5 Common Story Openings Done Wrong

Openings photoLast month it occurred to me that a handful of basic opening scenarios crop up in a large number of stories. I’m not talking about those tropes we’ve all heard about (alarm clocks ringing, watching the sun rise, or waking up from a dream), but situations and specific types of events writers use to grab the reader’s attention.

Sometimes these situations fit the story perfectly. Other times, they go wrong and leave the reader feeling dissatisfied.

I’ve isolated five hugely popular yet potentially problematic openings:

1. Death Comes Knocking:
A character died. It might be a character we just spent the first chapter getting to know, or someone we will learn more about as the story develops.
It can work as a great initial story hook because any death is shocking. The reader wants to know who the person is, why they died, and who or what killed them.
In a murder mystery, the death is always integral to the plot, but in some cases, death is used as an element of backstory, and that is when this opening tends to go wrong. The writer must establish the relevance of the death to the plot and the surviving characters. If they don’t do this, the reader might stop caring about the death, or the death might come across as gratuitous. Pacing is another problem with a death opening: it sets high expectations. If the writer isn’t keeping up the pace, reader interest is likely to dwindle.

2. Last Calls and Beer Goggles:
This hook uses some aspect of the big night out. It often teams drinking too much with risky or morally questionable behaviors. It’s the stupid one night stand, the firing due to drunkenness, or some other bad decision the character makes in the heat of the moment.
It works as a hook by revealing the protagonist’s mental state. It shows the reader that the character is flawed and it makes them appear more human.
It goes wrong when the character comes off as too flawed, too morally void, too unlawful, or as too much of a stereotype. In short, the character becomes a big, sloppy, self-loathing mess, and the reader feels nothing but scorn and contempt for them.

3. Overly Exaggerated Emotions:
Fear, resentment, family fighting and lots of it! This opening is packed with melodrama and volatile character interaction. It can also show up as the depressed, almost catatonic characters, the ones that drag themselves around on the pages in slow motion.
It works as an opening when it builds sympathy for the characters and their difficult situation.
It goes wrong when the author dumps too many emotional complaints and conditions all at once, and the reader ends up feeling like the character’s therapist. Plus, it’s hard to write emotionally unstable characters in a believably way. And it’s distracting when the characters suddenly change personality traits without a compelling reason. When handled badly, this opening will not generate any reader empathy and it just feels forced and fake.

4. Bucolic Wonder:
Green grass, peaceful blue skies, and the sounds of a bubbling spring fill the air. The protagonist enjoys total happiness and the love of family and friends while dancing in the ever-present sunshine. It’s all birds, bunnies and impromptu song and dance numbers.
It works as a opening because most readers would love to find such a magical place to live in. It goes wrong when it lingers too long, then it starts to get sticky sweet (a bit like the description of this paragraph). There’s no tension, no conflict, and everything is too perfect. This opening needs to show (or at least hint at) a creditable story complication, the evil hiding behind the mask of beauty, and that shake-up needs to happen pretty fast. Without some discord even a paradise grows dull.

5. Out On A Limb:
This opening has the characters confronted by an inescapable complication. The situation requires the characters to either rise and conquer the problem or to reveal their faults and fail.
It works as an opening because it forces the characters into action and establishes their core personalities in a stressful situation. It starts to go wrong when the scale of the opening complication is out of proportion with the rest of the story. An action packed book can carry off a huge opening event that impacts thousands! But in a quiet story, the event should have a smaller scale. Another problem with this opening is some writers will shift events out of sequence by putting an action-packed scene from the middle of the book at the beginning to artificially contrive a big opening complication, and that misleads the reader. When the story opens with a big energetic event the reader expects more.

So there you have it! Five stock openings that have been time-tested and used by thousands of writers before you. They can work well, but they also have some specific ways they can go horribly wrong. Have you ever used one of these? I have! My current project uses number 5, but I’ve also used variations of 1, 3 and 4 at different times. If you can think of any other examples, I’d love to hear them. Please share them in the comments.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

25 thoughts on “5 Common Story Openings Done Wrong”

  1. Thank you for these great tips. I recently read a murder mystery, where the writer told who the murderer was 3 charters into the story. Needless to say, I didn’t finish the book. What was the point? I have used opening #5 for my latest book, and it was a small scene from about the middle of the book. But it did work.

    1. Hi Sahara,
      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you liked the tips. I hate it when books start by giving too much away. I will stop reading if the mystery is gone. I’m glad #5 worked out for your project. Happy Halloween!

