How to Start a Story: 5 Proven Strategies and Why They Matter
Acquisitions editors and agents will turn down some manuscripts after just the first page or two. That doesn’t seem fair, and it probably isn’t, but that’s the reality we authors face. Even if you’re self-publishing and escaping the intense glow of professional eyes, you must delight your readers from the start, or the majority will put your book down without a second thought.
This is how novelist Les Edgerton began a short story: “He was so cruel that everywhere he stood became the bad part of town.”
Wouldn’t you want to keep reading?
You’re not alone if you’re confused about how to begin a story.
The success of the rest of your writing depends on how interesting your first line is. Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, your first sentence is the most important. Readers will stop reading if it fails.
How to Start a Story
From the first page of your work, you owe certain things to your reader.
When a reader buys your book, they are implicitly agreeing to suspend their disbelief and trust you to entertain, inspire, or teach them, or all three.
In response, the reader expects to be credited for having a brain rather than being spoon-fed. They want to be a part of the experience. Establish the tone of your novel early on. Whether your first scene is funny or serious, the rest should be as well.
The opening few paragraphs are your calling card, not only to readers but also to potential agents or acquisitions editors who come before them. To assist you in developing a good beginning and getting out of the way so that your readers may begin to imagine your story in their heads, as Canadian author Lisa Moore puts it:
Begin in medias res.
That’s Latin for “in the thick of it.” It doesn’t have to be slam-bang action unless your genre demands it. But first, something happens. Give the reader the impression that he is in the middle of something. Don’t waste your opening paragraph (the most valuable real estate in your novel) on backstory, setting, or description. As the plot progresses, incorporate more of these. Get to the good stuff—the meat of your story—and leave it to your reader to figure out what’s going on.
Every line, in fact, every word, is designed to attract the reader to continue reading.
Introduce your main character early.
One of the most common errors is introducing your primary character too late. (Name suggestions for your character.)
He should always be the first person on stage.
[*I use the word “he” to refer to both genders.]
Choosing a name for your character may be as difficult as choosing a baby, so take your time. Make it memorable and unique, but not strange or ridiculous. Look up baby names by race and gender on the internet. For foreign names, consult the World Almanac. Make certain that they are historically and geographically accurate. Characters named Jaxon and Brandi, for example, would not be found in a narrative set in Elizabethan England.
Work in just enough detail to create readers’ interest in what happens to him. Is he a husband, a father, concerned, worried, or hopeful? Then move on to the problem, quest, challenge, or threat that drives your story.
Don’t describe; layer in.
Agents and editors say that new writers often make the mistake of starting a story by describing the setting.
Don’t get me wrong: setup is crucial. But we were all soothed to sleep by an opening scene that went something like this:
The house was situated in a dense forest, surrounded by
Rather than using description as a distinct piece, incorporate it into your plot. As a result, as you focus on the plot—what is happening—the reader becomes subconsciously aware of it.
For instance, instead of
The house was situated in a dense forest, surrounded by…
Fred drove deep into the woods on an uneven road, wondering what was so important that he had to see Tim in the middle of the night. (Additional details.)
Show, Don’t Tell
When you tell instead of show, you only give your reader information and don’t let him come to his own conclusions. By simply stating it, you are providing information. You could say that a character is “tall,” “angry,” “cold,” or “weary.”
That says a lot.
As a result of showing, readers form mental images.
Telling: She could tell he’d been smoking and was afraid.
She smelled tobacco as she placed her arms around him. He shook.
What things look like, feel like, smell like, and sound like register in your readers’ minds as they focus on the action, dialogue, suspense, drama, and conflict that keeps them turning the pages. That way, you can work in all the elements customers need to get the whole image and enjoy the experience right away.
Find your writing voice.
This isn’t as difficult as it appears.
Simply put, your writing voice is you.
“Have I got something to tell you?” imagine saying to your best friend. What follows will most likely be delivered in your most heated tone. The voice you want on the page is you at your most engaged. That is how your writing voice should sound.
Give that voice to your fictional character.
Remember that the purpose of your opener is to force the reader to turn the page.
4 Ways to Start a Story
Realize from those who’ve done it successfully.
Colonel Aureliano Buendia would recall that distant afternoon when his father led him to discover ice many years later when he faced the firing squad. “A Hundred Years in Solitude, Garcia Marquez (1967) “It was a bright, frigid April day, and the clocks struck thirteen.” —From Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
“It started with a mistaken number, the phone ringing three times in the middle of the night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he wasn’t.” The City of Glass, Paul Auster (1985)
“That was the day my granny blew up.” —Iain M. Banks, author of The Crow Road (1992).
“High, high above the North Pole, on January 1, 1969, two English literature professors approached one another with a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.” Changing Places, David Lodge (1975) “There is a scream in the sky.” Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (1973)
“It was a joy to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
“Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from restless nightmares to find himself turned into a massive insect in his bed.” The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka (1915).
“I’m writing this while sitting at the kitchen sink.” I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith (1948)
“To begin with, Marley was dead.” A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)
“Lolita, the fire in my loins, the light of my life.”Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
“I am an unnoticed man.” Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1952).
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream for eighty-four days and hadn’t caught a fish.” The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1952).
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for he was imprisoned one morning without having done anything wrong.” The Trial, Franz Kafka (1925)
“They start with the white girl.” —Paradise, Toni Morrison (1998)
“You should never tell anyone but God.” The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1982)
“It is a commonly known truth that a single man with a good fortune must require a woman.” Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
“Every happy family is the same; every unhappy family is miserable in its manner.” Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1877)
“This is the most heartbreaking story I’ve ever heard.” —Ford the Good Soldier, Madox Ford (1915)
“The past is a strange nation where things are done differently.” —The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley (1953)
“Of all the factors that drive men to sea, I’ve come to discover that the most common calamity is women.” Middle Passage, Charles Johnson (1990)
“These pages must indicate whether I will turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that post will be held by someone else.” Charles Dickens, author of David Copperfield (1850)
“Every man’s wish is on board ships at a distance.” Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (1937).
“No one would have believed in the late nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by an intelligence greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men went about their various concerns, they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)
“When I finally met up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer at a ramshackle establishment just outside of Sonoma, California, with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts, sucking the heart right out of a wonderful spring afternoon.” The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley (1978)
“It was only noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff arrived at the jail with Lucas Beauchamp, despite the fact that the entire town (and county) had known since the night before that Lucas had slain a white man.” Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner (1948).
“It was the age of wisdom, the age of stupidity, the period of belief, the period of disbelief, the season of light, the season of darkness, the spring of hope, the winter of despair. “A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)
“There comes a period of time foregoing and following the summer solstice in certain latitudes, perhaps weeks in total, when the twilights are lengthy and blue.” Blue Nights, by Joan Didion (2011)
Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had only been dead for half a day when the boy became too drunk to finish digging his grave, and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to fill a jug, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table, where it was still sitting, and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Connor (1960).
“A hobbit lived in a hole in the ground. “It wasn’t a disgusting, dirty, wet hole full of worm ends and an oozy smell, nor was it a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing to sit on or eat in it: it was a hobbit-hole, and that indicates comfort.” The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
Writing a Great Opening Line Is Only the Beginning
Few things compare to being lost in a good story. The fictional worlds and characters you and I create can live on in the hearts of readers for years. It all starts with preparing an opening so interesting that readers can’t stop flipping the pages.