How to Start a Story

The first page of your story is where the reader decides whether to immerse themselves into the story or not. They don’t have the clearest of ideas of what will happen next but the way the story started lures them to go on.

Writing a compelling start to your story is hard: you have to come up with something that can set the tone for the entire story, get editors invested in the story, and keep the readers’ eyes to the pages.

What can you do to turn your first pages into something that hooks readers and make them keep turning the pages?

So what’s a good way to start a story? There are many, and I’m going to serve you with some of the proven ways to start a story.

Let’s get started.

how to start a story

Why Your Story Needs a Good Start

I touched on this in a post that talked about plotting a novel. The thing is, nobody’s got time for your story unless it promises to be an exciting read. Today’s readers have a lot of exciting stuff going on around them that they have so little time to expend on figuring what your book’s all about.

Unless you give them an early reason to stick around, you can be more than sure that they’re dropping that book or story.

Au revoir! Adios! On to better things.

A good strong start is vital, not only for hooking readers but agents and publishers too.

Ways to Start a Story

ways to start a story

1. Start with a question

If you start your story with a question, the reader may want to find the answer but they would have to read to find this answer. This means that they will at least go past the first page.

You can choose to be subtle when posing this question, poetic, or schematic. Whichever way you choose, make sure the solution has to be found when the reader reads on.

2. Start with action

Begin your story in medias res (in the midst of the action or plot). This is what the current younger generations are in love with; they want a story filled with tension right from the start.

But if you decide to start your story this way, you need to make sure that the opening scene has well-SHOWN, compelling action.

3. Start with a plot twist

Right from the get-go, give them a startle. You don’t have to go overboard with your opening, but you have to aim for the unexpected beginning. Somehow, you have to get into your readers’ minds, figure out how they would expect the story to begin, then nudge the beginning in an entirely different direction.

4. Appeal to the readers’ curiosity

Humans are a very inquisitive species. You have to take advantage of this curious nature and create a start that leaves them with a lot of emotions, speculations, and a thirst for answers.

Start your story in a way that makes the readers want to know more about the characters, settings, and whatever is going on in the story. A start that appeals to the reader’s curiosity is like a charm―it wills them to continue reading the story without knowing what’s going to happen in your short story, novella, or novel.

how to start a story and grab your reader's attention

5. Give them a new way

Just come to think of it, who starts a story by saying:

“I still remember the day I was born, the day of my recent birth.”

Apparently, Kemi Ogunniyi started with that line.

The thing is, that line will have you wondering if that’s possible or who could be able to remember the day they were born.

After googling that, you’d find out that can’t happen. You’d surely come back to the story to find out what kind of creature was able to find the day they were born.

6. Charm your reader

This is your chance to show the reader how good the story is. It’s also your one chance to impress your masterly of fiction writing upon your readers.

Grab your chance and use scrumptious language, tone, and pacing. Once a reader knows you’re a good writer, they will read almost any story you throw at them.

7. Introduce the reader to a mystical world

This is especially crucial for fantasy writers. You have to use the first paragraphs to take your readers to a great fictional world that is likely going to intrigue them.

Good fantasy writers display insights or vast knowledge of history and future technological trends. They take the beauty of the past and fit it with future tech and come up with a language so befitting that this world becomes very realistic. If you can show bits of this in your first paragraphs, you’ll be able to hook the reader.

more ways to start a story

8. Don’t be too vague

If you decide to start with some mystery or with a question, do it in a way that doesn’t confuse the reader. If you’re trying to be too clever by introducing your story with ‘too much mystery’, you may end up not making sense and the reader might not continue reading your story.

9. Start with compelling dialogue

Starting a story with dialogue can be disastrous. If you start with a whirlpool of dramatic, less compelling dialogue, you’re bound to lose some of your readers.

The dialogue has to be effective and must be used sparingly.

10. Save the beginning for last

The thing about writing a fictional story is that it rarely pans out exactly the way you initially plotted it―it always evolves in some way.

