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How to Start a Story: 11 Tips From Our Editors

Posted in: Perfecting your Craft on April 19, 2018 21 Comments 💬

How to Start a Story - The Hobbit

Last updated: 04/19/2018

Most writers don’t begin the novel-writing process knowing exactly how to start a story. That comes later, once the narrative arc has taken clearer form.

It’s also because the opening lines of a novel carry a lot of responsibility with them. They act as an invitation for someone who’s glanced at the first page of your book to either put it back down or 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 starting a story with literary examples from a few favorites.

11 tips for how to start a story

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 take the plot in another direction.

If you're in the mood to get some similarly twisty ideas, you can go here to see a list of 70+ plot twist examples.

Starting 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

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5) Start with a question

how to write a novel

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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.

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 curiosity

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.

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, and reveal more and more information in the plot points to come.

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 favorite 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

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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.

“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

10) Start with your heart

Diane Sheya Higgins: Ensure readers that you are not kidding around. You have invested blood, sweat, and tears into this story, and the opening lines should prove that. Compose the first lines of your book as though they were the last lines you will ever write. When readers are transported into your far reaching insights and soulful explorations, they are yours. Every time I read the opening lines of Hugh Howey’s bestselling self-published novel, Wool, I am drawn into the breathtaking depths of his vision and humanity, and I wrench my heart from my chest, and say, “Here, take it.”

“The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads.”
— Hugh Howey, Wool

11) Start by placing a spell on your reader

Anne McPeak: You want your reader to be swept up in the story— for its entirety, but especially at the beginning. This is your chance to intoxicate your reader and convince them that they can’t not read on. This doesn’t mean your story needs drama, or fireworks, or shocking material; what your story really needs is close attention to language, tone, and pacing. Dazzle your reader from the start, and they will willingly take your hand for the ride.

"Like a match struck in a darkened room:

 

Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o'clock on an evening in July.

 

The girls murmured rhymes, were murmured rhymes, their gauzy, sky-pink hair streaming like it had never once been cut."
— Jonathan Lethem, Fortress of Solitude

Establishing best practices for starting 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.

Writing a book is a monumental task, but very doable once you have momentum and a compliant muse. If you're looking for ways to end your novel, go here. And when you reach the finishing line of your entire publishing journey, please read our technical article on formatting and making a book ready for publishing.


Do you have a favorite 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.

Reedsy

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!

Nathan Van Coops

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

Reedsy

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.

Reedsy

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.

Reedsy

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.

Reedsy

That is definitely unique — it's not "once upon a time", that's for sure 🙂 Thanks for the comment Carol!

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.

Reedsy

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 🙂

polfilmblog

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.

Dennis Fleming

"Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn't died yet, Mrs. Asrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived, teakettle in hand." The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri

Astoria Eincaster

I don't see anything strange and unexpected with 1984's opening sentence. Thirteen o'clock is basically 1 pm. In Europe the clock goes from 0 to 23. So 1:15 pm for example will be 13:15, 3:45 pm will be 15:45, while 4 am would be simply 4 o'clock. I don't know about other continents, but I'm sure about Europe, as I live there. And where does 1984 take part? In London, you ignorant Americans! Just stop citing 1984 as an example of an unexpected opening. Seriously, this is not the first post about types of book openings where I see 1984… Read more »

Reedsy

Analog clocks do not generally include the number "13." So while it is not strange for it to be thirteen o'clock, it remains a strange image for the hand of a clock to "strike thirteen," and I don't believe anyone aside from George Orwell ever said or wrote "the clock strikes thirteen." In 1984, the clock "strikes thirteen", as we can later surmise, because this is a military state and they use military time. So this opening is not only unexpected, it sets the mood for the rest of the book. Ah, and most of Reedsy's team is based in… Read more »

4kidsandacat

Keep in mind, Orwell wrote this story in 1948, long before digital clocks were in common use. Thirteen o'clock doesn't sound strange today, but it may well have at the time.

Diane Callahan

Loved this article! I found it through your Novel Revision course. I'm pleased to see that your editors picked many of the same first lines I discussed in my YouTube video on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bm9trk8xRpg&t=2s

Patrick Ness’s "The Knife of Never Letting Go" hooked me right away by opening with a strong narrative voice and humor: “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.”

Evelyn Sinclair

"Master was a little crazy: he had spent too many years reding books overseas, talked to himself in his office,did not always return greetings and had too much hair."
Opening sentence from 'Half a Yellow Sun' definitely hooked me in to this story.

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