Story openings can be vexing—it’s tricky to give readers enough of a hook to invest them while avoiding layering in too much extraneous info and making the story feel slow to kick off. Strong openings are a balancing act—and one where even the most experienced writers can lose their footing.
Recently I’ve been editing an earlier novel of mine, Heart Conditions (I write fiction under a pen name, Phoebe Fox), in preparation for its rerelease, and as I read it for the first time in five years I was dismayed to see the story failed to engage me for far too many pages. The opening was slow, static, and lacked a strong hook.
I’ll dedicate a future post directly to specific techniques for hooking readers in a story, but in general an effective story opening should accomplish several things:
- Give readers a reason to relate to and invest in your characters
- Create a conflict, obstacle, friction, challenge, etc., that jolts the character from her status quo
- Create strong momentum that builds throughout the story
I usually advise opening as close as possible to the story’s inciting event—meaning the thing that sets the character on her journey, makes it inevitable—while still accomplishing all three of the above key elements. And in my story I did that: the first scene ends with the return after two years of the protagonist’s ex-fiance who abandoned her a month before their wedding, the event that forces her onto the path she walks throughout the story.
But my opening had problems. That initial scene was an “establishing scene”—one whose only story purpose was to introduce a situation and/or characters, rather than one that moved the story forward. It had an internal character conflict, but little story conflict that would force Brook, the protagonist, out of her situation and drive the momentum.
Then after that little flare of an inciting event, I immediately detoured into establishing more backstory with six (!!) additional scenes and three chapters that failed to move the story forward before I finally—finally—got the story moving, on page 26. But only after including another version of the inciting event, which was unnecessary and repetitious, and all before the reader was hooked—before our feet were firmly planted in the protagonist and the immediate situation/conflict she was facing.
I’ve seen countless authors fall prey to some version of this exact same misstep, and I can understand why (firsthand). It’s so tempting to believe that readers need to know certain information in order to hook into the story and feel invested. And Heart Conditions is the third book in a series (the Breakup Doctor series), which can make that temptation even stronger—when I wrote it I remember feeling mindful of offering enough information from the previous books to orient both new and forgetful returning readers to the story and characters.
Here’s the “X-ray” breakdown of the first three chapters, scene by scene, as they were initially published. Brook is the protag, known as the Breakup Doctor for her practice counseling people through bad breakups. She’s still in love with Ben, her most recent ex who is now dating Pamela after Brook broke his heart…because Brook hasn’t healed from her own heartbreak two years ago, when her ex-fiancé Michael jilted her a month before their wedding.
Scene one: Brook sees Ben and pines for him when they meet for him to give his dog to Brook to take care of while he’s out of town with his new girlfriend.
Scene two: Brook drives home and feeds the dog; her doorbell rings and it’s Michael.
Scene one: Michael breakup backstory. He asks to have a chance to talk to Brook and she punts, saying maybe another time and sending Michael away.
Scene two: Interiority about Brook’s reactions, a bit more backstory. Talks over her feelings with her best friend, Sasha.
Scene three: Sasha takes Brook on a long shopping-and-makeover montage to prepare to see Michael.
Scene one: Foreshadowing of Sasha subplot.
Scene two: Sunday dinner at Brook’s parents’, setting up parent subplot and Sasha subplot.
Scene three: Dinner wrap-up and more foreshadowing of Sasha subplot.
I’m a little bit embarrassed spelling these scenes this out for you, because it’s incredibly obvious looking at the breakdown how static and internal these first three chapters are. Even without knowing the story I’m guessing you see the problem—too much “establishing” info, too little forward momentum, very little conflict/tension, frontloaded backstory.
What’s the story so far? The only real inkling of action that indicates Brook’s character arc is Michael showing up and the inner conflict it causes her—but there’s no external conflict, and after that initial setup Michael disappears for more than thirty pages while the narrative keeps spinning its wheels just laying groundwork without actually moving the story forward. Some of this material is essential information, but we don’t need to have it all dumped in up front to hook us into the story—in fact it does the opposite.
How I fixed it
So in the edit for the reissue, I cut those first three chapters and made chapter four my new chapter one, which now starts with Brook actively counseling one of her Breakup Doctor clients who can’t let go of a past relationship. This directly reflects Brook’s own main conflict in the story regarding Ben that is the spine of her arc, which is much more effective storytelling—and foreshadows Michael showing up at the end of the scene, which is the inciting event.
Then I brushstroked in pieces of the essential info from the first three chapters to set up the conflicts and stakes while moving the story forward, staying with that first essential story conflict/question—between Brook and Michael—as I salted in the necessary backstory only where the reader needed it to understand whatever was happening at that point of the story (see my post on backstory here), resulting in much stronger momentum, higher tension, much more immediacy, and a tighter, stronger story structure overall.
Even as a professional editor, it’s hard to edit your own story when you’re too close to it. It wasn’t until I had the objective distance of years away from the story that I could clearly see what was hampering it. That kind of time is a luxury we rarely have, of course, but I offer an array of tips for obtaining objectivity on your own manuscripts in this Editing Quick Tip video on my YouTube channel, where I also have a video discussing this same edit. And you can do a deeper dive in my FoxPrint Working Writer online course “How to Seamlessly Weave in Backstory (While Moving Your Story Forward).”