  2. Hi, I fell in love with your blog during the A to Z challenge and regret not visiting more often, but I was trying hard to visit as many blogs as possible . I bookmarked your blog as one I didn’t want to miss , after the challenge ended. I’m so glad I did. This was an excellent post on how openings can go wrong . I like your fresh approach on the topic. I’ve read many posts that offer wise information about what to avoid in our opening, but many of them shared the exact same advice . You’ve given us several scenarios that I haven’t seen covered in other articles . I like that you’ve demonstrated ways the opening can work, but also when it doesn’t . My biggest pet peeve is an opening that starts with a bang or a death , but one that ends up having little
    to do with the actual story.
    Melissa Sugar
    Sugarlaw13@live.com
    http://fictiontoolbox.blogspot.com

    1. Hi Melissa,
      You are so nice. I’m always interested in opening, I think I’ve written at three posts on them. I think they set the tone of the whole story. I’m a huge fan of the bang, when it keeps on happening!
      A to Z is a great place to find new blogs, but a bad time to try and follow new blogs. I ended up bookmarking the ones I wanted to keep up with too. I’m so glad we found each other during the challenge. : )

    1. Thanks, Noelle! I’m glad you stopped by. A to Z was crazy busy. I still feel like I’m in a slow motion recover phase. Good thing it’s only once a year. : )

  3. I have a little story in the works, which I think I might publish as a small 2 or 3 piece series on my blog that does start with death. But as death will lead us to want to know more, go back in the persons past…

    1. Death can be a great hook, you just have to make it work. If you’re using it as the start of a story that is about unraveling the dead person’s past it sounds like it might be good opening. Good luck with the story.

  4. I review for a blog and have seen a lot of openings. Some are really fantastic and grab you right away. I’ll always remember the opener for The Book Thief narrated by Death.
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal – Impartial, Straighforward Fiction Book Reviews

    1. I love that opening! I’ve talked about it in blog posts before. It’s very unique. I’ve done quite a bit of research on openings, and when the writer nails it, it’s magic! But it’s not magic that happens often enough. : (

  5. I cringed reading #1. I have a character die in the first chapter of my next series. However, I think it was a wise decision since the series is about kids who can see ghosts! Well, I’ll find out if it works when I publish the book!

    1. Hi Alana,
      I think death is the most common opening around. Just think about how many books for kids start out with the death of one or both parents. It’s mind boggling! But don’t cringe, just make sure you’ve used the death in the right way and made it relevant to the story, which it sounds like it is. 🙂 Also that you keep it age appropriate.

  6. Great examples, Robin. I agree with all of them, and I also like this point at the end of #4:

    “This opening needs to show (or at least hint at) a creditable story complication, the evil hiding behind the mask of beauty, and that shake-up needs to happen pretty fast. Without some discord even a paradise grows dull.”

    If done right, this approach can work really well. It’s sort of the way I went for my WIP’s opening scene: It starts off normal to introduce the character and show why she’s admirable / likeable – and then on Page 4, the complication that launches both the internal and external conflicts. I think it works… I hope it works. I’ll find out for sure once my beta-readers have it, I guess. *lol*

    1. Hi Sara,
      Four is a tricky one. We want everyone to like our characters, but we don’t want them to come off as so perfect they’re annoying. It’s all about balance, and finding the right approach for each story. All of these opening are potentially good, you just need to find the right place to pull back.

      Good luck with the betas, I can’t wait to hear how things are going.

      1. Thanks! It won’t be for a while; I’m still revising the WIP. But I can’t help but think ahead to future stages from time to time. Does that happen to you too?

        1. Absolutely! I’m a freak about planning ahead. And I tend to worry about everything. One of my resolutions this year is to stop second guessing myself so much and to learn to trust my writer instincts.

  7. Have I ever used one? Of course! In my first novel I opened with a dream, that was really more of a vision, but still. Then I changed it to an argument between spouses — and that bombed because it made my protagonist look like a jerk. The worse part was, it was published in the local paper. The article now hangs in my sun room — my husband is my loudest cheerleader and he refuses to take it down — reminding me how terrible my writing was back then. LOL

    1. Oh, boy! I know exactly what you mean. One of my first short stories, which is also out in the world in an undisclosed location, (hides face in hands) had this big argument that went on and on! It was a total mess. Stock opening are stock for a reason, we’ve all fallen into their trap at one time or another.

  8. #5 is particularly dangerous, because we are told to start with action… but that kind of action means nothing because we don’t know the character yet. D’oh! Great list. 🙂

    1. In YA books #5 is the go to opening, it’s used in tons of highly successful books in one variation or another. The tricky part is to make sure you use it in a way that reveals the characters and stays consistent with the rest of the book. I can’t stand reading books that open with a big bang of action and just get slower and slower! I feel cheated, like the author tricked me into thinking the book would be a thriller.

      1. It can be frustrating when you get thrown into the action and then the event isn’t followed through. It’s like reading a book backwards! I’ve read many where the action is slow to start, and that’s okay of you get what you were hoping for by the end 🙂

        Great tips. They especially help during either the planning or reflection stages. A kind of check-list; things to look out for. We’ve been taught so many times how important the introduction is – to lead with a hook, but it still needs to be prevalent to the plot.

        1. Thanks, Mel. A hook is great, but not when it’s misleading to the reader. I think it’s a tone thing with an action opening, if you want to lead with that, just keep it coming!

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