Storytelling

Five Reasons Stories Have Slow Openings, and How to Fix Them

Cover art from the lies of Locke Lamora.
A lot of things can go wrong with a story’s beginning, and one of the most common problems is that it’s just boring. Instead of grabbing readers, the beginning slowly meanders around waiting for the story to start. Even if the narrative picks up later, the damage is already done. Many readers won’t get through a slow opening at all, and those that do will always have that negative first impression. Fortunately, when we look at why beginnings are slow, patterns emerge. Let’s look at some of the most common reasons this happens and consider what we can do about it.

1. Unrelated Framing Device

Cover art from the Name of the Wind

The critically acclaimed The Name of The Wind is about a young Kvothe as he loses his family and struggles to make his way in the world. But that’s not how it starts. Instead, we have seven chapters of an adult Kvothe getting ready to tell his story to a traveling chronicler.* Only then do we finally start the actual story. After that, adult Kvothe has no impact on the book, except as an epilogue at the end. You might expect young Kvothe’s story to catch up with adult Kvothe by the end, but that’s not what happens. If we’re lucky, that may happen in the as yet unpublished third book.

So what does this framing device have to do with the book’s actual story? Absolutely nothing. In fact, you could remove the framing device entirely, and the sections about young Kvothe would be unchanged. All the framing device does is make the reader wait longer for the story to start.

I see this problem all the time in manuscripts I edit, though I have to admit, most of them aren’t seven chapters long. Authors seem to have a fascination with framing devices, as if using them makes a story more sophisticated somehow. I’ve even met the occasional author who felt like they had to put in a framing device as an explanation for how the story was being told, as if audiences wouldn’t accept the narration otherwise.

Instead, all framing devices usually do is slow the story down. Best-case scenario, the framing device is entertaining in its own right, but then readers will be irritated that they have to leave it behind and transition to a completely different story.

How to Fix It

In the vast majority of stories, a framing device is unnecessary and should simply be cut. If you’re set on having one, then it needs to be relevant to the story somehow. In this scenario, how the story is told becomes important to the plot. That’s how the original The Princess Bride novel works. Its framing device is that the narrator is reading you someone else’s story and is always commenting on aspects of the original that he changed or removed, usually to humorous effect.

This kind of narration is really intrusive, and it works best in stories that are supposed to be funny. A framing device that constantly makes itself known is likely to disrupt a more serious drama. That said, it is technically possible to do this in a serious story, just incredibly difficult and not something most writers are ready for.

2. Uninteresting POV Characters

A single man looking at a canal from cover art of Lies of Locke Lamora.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is another novel that cuts between a child and an adult version of the main character, but this time it’s not a framing device. Instead, the young Locke chapters both start the book and continue throughout. They’re even really interesting at the beginning. Young Locke is in trouble for breaking the city’s criminal code of conduct. If he doesn’t shape up and learn his place, he’ll be killed. Exciting! But then we switch to adult Locke whose only problem is trying to steal even more money and add it to the enormous stash he already has but can’t think of a use for. It’s not until much later that adult Locke actually gets a plot of his own.

This situation is one of the many problems that can arise from including multiple viewpoint characters in a story. The author starts the story with a protagonist who has all the right ingredients: a balance of candy and spinach,* a compelling problem, and likable traits. We’re eager to read more. But then the story switches to a different character who lacks those critical elements, and suddenly the story slows to a crawl.

Authors do this because they don’t understand that switching to a new character is essentially starting a new story. They think they’ve already done all the work to start the story properly, so now they can just goof around with a character who won’t be interesting for some time. But a strong opening isn’t a magical charm against the story turning boring. Readers expect the story to be interesting right now; it doesn’t help that it was interesting last chapter.

Even if the second character is actually engaging in their own right, this can still lead to a slow beginning if they aren’t part of the same story as the first character. Fracturing the plot like that makes it feel like the story doesn’t really start until the various threads come together.

How to Fix It

To be brutally honest, the best option is usually to cut the extraneous POV characters. Most stories work better with a single POV character anyway, because it forces authors to focus on what really matters. This kind of darling-murder can be painful, but it’s ultimately for the best.

For extra POV characters to work, they have to have all the same elements that make the primary character worth following, and they have to be part of the same story. The novel Maplecroft is my go-to example for this, with multiple characters investigating the occult happenings in their New England town. If you prefer to get your examples from TV, then look to The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. This show has several main characters scattered across the world, but all of them are involved in the plot of resisting the oppression of the Skeksis.

