The opposite of too much happening (Car Crash) in the opening pages of a story is, naturally, nothing happening at all. Sometimes it's just a matter of a "slow start"; other times, I will read 30--or even 75--pages, and nothing really ever happens.
Let me explain.
Of course things "happen" in a story. Otherwise, there would be no words on the page, right? But I'm talking about "happen" in the sense of plot. And if nothing is happening, then nobody is ultimately going to want to keep reading your story.
REASON ONE: TOO MUCH DESCRIPTION AND BACKSTORY
Sometimes nothing is happening because the author is spending too much time describing things--the setting, the characters. And sometimes nothing is happening because the author is constantly interrupting the narrative with "what happened before".
I'm not going to offer one of my Authoresseque examples here, simply because it would be too LONG. Instead, here are the things to caution against:
- We don't need to know the color of every character's eyes, the shade and texture of their hair, and what they're wearing. Choose details carefully, and only offer what is needed to help the reader form a picture in his mind while he reads. Trust your readers to "visualize" your characters in their own way, with a little (not a lot) of guidance from you.
- We don't need to know every single item on the mantlepiece. The color of every flower in the garden. The exact weather pattern. Give us only what we need to place your scene somewhere we can feel grounded. Don't belabor the things that are AROUND your characters.
- Use backstory SPARINGLY. Use it JUDICIOUSLY. I can't tell you how many times I've encountered manuscripts that give bits of story, then insert fat chunks of this-is-what-happened-a-year-ago, then back to the story, then another fat chunk of this-is-how-they-became-friends, and so on. Backstory needs to be carefully--and sparingly--woven into your narrative. It should feel natural, unassuming. If it feels like it INTERRUPTS the story, then it's either misplaced, too much, or both. Your pacing will die a quick death, and your readers will get bored or frustrated (or both).
REASON TWO: TOO MUCH MUNDANE DETAIL
I'm just going to say it: We don't need to be told about every time your main character wakes up, goes to sleep, showers, shaves, eats, or poops. WE JUST DON'T. I think this is probably an easy problem to fall into if you're less experienced as a novelist. In one of my earlier manuscripts, my main character apparently took an inordinate amount of showers, which one of my astute critique partners pointed out. It happens, right? And then we learn that it's not necessary to bring the reader through EVERY ASPECT of a character's day. This is a novel--it is not a journal.
Amanda woke the next morning with a vestige of last night's headache still throbbing in her temples. She stretched one arm, then the other. Then, sighing, she swung her legs out from under the covers, slid from the bed, and shuffled to the bathroom.
Frowning, she wondered why she'd left the bathroom light on. Perhaps she'd peed in the middle of the night without remembering? She hated when she couldn't remember things like that.
While her shower water heated up, Amanda swallowed two Ibuprofens and used the toilet. When steam finally curled its way from behind the shower curtain, Amanda wriggled out of her sleep tee and slipped into the shower.
I wish this hot water would wash away my memories of last night.
Amanda stood for a long time with her head under the spray of the shower. The sound of the water on her skull was soothing, repetitive. It made her feel like she'd disappeared into another world.
Finally, she shampooed her hair and slathered it with conditioner. The soothing scent of lilac enveloped her while she bathed, then carefully shaved her legs. Just in case Petronius would be there this afternoon. Because, after all, that's why she bought the minidress in the first place.
No. She wasn't going to think about Petronius.
She was starting to run out of hot water when she finally turned off the shower and swathed herself in her favorite, dove gray bath towel. Probably she was running late, but it was hard to care. The Ibuprofen hadn't kick in yet, and moving quickly would only worsen the headache.
(You get the idea.)
In short, we don't need MOST of the above. We've got to stop loving our words, and snip things ruthlessly in order to get to the clean heart of our story.
Snipped, snappier version:
In the morning, Amanda's head was still throbbing lightly. She swallowed a couple of Ibuprofen and stood with her head under the shower until the water started to run cold. Shivering, she wrapped herself in a towel and grabbed the minidress from her closet. And groaned.
Petronius would see right through her. The dress was his favorite color, and hugged Amanda in all the right places. Who was she kidding?
(And there's me, writing women's fiction. Probably I should stick to YA science fiction.)
REASON THREE: THE PLOT HAS NO REAL DIRECTION
And this is the most insidious reason of all. A novel needs to move from plot point to plot point. If your novel is rambling on, the reader is going to get the vague (or not-so-vague) sense that the story isn't going anywhere. And maybe it isn't. Because a well crafted plot has specific "arrival points", and the narrative and dialogue in between should be moving toward each of those points. Otherwise, you just have a lot of "blah blah blah" that doesn't more forward.
I've noticed in some manuscripts that there is no true INCITING INCIDENT. This is the THING that happens to your main character that produces the CHANGE that propels the story into...well, a story. If this THING had never happened, the story wouldn't have happened. Often, the inciting incident is placed at the end of the first or second chapter. (Hunger Games is my favorite example--Primose Everdeen's name is called at the end of chapter one. It's the THING that makes the story truly begin. If Prim's name hadn't been called, then Katniss would never stepped forward and said, "I volunteer as tribute!". Peeta would have gone to the Hunger Games with a different female tribute, and Katniss would have gone back to the fields with Gale.)
If there is no inciting incident in your novel, then there's no CHANGE to propel your main character into the story. It really does start to read more like a journal of sorts ("and then he did this, and then he did that"), with no apparent reason why we're being told any of this.
There are different methods to plotting, and I'm not going to discuss that here. I encourage you to do your research to see what works best for you. (I prefer Blake Snyder's beat sheet, and I won't write a novel without it!) The main thing is that you DO plot. Even if you're a tried-and-true pantser, you STILL have to, at some point, work out your plot points so that your story has structure. Whether you do that before or after your first draft is up to you.
And there you have it. Your story will be engaging only if THINGS ARE HAPPENING. Not random things, but well-crafted things that move logically toward each plot point, drawing the reader forward with purpose.
You can do this! But you're going to have to stop having a love affair with your words. They're only words--delete them, and there will still be billions of other words to choose from. I promise that you will never run out of words.
If your story is suffering from Nothing Is Happening Syndrome, it's time to roll up your sleeves. Writing words is easy; writing well is hard. Strive for the latter, and your stories will shine!