Usually, the way you open differs from the end. The best way to go about crafting an opening that effectively resonates with the rest of the story is to come back to the beginning once you finish the story. If there’s some patching up to be done, then you can refer to the rest of the story to have a start that reflects the story.

Key Features of a Good Start

A good start to a story ought to do, at least, one of the following but not all of them:

1. Connect the reader to the protagonist

A good start introduces the reader to the main character(s) and their world.

2. Elicit an emotion

The start has to invoke some sort of feeling from the reader. Trying to make the reader have empathy for characters or feel like they’re inside the story’s world is a bit long-term and will take longer than the opening paragraphs, you should reserve that for later.

For the opening paragraph(s), you just need to set up the reader―emotionally―for the rest of the first page(s).

3. Present a snapshot

The starting lines or paragraphs have to paint a vivid picture of the story. Be careful not to end up writing a summary of the story; rather, use highlights and standouts to create this snapshot.

4. Produce intrigue

I already talked about intriguing the reader and I would like to reemphasize the importance of having a fascinating and luring opening.

An intriguing opening has to be exciting and leave some more questions to be found when the reader reads on.

What Are Some of the Greatest Opening Lines?

Later in this post, I have accompanied two opening paragraphs from two famous authors with the lessons we can take from them. But before we get to that, here are some of the best of the opening lines from bestselling novels.

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

“The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams.

“Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, no foam, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever.”

The Hard Way by Lee Child.

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die – even though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.
Sometimes all it takes is that totally relatable, extremely weird, or just plain beautiful first line and we’re in.

Dos and Don’ts for an Exciting Story Opening

1.  Always try to start with your main character(s). You have to introduce your protagonist right in the opening paragraph. No need for stalling, you can introduce the MC as early as the first sentence―the earlier your readers get to know whose story it is, the better.

2. Don’t stall on introducing the love interest or villain. Once you get the protagonist settled, don’t take long to introduce the other half of the story―if it’s a romance piece, show the reader the love interest and, in other genres, introduce the ‘bad guy.’

3. Avoid “He woke up” at all costs.  Please, I beg of you, don’t start with your MC getting out of bed.

4. Don’t overwhelm your readers with a lot of character introductions. Introducing a bunch of characters in a few opening pages of your story will only leave your readers confused and frustrated.

5. Don’t drown the reader in bland descriptions of the setting or backstories. The story has to unfold, bit by bit.  Instead of dumping untimely backstories or setting descriptions, you can start with dialogue and action. The background bits can come later in the story.

Starting A Good Story: Lessons from Famous Authors

Here are two examples of good ways to start a story from famous authors:                    

Example 1

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
charles dicken
Charles Dickens, ‘Hard Times’ and Hyperbole.

With this start, Dickens tries―successfully―to paint a picture of the instability, the hope, and the chaos of the time and cities in which the events in the stories took place. In this intro, he was poetic with the choice of words and phrases, and he used that poetry to forewarn you to get ready for a bumpy ride.

“Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left. The bullet furrowed a line through the plans on the table, the sound of the shot echoed loud and long in the closed room, and Parker rolled amid suddenly scrambling feet, his arms folded in tight over his chest. He didn’t have a gun on him, and the first thing to do was get away from the guy who did.”

Plunder Squad by Richard Stark

Richard Stark went right into the action with this intro. He took a chance because when you start at the peak, you have nowhere else to go but down unless you have a wicked twist up your sleeve. But he cooked a good story, so I guess it went well for him.

Start Writing Your Story

A good start, alone, won’t salvage a story that is deficient in a lot of other good qualities.

Having said that, I’d also like to emphasize that a brilliant opening line might be the difference between you and authorship or something better―the bestselling status. A fascinating opening can even serve as a foretoken for a great story you have in store for the reader.

Good writers know how to use a riveting start to cast a spell on their readers, editors, and publishers. And, they make sure that the rest of the story is brilliant so that the readers are engrossed even after the riveting opening evaporates from their minds.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.