added… Read more »

Neil Larkins

I guess it’s a matter of taste. Never heard of Gone Tomorrow and looked it up. Read the first line and then the opening page and lost all interest. Way, WAY too much detail about things that seemed to have no connection to anything. The number of the car and the maker and year? Not for me.

Ken Hughes

So, don’t start the story too far *before* the key events (waking, dreams, or transits) or *after* the events (rocking chair), but also not so deep in the middle of them that the point of view is hidden by the immediate problem. (If they’re already inside the burning house, you can’t show the subtleties of how they react to how it *might* burn.) I like to go with “two minutes before the explosion.”

Marg

I was watching the opening to “The Young Pope” today and it made me think that starting with “I woke up” can be intriguing if handled well, but I imagine that this is always the case.

Robert Muller

Magic. I copied my first line to my second scene and moved my first scene after that scene, and my first chapter is now stunning! Thanks so much for the insight!

I find it interesting that it is really more useful to know what NOT to do than what to do. Endless articles on how to … leave me cold, one article on how not to … and bang!

Scott M

I knew when I wrote my opening scene that wake-ups were cliche and to be avoided. I kept it because, somehow, it feels instinctively right. This is a military sci-fi/horror and one thing common in the life of a military officer is getting woke up 🙂 In a nutshell, the XO of a military unit is awakened by his commanding officer at 2am and ordered to get troops ready to move. He’s out of the rack and to the door without consciously waking up, so it quickly changes to what I hope is an engaging back and forth between the… Read more »

Donna Dechen Birdwell

These are so tempting for the novice (i.e., me a few years ago!). Finding something better is not really that hard!

Janet Roberts

I’ve heard tip #1, don’t begin with someone waking up, many times and I always wonder why it was OK and worked so well for Anita Shreveport in “The Pilot’s Wife”.

Mary DeDanan

To suggest one more: The Long Look in the Mirror as protagonist describes herself.

Christa Polkinhorn

Great advice! Thank you.

[…] scene and carry you through all the twists and turns with a deft hand. Jane Friedman lists 5 story openings to avoid, and Nathan Bransford has 5 different openings to avoid, while Kathryn Craft shows us how to bridge […]

Mitchell Toews

Now I’ve done it. A new short story has four stanzas. Three, the first three, open in transit. Dohh. In the fourth, the MC is standing beside the damn car…I drove him hard, I did.

Roberta Eaton Cheadle

I went back and checked my opening line in my current WIP. It starts with guests at a party. I’ll give it some more thought.

[…] week, I read an excellent post by Jane Friedman, 5 Common Story Openings to Avoid.  As a new writer, I attempted two of them and I’ve seen at least two more when reading […]