Monday, September 19, 2016


In A STORY IS A PROMISE, Bill Johnson examines the right way to open a story. And that’s important information to have. But as a PitchWars mentor, I’ve read hundreds of opening chapters and find that the same kinds of mistakes show up time and time again. With that in mind, I’ve put together a handy checklist of several ways to avoid writing the wrong opening. Ready? Let’s go!

The story starts in the wrong place
Occasionally, the story starts too late. When this occurs, the reader doesn’t have enough information to understand what is happening and/or they don’t have enough information to care about the main character. Most often, stories start too early, burdening the reader with pages and pages of material that don’t signal where the story is going or drive it forward in a meaningful way. (The best way to know if you’ve started in the right place? Share your work with critique partners and beta readers.)

The story lacks emotional resonance
There may be all sorts of exciting, dangerous, or even sad things happening in your story. But if we don’t know how these plot points impact the main character on a personal level, it makes it hard for us to buy into their journey. Give us a reason to care.

The story lacks tension
It’s easy to mistake tension for drama or action. Consequently, readers who are writing quiet (character-driven) stories sometimes mistakenly believe that their stories don’t need tension. But tension is what drives a story. Tension doesn’t have to mean running from bad guys or a storm brewing on the horizon. Tension means that there is some type of conflict—which can be internal, external, or both––driving the story forward. Otherwise, there is no reason for the reader to keep turning the pages.

The writer tries to play coy
Writers often try to hook the reader by dangling a carrot in front of them—referring to an incident that they assume will pique the reader’s curiosity and make them want to continue turning the pages. But often, these carrots confuse the reader and they end up setting the book aside. The line between hooking the reader and confusing them can be a very difficult one to walk, and CPs and beta readers play a crucial role in helping the writer get it right.

Too much backstory
If you’ve followed the PitchWars hashtag for any length of time, this is one that you’ve undoubtedly seen come up again and again. Don’t make the mistake of bogging down your opening pages with tons of information that the reader “has to have” to understand the story—if they really, truly have to have all of that information, then you’ve probably opened your story in the wrong place. But the chances are, the reader doesn’t need nearly all the information you’ve stuffed into your opening. Cut most of it, and leave only that which the reader absolutely cannot move forward without. (How do you know if you have the right balance? CPs and beta readers, of course. Noticing a theme here?)

First Day of School Syndrome
Stories that open on the first day of school are extremely common. As such, it’s exceptionally difficult to write a scene that feels fresh and engaging. The same goes for opening with dreams (in addition to signaling that you are a new writer, this technique causes the reader to feel like the writer has pulled a bait and switch, and they lose trust in the writer. Don’t take that risk). Another opening mistake along these lines—having the character gaze into a mirror. Find a more original way to convey the MC’s appearance.

Make sure your story doesn’t fall into any of the common opening traps, and you’ll be several steps closer to writing a solid opening that delivers on its promise to the reader. (Hopefully you’ve also walked away from this with a sense of how important critique partners are to the writing process. More about that here.)

Happy writing!

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis
A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at

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