3. Setting Info Dump

Cover art from Pawn of Prophecy

If you’ve been reading fantasy since ye olden days, then you might recall Pawn of Prophecy, the first book of the Belgariad series. Instead of starting with the protagonist or any other part of the actual story, this novel begins with a prologue that’s nothing but exposition about the gods and their fight over a magic orb. This prologue is over 2,500 words. It’s a short story dedicated entirely to backstory, and other than the possible novelty of thee’s and thou’s, it’s a slog to get through.

Having too much exposition is a well-known problem in speculative fiction. This is especially common for new authors, and it’s an understandable difficulty. The worlds we craft are weird and different – that’s what makes them interesting! But it also makes them hard to explain, requiring more and more words devoted to the task. And if you don’t explain how the setting works at the beginning, readers will be perpetually confused!

That’s all true, but even so, opening the story with a deluge of exposition is a great way to lose readers. Most stories aren’t as blatant as Pawn of Prophecy’s backstory prologue, but you’ll have this problem any time you prioritize worldbuilding over storytelling. Most spec fic readers have seen a lot of unusual worlds, so you can’t count on them being hooked just because yours has enormous hummingbirds that people can fly around on.*

Instead, front-loading exposition like that just puts obstacles in the reader’s way. Since they aren’t attached to the story yet, they just have to push through all the setting info until they find a plot. The worst part is, they probably won’t even remember all that exposition, since they didn’t know why it was important.

How to Fix It

When you’re still in the worldbuilding phase, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by only making the setting as complicated as it needs to be. It’s tempting to throw everything you can think of into the world, but that creates an overburdened mess. If your story is about hummingbird riders, you don’t need to include an intricate system of unusual timekeeping.

In the plotting phase, you need to make the exposition part of the story. Not only is that more interesting, but it will actually make the reader more likely to remember. If a setting is particularly complex, it may benefit you to start your story in a remote part of the world where there are fewer things to explain, then slowly work your way into the more complex aspects. Pawn of Prophecy could have done that, since it starts with a literal farm-boy protagonist who knows nothing about the world, but instead it went with the expository short story approach.

4. Plot Buildup

A stylized orca from the cover of Blackfish City.

Blackfish City is about a family reuniting to free their lost loved one from a corporate prison, but you wouldn’t guess that from the beginning. Instead, this novel takes a leisurely stroll through the main characters’ normal lives, in which no one has to deal with any unusual problems. We see one of them at her job in a politician’s office and another making fast food deliveries. Another finds out he has a terminal illness, but there’s nothing he can do about it so this creates no motivation. There’s no hint of a plot until the characters start to interact and unusual problems emerge.

When nothing out of the ordinary is happening, it means the story has no conflict. No conflict means there’s nothing compelling readers to turn the page and see what happens next. The story is boring, even if the characters are likable and the setting interesting.

While it’s impossible to know a writer’s mind for certain, I’d bet dollars to donuts that Blackfish City is written this way because the author wanted to establish the main characters and then slowly build up to the main plot. This instinct isn’t necessarily wrong. Starting in the middle of a complex plot can be confusing, and readers may not be willing to invest in a conflict they know nothing about.

But Blackfish City, along with a lot of other stories, goes too far in the other direction. We certainly know who the characters are by the time the main plot starts, but there’s nothing to get us there. Nothing seems to be at stake, so why should we continue?

How to Fix It

If your story’s main conflict needs a bit of buildup, that’s fine: start with a smaller conflict. The stakes don’t have to be as high, but they should still matter. Then your smaller conflict should lead into the main one somehow. That way, your readers can ease into the story instead of jumping in all at once.

The Hunger Games is a great example. It doesn’t start off with kids fighting for their lives in a giant arena. That would be confusing. Instead, we start the story with Katniss trying to get enough food for her family. This conflict matters: if she doesn’t get enough food, her family will starve! It also feeds into the main conflict, as it shows the desperation people in the districts face, and it foreshadows the skills Katniss uses to win the games.

5. Introducing a New Character

A humanoid in an armored suit from the cover art of Artificial Conditions.

