5 Mistakes Writers Make in Their Opening Pages (and How to Avoid Them)
Do you ever get stuck writing and rewriting the first few pages of your story?
If so, you're not alone! I've met a lot of writers who struggle to get past the first three to five pages of their story -- and because of that, they end up feeling like they're not cut out for this whole "write a book" thing, and may even give up on their writing altogether.
Can you relate?
In this post, I'm going to share the five most common mistakes I see writers make in their opening pages. If you're having trouble pushing past those first few pages of your draft, it might be because of one of these crippling mistakes. But don't worry, I'll also share tips for avoiding these mistakes, too.
Let's dive in.
Two Reasons Why Your Opening Pages Are Important
Your story's opening pages are important for two main reasons:
The first reason is that you only have a very small window to catch a reader’s attention and make them want to find out how the story’s going to play out (and how it’s ultimately going to end). If you don't catch your readers' attention in the first three to five pages, they're probably not going to keep reading the rest of the story.
The second reason is that if you choose to query agents or publishers, they’re likely going to ask you for the first five or ten pages of your draft. They do this so that they can get an overall sense of your story and to see how well you write. If those first five or ten pages don’t grab their attention, they know the book isn’t likely to grab the reader's attention either.
So, long story short, these first five pages of your story are super important. And because they’re so important, I wanted to share some common mistakes to look out for or avoid.
Mistake #1 is that there’s not enough big picture context.
Sometimes writers think it’s best to hold back information in an effort to manipulate the reader or to make them curious, but in most cases, this just isn’t the right way to go.
When you purposely leave out context in order to make readers curious, it almost always has the opposite effect. Readers will feel lost.
So, what you’ll want to do to avoid this mistake is to give readers all the context they need so that they have some notion of where the story’s headed or why certain things are important.
If you’re a first time writer, this will probably feel clunky and you’ll worry you’re being too obvious, but it’s not true!
Usually, it’s precisely the information that you feel like you want to hold back that would actually pull the reader into the story and make them want to know more IF only they had that context on the page.
So, don’t hold back.
Mistake #2 is that they introduce the protagonist too late -- or they start the story with a character who isn’t the protagonist.
And this is a problem because when readers pick up a book, they’re naturally going to look for someone to latch onto. They want to know whose story this is, why things matter to that person, and why they should care. So, if you introduce your protagonist too late, that will just prevent readers from feeling engaged with your story.
And if you introduce someone who’s not your protagonist first -- well, readers will probably assume that character is your protagonist so, just be careful with this if you decide to hold off on putting your protagonist on page one.
So, what you’ll want to do to avoid this mistake is introduce your protagonist as early as possible, ideally on page one. Now, that’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s really great if you can introduce your protagonist on the first page of your story.
This seems to come more naturally to writers who write in first person because everything is written from the protagonist’s perspective. So, if you’re writing in third person, you’ll want to be extra aware of introducing your protagonist to readers as soon as possible.
Mistake #3 is that there’s a lot of action happening but there’s not really any context as to why things are happening or what things mean.
In this case, writers usually start their story with the most dramatic thing possible (like car chases, explosions, shoot outs, etc.).
But the thing is…
This kind of action at the beginning of a story (without the big picture context like we talked about earlier) is going to feel objectively dramatic, but will probably be really boring for the reader.
So, what you’ll want to do to avoid this mistake is to get your protagonist into some kind of meaningful action. And what I mean by that is you want your protagonist to be active in these opening pages rather than passive.
You want them to have a goal that they’re pursuing and you want them to have a sense of agency over their decisions. So, this also means you don’t want to include large passages of backstory or worldbuilding details either -- instead, you want your character to be taking meaningful action. Or some kind of action that contributes to your global story.
Mistake #4 is that they dump a bunch of backstory onto the reader to make sure the reader understands what’s happening.
Writers tend to think that readers have to know everything about their protagonist’s past or everything about their world in order to understand what’s about to happen in the story -- and this just isn’t true.
Info-dumping like this is actually one of the worst things you can do in your opening pages because when you dump a bunch of information on the reader at once, there’s nothing actually happening. Instead, it’s just a bunch of information and that’s not enough to pique the reader’s interest and pull them into the story.
So, what you’ll want to do instead is weave relevant backstory or worldbuilding details into the story present. So, as your protagonist navigates their world and interacts with people, places, and things, make sure something in their present moment triggers the bit of backstory or worldbuilding information that you want to share.
Mistake #5 is that there’s nothing at stake -- or sometimes there is something at stake but it doesn’t really matter to the overall story.
And this usually happens when a writer isn’t sure what their protagonist wants, or what they’re all about. So, if you don't know what your protagonist wants, or what they stand to lose or gain as they pursue that thing they want, then it’s going to be really hard to write the story, right? This is one of the main reasons I see writers run out of steam or hit a wall when it comes time to sit down and write.
And not only that, but when there’s nothing at stake for your protagonist -- and when they don’t have to make decisions given what they want and what’s at stake -- your draft will end up feeling like a collection of random things that happen versus a cohesive story that unfolds from start to finish.
So, what you’ll want to do to avoid this mistake is make sure it’s clear what your protagonist wants, why he or she wants it, and what’s at stake if he or she doesn’t get it.
If you're not sure what's at stake, look to your story's global genre for clues. In a romance, love is what's at stake. In a thriller, the protagonist's life is what's at stake. Then, personalize those stakes for your protagonist.
So, those are the top five mistakes I see writers make in their first three to five pages -- and the good news is that all of them are completely avoidable if you do a little work up front.
And if you’d like me to help you figure out the key elements your story needs to include in the first five pages, come check out my brand new workshop! In this workshop, I walk you through each of the five key elements your opening pages needs to have and I show you examples of how these elements show up in the first five pages of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Click here to learn more or to enroll.
Savannah Gilbo is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work.
Savannah is also the host of the Fiction Writing Made Easy Podcast where she delivers a brand new, weekly episode with simple, actionable, and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away.
www.BookCoachCollective.com - Click here for a list of our coaches and more information.