The Why's, When's, and What-Not's for Opening a Story

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Last week I started writing my sixteenth full length book. Whenever I face the completely blank screen and start to type my first word, I always feel the thrill of embarking on a new adventure. But at the same time, I also battle insecurities and worries over how to begin my story in a way that wows my readers.

As I brainstormed, I struggled to narrow down the best way to start my newest book. I wrestled through a few questions, namely the why's, when's, and what-not's of opening a story:

The Why's of an Opening:

I don't remember stressing over my opening so much in the past. I was more intuitive, jumping into the story at the moment of change in my character's life but without having the pressure to make it incredible.

But times have changed from when I first started writing. Nowadays with the ease of reading the first pages online before buying a book, writers have to be more intentional and start really strong or risk losing a potential buyer. Sometimes the first page, even the first paragraph, is all the chance readers will give us.

If we don’t grip readers with our story from the start, they’re likely to move on to something that will grab them.

The When's of an Opening:

"Without a clear problem to solve, there is no story. Period. Story is about struggle that leads to change." (~Lisa Cron at Writer Unboxed)

Story-telling is essentially throwing our main character (MC) into a problem, tying her into a knot, and then having her suffer and struggle to work her way out of the knot. The antagonist then attempts to prevent the MC from getting out of her bind.

Most often when we analyze where to being our story, we need to look for the beginning of that problem also known as the inciting incident. The inciting incident is a literary term that means: The event or decision that begins a story’s problem and pushes the main character to take action.

Sometimes the inciting incident is also referred to as the "exciting event" because it's the moment when the character's nice, comfortable world is rocked. Something happens that pushes the MC off the path she was traveling onto a different course that will ultimately change her life. The disturbance is the start of her character arc, so that by the end of the book she's a different person in some way.

So when we're considering WHERE to start our story, we want to begin somewhere near the inciting incident. If we begin too much before it, we risk loading our readers with backstory. If we start after it, we may shortchange our readers on seeing the unfolding of an exciting moment.

The What-Not's of an Opening: 

Obviously we don't want to add drama to the opening just for drama's sake. We don't want to give our character a bad hair day, have her spill coffee on her new shirt, and then get into an accident all on page one so that we can start our story with a bang. Rather we want to drop our characters into the middle of conflict and tension but in a way that relates to the life-changing story-problem.

Another thing we want to avoid in the first pages is beginning with a cliché or a situation that's been overdone. For example, my daughter handed me a new book she'd just read and she said, "Mom, it was another opening with the main character going back home after being gone for a long time." She'd noticed that pattern in a lot of books she'd read.

Finally within openings, readers aren't very forgiving of backstory dumps, stopping the story to fill the reader in on the current situation, too many characters to keep track of, the MC having paragraphs of internal thoughts (in place of real dialogue and action), and too much setting description. We need to be wary of these things throughout our books, but having them in them in our openings can mean the difference between buy and bye.

What about you? Do you struggle to write your openings? What are some other things to be aware of when trying to decide where to start your story?


  1. Yes. For some reason, a story hits me. I have all these amazing ideas flowing through me. I see the end and the middle. I feel the excitement of the few characters who I already feel like I know. And then ... the beginning. Three books for me and each one I've had to write a totally new opening for after I thought the manuscript was done, ready to sent to my agent. Granted, the new beginnings are so much better. Just wish I could see the before the end.

  2. Jody, I struggle with openings. On more than one occasion I'll get several thousand words or so into a book and realize that--as James Scott Bell teaches--the story should really begin in Chapter 2. So, I cut Chapter 1, put it in a "holding" folder I establish for the book, and occasionally (but not always) come back and drop in that information later. Thanks for the discussion.

  3. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for this post! I absolutely am horrid with openings. But this post is very helpful and now I have a lot of ideas for an opening. :)

  4. Thanks for the great pointers on openings, Jody. I try to introduce the character in a way that makes readers care about him and then use the opening scene to create tension and foreshadow the inciting incident. Opening scenes take a lot of time and many rewrites, but it's worth the effort. As you say, there is no single more important scene than the opening.

  5. Good tips. Thank you. :) I've rewritten my beginnings more than any other part of my books. XD I've rewritten one ten times and now I think I finally like it lol.

    Stori Tori's Blog

  6. Jody, you have eleven books out there somewhere waiting to be published? Wow! I am aware of the two that are coming out this year and at least two more in the lighthouse series. You are sitting on a gold mine. I'm looking forward to reading these.

    I thought it was interesting. After forcing myself to finish a book that I didn't really care for I realized that I loved the opening. I remember being gripped by the great beginning, but it went downhill from there. Then I read the author notes. The author profusely thanked another author for the help in rewriting the opening. I could tell the difference.

    1. The first five books I wrote are tucked safely away in a drawer and will never see the light of day! LOL :-) I affectionately call them my practice books!

      But, yes, I do have more books that are in the process of making it to publication (aside from the books I'm already contracted to write including my summer release and then the three lighthouse books)! :-)

      And I hear you on the writer having a stellar opening but then not backing it up with a good story. I've seen this happen in contests, where writers continually polish and rework their openings to do well in contests, but then fail to spend as much time on the rest of the book!

  7. I love these reminders! I sometimes know exactly where to start. But I have one manuscript where I've re-done the opening about five times, and cut the first three chapters. Hey, I'm a work in progress ;)

  8. You make some really good points about the nature of the online world and hooking in readers from page one. Great reminders about the character arc.


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