All Systems Red is a wonderful novella that does not have a slow opening. It starts with a security android trying to keep their human charges safe, with the extra twist that the android is secretly emancipated from human control but doesn’t want anyone to know. Great stuff. Unfortunately, the sequel Artificial Condition can’t say the same. This time, we spend the first section of the book getting to know the AI of a ship the main character has stowed away on. There’s no conflict other than the AI being kind of rude. Instead, it has a whole lot of exposition about where the AI came from and what it does.

This final problem occurs most often in sequels. We’ve already gotten to know the protagonist, usually over the course of an entire book. We know who they are, what they can do, their hopes and dreams. But then the author wants to add a new main character, so naturally we have to pause the story and learn all the same stuff about them.

Not only does this slow down the story, but it’s also just irritating. We have no reason to care about this new character, so why should we have to sit through this laundry list of their traits? The author probably didn’t introduce the protagonist this way, or we’d never have gotten through the first installment to read the sequel.

This is all bad enough assuming that the new character is vital to the story. In that case, at least there’s some payoff for what we put up with. But Artificial Condition doesn’t even have that! The actual story is about the security android finding a new group of humans who need help. The AI is barely involved in it, except as someone to trade quips with over the radio.

How to Fix It

Just like setting info, readers will only enjoy learning about a new character if it’s relevant to the plot somehow. If you want to reveal a lot of information about this new character, then they should be central to whatever is going on. That way, the character’s backstory, personality, and goals can all uncoil naturally as the story moves forward.

Ironically, Artificial Condition actually does this really well, just not with the AI. We learn a lot about the humans our hero is guarding, and none of it is boring because this information actually matters. We learn their relationship to their previous employer when that employer tries to kill them. We learn what skills they have when those skills become essential for escape. We even learn about their romantic entanglements as they argue about who should get out of danger first. It’s some great writing.


When writing a story, the first few chapters need all the help they can get because they’re under the most pressure. No part of storytelling is easy, but those opening sections are often the most difficult. A story’s beginning can be slow for any number of reasons, but the five on this list tend to be the most common. Once you know how to avoid them, you’ll be on your way to an opening that will hook readers and bring them back for more.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I do like a slightly slower start with some stories. Agatha Christie novels, for instance, never start off with the body . They always give a little look into the regular lives of those who will get involved, setting up the characters and allowing for us to get an understanding of who we are dealing with, a guess as to who is going to die, and also who is going to do it. Cosy mysteries do this a lot in general and I like that kind of beginning. On the other hand, if the writer starts off with an interesting situation, bringing in a small conflict (you also sometimes find that with Agatha Christie…), that is also interesting. I’m not a fan of long information dumps and suchlike (I only got any further along with LotR after I jumped over that tobacco essay and started with the story proper).

    • Dave L

      Yeah, but w/ classical mysteries you KNOW someone is about to die, so there is tension there

      Furthermore, if it’s a fair play mystery, then you’re studying it for clues even before the death

      • Cay Reet

        That’s true. When you pick up a mystery novel, you know that something is going to happen, that there’s going to be at least one murder. You’re looking for clues even before the murder happens.

    • Jenn H

      To follow on from Dave’s point, murder mysteries come pre-spoilered by the genre they are in. Someone is going to die, so the slow start can be used to build anticipation.

      Authors can probably use a similar approach to improve a story with a slow start. The day to day life of people in a small village may be more compelling if the audience knows a dragon is on its way. If a character has one more routine mission to do before they retire, the audience is just waiting for it to go horribly wrong. But slow starts were the plot has no clear direction can quickly result in the audience losing interest.

      • Cay Reet

        Definitely. Although, to be honest, you do expect for something to happen in a novel and you usually know what genre that novel is. If I read a romance novel, I do expect for romance and the shenannigans alround it to happen. If I read a thriller, I expect for things to get tense and many people being in danger at some point. There’s also usually a suggestion that something will be happening. In a mystery story, that could be several people voicing that person X, the future victim, is insufferable or treating people horribly.

  2. Yora

    I feel this is the main reason why contemporary fantasy books aren’t doing anything for me. There is so much thought and effort put into giving stories a fancy and unique structure and form, but at the same time nothing fun and interesting is happening.
    The most recent fantasy book I really enjoyed was The Sword of Destiny, which was written in 1992. Where has the adventure gone?

    • Cay Reet

      Sir Terry Pratchett (May the Clacks forever carry his name) always did pretty good with opening chapters (and the rest of his books), so if you like funny fantasy, you could give the Discworld series or his other books a look.

