How to Start a Story: 9 Tips From Our Editors

How to Start a Story - The Hobbit

The opening lines of a novel act as an invitation for the reader to keep reading — it’s like the white rabbit showing up and asking Alice to follow him. The reader has to decide whether to follow despite not knowing what will happen next, and it is the writer’s job to convince them to go down the rabbit hole.

Whether you’re just getting started on a novel or revisiting Page 1 of a first draft, Reedsy Editors are here to help with tips for how to start a story, with literary examples from a few favourites.

1) Start with the unexpected

Gareth Watkins: Start with the unexpected. Think of the opening to “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, or Iain Banks’, The Crow Road, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”. Of course, your opening doesn’t have to be as outrageous as these, but always aim for the unusual. In other words: think of how people will be expecting the book to start, then go in another direction.

How to Start a Story — 1984

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

2) Start with an image

Harrison Demchick: Many editors will tell you to avoid exposition — the dreaded infodump — at the start of your manuscript. One of the best ways to avoid this is to begin on an image. By focusing on sensory detail right at the start — sight, sound, taste, touch, smell — and by conveying a particular, defined setting, you can absorb readers immediately within the tangible world of your novel. Context and background will come later, but a compelling image can be a fantastic hook.

How to Start a Story — Image

“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”
– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

3) Start with action

Jeanette Shaw: I find novels that open in medias res (latin for “in the midst of action”) to be really effective at immediately grabbing the reader and establishing stakes and tension. A classic example is Lord of the Flies, which starts with the boys on the island and then fills in the details of how they got there later. If you go this route, you need to be sure your opening action is compelling enough that the reader is prepared to wait for character setup later.

How to Start a Story — Action

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead.
– William Golding, Lord of the Flies

4) Start with brevity

Fran Lebowitz: I’d say start with something sparse that flicks on our curiosity, above all.

How to Start a Story — Brevity

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

5) Start with a question

Nathan Connolly: The reader should be looking for an answer. The opening to your novel should be a question that can only be answered by reading on. This doesn’t need to be literal, or overt, it can even be poetic, or abstract, but there must be a wound that can only be healed by reading on.

How to Start a Story — Question

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

6) Start by appealing to curiousity

Britanie Wilson: There are many ways to start a novel, but in my experience the most successful beginnings have the magnetic effect of appealing to an emotion that all readers possess: curiosity. Make them immediately ask of your characters: What is this place? Why are they here? What are they doing? Who is involved? Where is this going? If you can pique your readers’ curiosity from the very first sentence, you can will them to keep reading before they even know they like your book.

How to Start a Story - Curiousity

“Royal Beating. That was Flo’s promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating.”
– Alice Munro,
Who Do You Think You Are?

At the same time, it’s important that the start of your book isn’t entirely cryptic. Your opening must sustain your readers’ interest in some way if you are to keep them reading through to chapter two.

7) Start with an understanding of your fictional world

Meghan Pinson: What draws me into a literary novel is the sense that the author has a deep knowledge of everything they’re writing about. If the first page conveys a mastery of place, time, and language, I can trust the novel is borne of good research, and I’ll relax into the story. But if the details feel off, or are absent or vague, I won’t read on. I think compelling writing is a result of specific language married to intimate insights or experience, and that literary fiction has a sense of gravity that’s informed by deep history. The best novels never make us doubt that every sentence was weighed for truth and beauty against the world and the author’s understanding. Literary fiction, in my mind, is at least as true as real life, and just as tough to get right.

How to Start a Story — Fictional World

“The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.”
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

8) Start with something new

Thalia Suzuma:
Consider these two lines:

1) “I’m sitting writing this at my desk.”

2) “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

Which line makes you want to read on? I’d hazard a guess that it’s probably the sentence about being perched at a sink — the opening line to one of my favourite novels, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Say something in your first few sentences that hasn’t often been said before! A brief line that is laden with foreboding and heavy with what has not been said often works well, too.

How to Start a Story — New

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
– Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

9) Start with intensity

Rebecca Faith Heyman: Openings should be intense, but that doesn’t necessarily mean “loud” or “explosive.” So many authors are keen to start with a literal bang — something going up in flames, or a car accident, or some other catastrophe. But recall that even a smoldering fire can burn your hand; draw us in like moths to the flame, but don’t let the bonfire rage so fierce we can’t get close.

How to Start a Story — Intensity

“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.”
– Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See

Establishing best practices for how to start a story can be tricky because, as Reedsy Editor Nathan Connolly says, “fiction should, by nature, seek to defy, redefine or expand beyond rules.” It should not be an author’s goal to emulate the words or tastes of another person while writing a novel. However, many well-loved novels share a thread of commonality when it comes to their first few lines — such as a question, a brief to-the-point line, or in the middle of action. While there’s no hard rule for what works, these are guidelines you can follow when determining how to hook readers down your story’s path.

Do you have a favourite opening passage from a novel not mentioned? Or your own tips for writing a great story opener? Let us know in the comments!


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  • Paynes

    “Years ago, down in the Amazon, Santiago set me up. He said, ‘Lives are stories told over and over. The good ones keep getting better. Think about that, Daniel. And while you’re at it, think about thinking. We learn best by thinking, just as fish breathe by drinking.’ He said this very matter-of-factly. Then he asked me, ‘Don’t they?’ He asked me this when he was about to die.”

    “Santiago and the Drinking Party” by Clay Morgan

    That’s one of my favorite beginnings.

    • This is really great because I actually did sit and think for a few moments about the line “lives are stories told over and over.” So mission accomplished! Thanks for the contribution, Paynes!

  • “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –C.S. Lewis- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

    • Haha, that’s a good one, Nathan!

  • Tripehound

    The Dodie Smith sentence – she’s not sitting at the sink. She’s sitting in the sink.

    • Ah, good catch, thanks! We’ve edited accordingly.

  • RanaShubair

    The ideas are great. I find number 1 and number 9 most appealing to me. And thanks for the book examples you included- this helped me look them up and put them on my reading list.

    • Glad you like it, Rana!

  • Carol Pearson

    “There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it to the roaches.” Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. Stunning.

    • That is definitely unique! It’s not “once upon a time”, that’s for sure 🙂

      • Carol Pearson

        ha! no indeed. And the book delivered, too. Compelling from start to finish. Great read!

  • Rock Higgins

    “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

    It is the whole 600+ page novel in a sentence, that takes 600+ pages to unpack.

    • Wow, great one, Rock! You know an author really knows their story when they’re able to condense 600 pages of it into a single sentence. Thanks for the quote 🙂

  • Venomous python? Really?

    “with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world,”

    The only thing I get from this opening is that the author royally fucked it up. Pythons are constrictors of course. Most everyone knows that.