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Top 3 book opening mistakes (and how to fix them)

Every write knows that a strong opening to their book is crucial for engaging readers. It's the first impression, the hook, that either reels readers in or lets them slip away. When I review a manuscript, I always pay particular attention to the opening of the story. Here are the top three mistakes I often see writers make in their book openings and practical ways to fix them.

1. Frontloading World-Building or Backstory

The mistake:

Writers often feel compelled to unload a significant amount of backstory or world-building details at the very beginning of the story. They might do this for a variety of reasons but in my experience it comes from a lack of trust that the reader will understand what's going on or feel attached to the story if they aren't told a character's past, the world’s history, or intricate details about the plot right from the start.

Why it's a problem:

An overload of backstory can be overwhelming and boring for readers. It slows down the narrative and prevents readers from becoming immediately invested in the story. Readers are generally more interested in what's happening now rather than what happened before.

How to fix it:

  •  Introduce backstory in small, digestible pieces throughout the narrative. Let it come up naturally as part of the character's journey.

  • Start with an engaging scene that thrusts the reader into the story. Whether it's a moment of conflict, an intriguing dialogue, or a vivid description of a setting, make sure something is happening.

  • Show, don't tell by revealing backstory through characters' actions, dialogue, and thoughts.

2. Introducing Too Many Characters Too Quickly

The mistake:

Similar to mistake one, in an attempt to set the stage, writers sometimes introduce a large cast of characters in rapid succession right at the beginning of the book.

Why it's a problem:

Introducing too many characters at once can be confusing for readers. They may struggle to keep track of who is who and what their relationships and significance are to the story. This can lead to frustration and disengagement.

How to fix it:

  • Introduce a smaller number of main characters initially. Allow the reader to get to know these characters well before bringing in others. Make sure the first chapter is especially focused on the protagonist and other characters who will be essential to their journey.

  • Spend time within the narrative developing the personalities and motivations of the initial characters. Let readers form a connection with them.

  • When new characters are introduced, use distinctive features or traits to help readers remember them. For example, a character might have a unique mannerism, distinctive appearance, or memorable speech pattern.

3. Lack of a Compelling Hook

The mistake:

Some writers fail to include a compelling hook in their opening. They might start with mundane details, a static scene, or general exposition that doesn’t immediately grab the reader’s attention.

Why it's a problem:

The first few pages of a book are critical. If they don’t captivate the reader, there’s a good chance the book will be put down. At that point, the reader has been lost. A compelling hook is essential to draw readers in and make them want to continue reading.

How to fix it:

  • Begin with a question, a surprising statement, or a situation that makes readers curious. What’s happening? Why is it happening? This drives readers to keep reading to find out more.

  • Start in the middle of an action or significant event, plunging the reader directly into the story and creating immediate interest.

  • Use vivid, sensory details to create an immersive experience. Describe sights, sounds, smells, and feelings to draw readers into the scene.

By gradually weaving in backstory, introducing characters thoughtfully, and crafting a compelling hook, you set the stage for a captivating narrative that keeps readers turning pages. There are many other pitfalls to avoid in a book's opening, but keeping writing craft in mind and thinking through what creates a compelling narrative can help you avoid them all.

Most important: remember, the opening of your book is your chance to make a lasting first impression—make it count!



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