      I also like Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series.

  3. Dvärghundspossen

    I think this might be particularly important for authors selling books online, where people can read chapter 1 for free, but nothing else.
    I mean, in a physical bookstore, you might browse through the book a bit, and you might see stuff that appears really interesting in, like, the middle of the book. But if it’s an online format where you can only read through chapter 1 and can’t look at all at the rest of the book, and basically NOTHING happens in chapter 1… You’re not gonna buy it, at least not unless you’ve seen great reviews of the book or it’s been strongly recommended to you by friends.

    • Cay Reet

      I do publish online and Amazon lets people see the first three chapters of my books (which might be due to the length of about 3000 words per chapter).

      But, yes, if you publish online only, it’s a good thing to give people something interesting in the first one or two chapters, so they’ll want to read on.

  4. BeardedLizard

    #3 remind me of the time when I read the Belgariad in high school. I read the entire series, but I never read the first novel and I don’t remember ever being confused by the plot because I’ve skipped the beginning. Some years later, I’ve found a copy and tried to reread the whole thing from the start, but I never managed to get past the first few chapters because it was so slow, long and (from what I remember) cliche.

    I think I did something similar with the Malloreon and skipped the first book without realising it (although this series seems to have a better beginning than the Belgariad, full of knight, evil church and a whole bunch of conspiracies and plots.).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Heh, it’s weird when you can just skip the first part of a book or series and not miss anything. I accidentally started listening to His Majesty’s Dragons at the halfway point and didn’t realize anything was wrong until Chris and I talked about the book and she remembered scenes I didn’t.

    • LeeEsq

      “Remember, remember the fifth of whatever the Begariad’s equivalent of November is, of orbs, treason, and plot but I can’t think of a reason why Torak’s treason should ever be forgot.”

      I have to admit that I like the Belgarid more than I should even more than the first book. Kind of always felt sorry for the Angaraks, particularly the Nadraks. People never had a chance. A crazy evil God selects them as his chosen people and its down hill from there. I’m going to dissent and argue that the Faldor’s farm chapters of the Belgariad work. Yes, they are kind of slow but sometimes that works. It establishes that this is a God heavy but magic rare fantasy universe and that our hero has no idea who he is. It lets us see life in the Belgariad universe from the bottom up and how ordinary denizens understand their cosmology and society.

  5. LeeEsq

    As my brother, a big advocate for what is called literary fiction, Edith Wharton managed to do all the world building necessary for the Age of Innocence in one or two paragraphs. Even if you are a modern 21st century suburban American with no connection to the wealthy elite of the Gilded Age, you can learn all you need to know about the setting from that opening. Speculative fiction authors take note.

    That being said, I’m not sure how solvable this problem is. Even for the most removed real world setting, it is a lot closer to any reader than the nearest speculative fiction setting. We are more likely to meet a King than a dragon or die by sword rather than laser blast. So you need a lot of explanation to get readers to understand the world unless you are going really literary. I think many speculative fiction fans like speculative fiction just as much for what can be called the guide book aspects as they do the plot and the themes. Authors are generally going to give audiences what they want and if they want at least some guide book, we are getting guide books.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Just going by my beta readers’ reactions, I had one guy who specifically asked that I insert a long info dump about the history of my world, because he thought that would make the story so much better. I think he even said it’s really frustrating for readers when you don’t get a long “this is the entire history of the world in which this story takes place!”
      No one else voiced that opinion though, and one reader specifically said she liked how she totally got this world and how it works (despite the lack of really long info dumps).

      So going by super-scientific inductive reasoning based only on Dvärghundspossen’s beta readers ;-): I guess some spec fic readers just LOVE exposition for its own sake… but maybe they’re still in minority?

      • Cay Reet

        I like how Jasper Fforde brings in the background story of his alternate reality – at the beginning of each chapter there’s a paragraph which is a quote of a book from this reality, detailing something about the world or important characters. Usually, those details also have something to do with what happens in the chapter. The paragraph is clearly set apart as a quote and you can, if you want, just leave it out, but it definitely enriches the world without being a huge info-dump.

        • Dvärghundspossen

          Yeah, I like that too. I’ve seen that a number of times in different books, not just Fforde’s, and it usually works well if it fits the overall style of the book.

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