Why 99% of most novel openings fail to engage the reader and what you can do about It

As an editor for Narrative Magazine and a book coach, Sally Wolfe has spent the last 9 years evaluating hundreds of manuscripts at every stage of development. This series of articles addresses the problems that plague story openings.

 Of all the books you start to read, how many do you finish?

 The overwhelming answer from literary agents and acquisition editors is:  “None, in fact I don’t usually get past the first two pages before I toss the file.”


 Why? The most common answer? I don’t care enough about what happens to the characters.

The Problem:

You’re already in love with your story but the reader isn’t.

The Solution: 

You need to help your reader love your story from Word One.


Let’s take a look at the Big Three Author Blindspots guaranteed to kill your opening.


You as the author are steeped in your story.

Readers have a bigger job to do than you may realize. A reader starts out at zero, knowing nothing about your story.  Since your reader has no information, they will have to acquire and hold all the information you give them just to follow the storyline. Names, places, dates, multiple characters and situations. Are you going to make it easy for them or hard?

If your reader can’t follow what’s happening,

they will lose interest and stop reading.

It’s as simple as that and GOLD for you to understand as a storyteller. It may change how you approach your story entirely. 



Description does not a story make.


Of course there’s more to engaging your reader than just an easy-to-follow storyline. The second key factor is offering an intriguing dramatic situation. Here’s the opening of Girl in Between by Laekan Zea Kemp, currently a free
Kindle download on Amazon.

The tide surged, carving a crescent in the sand. Water collapsed against my knees, tearing the beach out from under my legs. But when the wave receded, the foam clung to something dark. Something long and still. I saw his face, lashes tangled over blue lids, his lips parted against the sand. The breeze rippled off his clothes, ocean peeling from his face and dripping onto my hands. I was steeled there, not sure if he was real, until I saw his eyes, a flash of his dark pupils. My hands trembled, afraid to move him, to wake him. I reached for a shoulder, pushing until he was on his back. He was the color a hydrangea before it blooms, wilting like one too, every inch of him sunken and bruised.

The description goes on like this for several more paragraphs. Why doesn’t this work? It’s well-written, poetic even. The author took obvious pains to craft a vivid, detailed description. But the description is NOT a story. It describes her bizarre encounter with a dead body, but there’s no story premise, no perspective about the impact this is having upon her protagonist.   

What’s her situation? Is she a bride on her honeymoon who has fled to the beach after her first serious argument with her husband?  Is she a detective on vacation, finally able to get away after she was exonerated for a “bad shoot”?



The reader will eventually figure out what the stakes
are for the characters.


What is your story about, actually? You have to clue in your reader Immediately. Pull them in with a strong premise that makes them want to know what is going to happen next. Action or description alone will not accomplish that.

Here’s the opening of the short story, Divorce.

The divorce was something she had wanted—and he had finally agreed to. He would sign whatever papers she gave him, he said off-handedly one night. He had to stop having the same maddening discussion. And yet, he couldn’t stop having it with himself:  How was it that they could hold together during the surprise of the twins, the trying years of his residency—and only now—with the boys in school, Madeline back at the hospital, and a promotion with real money on the horizon, had everything fallen apart? 

In this opening sentence and paragraph, the reader is presented with a strong impending dramatic situation. The problem and the story premise are clear. Curiosity and the beginning of empathy are established in the opening paragraph. Why is she divorcing him? What doesn’t he know and will he find out? Will it surprise him?



Do make your storyline clear.

Don’t over complicate by adding too many names, places, and events the reader will struggle to keep track of.

Don’t open your story with only description of the action.

Do tell us the story premise right away (why the reader should care).