How to Start a Story: 10 Top Tips From Literary Editors
The opening lines of a story carry a lot of responsibility. 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.
To help us understand how bestselling authors open up their stories, we've asked for tips from ten of Reedsy's top professionals.
How to start a story:
- 1. Craft an unexpected story opening
- 2. Start with a compelling image
- 3. Create interest with immediate action
- 4. Begin the book with a short sentence
- 5. Pose a question for the reader
- 6. Engage a sense of curiosity
- 7. Build a convincing world and setting
- 8. Do something new with your writing
- 9. Create tension that has room to grow
- 10. Capture your readers’ attention
1. Craft an unexpected story opening
Some of the most memorable opening lines are ones that hook readers with something out of the ordinary. Literary editor Gareth Watkins often encourages writers to explore this in their own books.
"Think of the opening to Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Iain Banks’s, 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 expect the book to start, then take the plot in another direction."
Example: Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
Orwell immediately alerts the reader to the fact that we're not in a normal world by deploying a single strange fact at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four's opening sentence
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
However, not all books need to start with a twist. Sometimes, all you need is a single strong image.
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2. Start with a compelling image
Many editors will tell you to avoid exposition — the dreaded info dump — at the start of your manuscript. Editor Harrison Demchick suggests one of the best ways to avoid this is to begin with 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 immediately absorb readers within your novel's tangible world.
"Context and background will come later, but a compelling image can be a fantastic hook."
Example: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The image of fire is central to Bradbury's dystopian classic. Appropriately enough, he opens his novel with a maelstrom of images comparing the fire to a snake and a symphony.
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.
Starting with an image requires a deft hand from the writer. This image must be compelling enough to make the reader continue turning the pages. A simpler alternative may be to throw readers into the middle of the story.
3. Create interest with immediate action
Novels that open in medias res (Latin for "in the midst of action") are often really effective at immediately grabbing the reader and establishing stakes and tension.
However, editor Jeanette Shaw warns that readers can become untethered without context and a central character. "If you go this route, you must be sure your opening action is compelling enough that the reader is prepared to wait for character setup later."
Example: Lord of the Flies, William Golding
This classic novel starts with a scene of young boys living on a deserted island with no adults in sight. Only later do we learn how they got there in the first place.
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.
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4. Begin the book with a short sentence
As Polonius tells young Hamlet, brevity is the soul of wit. But for editor and literary agent Fran Lebowitz (who has represented the Bridgerton novels amongst other bestsellers), being frugal with your opening sentence can also intrigue a reader and force them to lean in: "Start with something sparse that flicks on our curiosity, above all."
Example: The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
For a man who's known for writing lengthy tomes, Tolkien opens up his novel, The Hobbit, with a simple and matter-of-fact sentence that introduces something readers had never encountered before: a hobbit.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
But sometimes, a simple question can be just as powerful as a statement.
5. Pose a question for the reader
"The reader should be looking for an answer," says Nathan Connolly, an editor and the directing publisher of Dead Ink Books.
"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."
Example: The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
While the first line of Plath's only novel doesn't end with a question mark, it certainly poses a few mysteries.
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.
What was queer and sultry about this summer? How does the narrator's story relate to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg? And does she actually not know why she's in the Big Apple? The only way to find out is to read on...
And speaking of unanswered questions, the next tip digs deeper into this idea of intriguing openings.
6. Engage a sense of curiosity
For in the experience of editor Britanie Wilson, 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."
Example: "Royal Beatings", Alice Munro
The first story in Munro's 1978 short story collection, Who Do You Think You Are? gives its readers an unusual phrase that instantly piques their curiosity.
Royal Beating. That was Flo's promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating.
As with the Orwell opening, the reader is presented with an unusual turn of phrase repeated several times — including in the title. By the time we're just 15-words deep into the story, we have a burning question: what is a Royal Beating?
While creating curiosity and mystery is powerful, 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.
Pro tip: Starting your writing with dialogue is considered a no-no by some, but can actually be a great way of achieving this effect.
7. Build a convincing world and setting
"To give readers the confidence to continue reading a story they've just started, it's important to give them enough detail to know where and when a story takes place," says author and ghostwriter Tom Bromley.
"Sometimes when stories begin, there's a danger that the scenes are a little bit 'floating' — where the reader isn't given enough information to visualize what's going on. Details of location and time, when provided with enough specificity, will ground the reader and make them feel secure."
Example: The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
This novel, set in the American Midwest, opens by instantly grounding the reader in visuals related to the when and where of the story.
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.
If you were to think of this opening scene in a cinematic sense, it reads like a slow montage that cuts between different images that set up the tone and atmosphere of the piece. Note how the first sentence describes the wind — a classic piece of literary imagery that almost always signifies the same thing: that change is a'coming.
8. Do something new with your writing
Avoiding clichés is something that should always be avoided. And in the experience of Thalia Suzuma, and editor who has worked with authors ranging from David Baldacci to Ken Follett, clichés can be avoided with some simple, unusual choices:
"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 laden with foreboding and heavy with what has not been said often works well, too."
Example: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Opening a book by talking about the weather is just about as clichéd as things come. (It was a dark and stormy night...) But in the opening paragraph of Jane Eyre, we are presented with an image of cold weather — but filtered through the eyes of its title character.
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
More importantly than discovering the weather in chapter one, we learn something about the narrator: that she is a woman of absolutes.
Again, the weather is used to create a sense of foreboding — a perfect segue into our next tip.
9. Create tension that has room to grow
Openings should be intense, but for editor Rebecca Heyman, 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."
Example: All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Remember what we said about winds signifying change? In the opening chapter of Anthony Doerr's novel set around the Second World War, we open with a description of the wind, bringing with it a literal message of change:
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.
This image we're presented with is almost playful (turning cartwheels, fluttering into ravines), making the message the pamphlets bear even more insidious.
For the final tip of this post, we give you what is perhaps the cardinal rule of starting a story...
10. Capture your readers’ attention
You want your reader to be swept up in the story— for its entirety, but especially at the beginning, says editor Anne McPeak:
"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."
Example: Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem
Centering on the lives of two friends in Brooklyn and spanning decades, Lethem's novel opens with an everyday image — of girls rollerskating on the sidewalk — and filters it through the eyes of a narrator, who interprets the scene in quite an arresting fashion that's bound to capture the reader's attention:
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.
Establishing best practices for starting a story can be tricky because, as 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.