• Catherine L. Haws

How to Edit the Opening of Your Story

Updated: Sep 19

When I crack open a book's first page, the same questions swirl around in my mind that I expect the story to answer:


  • Who am I supposed to care about?

  • Where is this story happening?

  • Why should I keep reading?


When you read a book, do you ask these questions too?


Sometimes we writers make the mistake of answering questions the reader is NOT asking. This can frustrate the reader or bore them with an info dump they didn't ask for.


Until I know who I'm supposed to cheer for, I don't want to read a history lesson.

Until I know the genre in which the story is taking place, I can't visualize what's happening.

And if those questions aren't answered first, why should I keep reading?


Who am I supposed to care about?


Introductions and first impressions are powerful.

Have you ever met someone and immediately wanted to be their friend?

Or have you ever met someone and immediately wanted to wash their handshake off of your skin and move to Vermont to never see them again?


How do you want the reader to feel about your main character?


Answering this question is more important than describing what the character looks like.

The reader could know your main character's height, weight, shoe size, and social security number without caring one lick about them!


Practical Tip: Pick a book opening that you love and study it


What is a book in the same genre as yours with an opening you love?

Go ahead and grab it right now!

Read the opening scene.

Observe how the main character is introduced in this great opening.

How would you describe your feelings about the character?

What are you told or shown about them?

What questions about them arise?


For example, one of my favorite openings is from Peter Pan:


"All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, 'Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!' This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. "

Based on this short excerpt, our main character is Wendy.

She is not the mysterious child hinted at in the first sentence who never grows up.

She is relatable, so we immediately like her and feel warm and fuzzy as she gives a pretty flower to her mommy - how sweet!

We are shown that Wendy is kind, in a loving home, and that she knows she must eventually grow up.

That first sentence still lingers in our minds raising questions:

Who is that mysterious child?

What part do they play in Wendy's story?


Making the reader care about your main character is easier said than done, but it is critical to capturing the reader's attention. If they don't care on the first page, they won't keep reading.


Where is this story happening?


Are there dragons? Are we in Brooklyn? Are there horse drawn carriages or spaceships?


The reader doesn't need a Sophomore level history class lecture on the origins of your magical, orange-skinned Elf-fairies, but they do need to generally acclimate to the story world they are entering.


Put the 5 senses to your advantage as you describe the specific details of the story world the reader is entering. These specific details can alert us to an environment, and even if we have never been there before, we can begin to imagine the scene.


Practical Tip: Make note of clues that give away the location of the story


Grab a scrap of paper, and jot down specific details that clue into the location and time period in which the story is taking place in that opening you love.

Notice how dialogue contributes to painting the picture.


Now look at your own opening.

What details are already there giving your reader clues?

How could incorporating more of the 5 senses or specific details make the story world more real to your reader?


In the opening chapter of Peter Pan, we are not told the year, and England is not mentioned until the chapter is almost over. However, the dialogue and some descriptions give clues.

Mentions of gentlemen, a cab, Napoleon, and a "cheque" book give us a pretty good idea that Wendy's story is taking place in England sometime after 1800.

These little clues ground the story in a realistic setting, all the while we are expecting something magical because of the promise in the first sentence that one child never grows up.


If there is a character we care about in a story world that seems real and interesting, there's one more step to insuring you have a great opening.


Why should I keep reading?


Why do people love reading fiction?


Okay, that's kind of an impossibly broad question, but the answers boil down to:

Curiosity.

That is what keeps the pages turning.

What fuels curiosity? Intriguing questions with the promise of juicy answers.


Once a reader knows who to care about and has their footing in the story world, then they are ready to be dazzled with breadcrumbs beckoning them to journey further.


Practical Tip: Pin point the questions that arise in that opening you love


For example, let's look at the opening sentence of Peter Pan again:


"All children, except one, grow up."


Who is the exception?

Why doesn't he grow up?

How is that possible?

Where does he live?

What is his life like?

Why is he the only one?


Questions like this are enticing enough to keep the reader following the trail of breadcrumbs to discover how the story provides answers.


Take a look at that opening you love and jot down the questions it raises.


Now take a look at your own opening.

Jot down the questions you think are raised.

Try asking someone else what questions they see. Are those the questions you want the reader to be asking?


The opening of your story creates an important first impression on your reader.

If they find a character to care about in an intriguing story world with irresistible questions, they will eagerly turn the page and ask,


"What happens next?"