Acquisitions editors and agents reject some manuscripts within the first page or two.
That doesn’t sound fair—and maybe it isn’t—but that’s the reality we writers face.
Novelist Les Edgerton started a short story this way:
He was so mean that wherever he was standing became the bad part of town.
I’d keep reading, wouldn’t you?
If you’re stuck on how to start a story, you’re not alone.
Settling on a compelling opener is critical to the success of the rest—whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, your first sentence will be the most important. If it fails, readers stop reading.
How to Start a Story
As a novelist, you owe your reader certain things from page one.
By investing in your novel, your reader tacitly agrees to willingly suspend disbelief and trust you to provide entertainment, inspiration, or education—sometimes all three.
In exchange, the reader expects to be given credit for having a brain, not spoon fed. They want to participate in the experience. Set the tone of your novel early.
Whether your opening scene is funny or serious, the rest should follow suit.
The first few paragraphs serve as your calling card not only to readers but also to the potential agents or acquisitions editors who precede them.
To help you develop a strong beginning and get out of the way so your readers can, as Canadian author Lisa Moore puts it, begin to create your story in their head:
1. Begin in medias res.
That’s Latin for “in the midst of things.” It doesn’t have to be slam-bang action, unless that fits your genre. But start with something happening. Give the reader the sense he’s in the middle of something.
Don’t waste your opener (the highest price real estate in your manuscript) on backstory or setting or description. Layer these in as the story progresses. Get to the good stuff—the guts of your story—and trust your reader to deduce what’s going on.
The goal of every sentence, in fact of every word, is to get force the reader to read the next.
2. Introduce your main character early.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to introduce your main character too late. (Hints on naming your character.)
As a rule, he* should be the first person on stage.
[*I use he inclusively to refer to both genders.]
Naming your character can be almost as stressful as naming a newborn, so take the time you need to get it right. Make it interesting and memorable, but not quirky or outrageous.
Search online for baby names by ethnicity and sex. Consult World Almanacs for foreign names. Be sure they’re historically and geographically accurate. You wouldn’t have characters named Jaxon and Brandi, for instance, in a story set in Elizabethan England.
Work in just enough detail to get readers to care what happens to him. Is he a spouse, a parent, troubled, worried, hopeful? Then get to the problem, the quest, the challenge, the danger—whatever drives your story.
3. Don’t describe; layer in.
Agents and editors say a common mistake in beginners’ manuscripts is starting a story by describing the setting.
Don’t get me wrong—setting is important. But we’ve all been put to sleep by an opening scene that began something like:
The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by…
Rather than employing description as a separate element, layer it in as part of your story. That way the reader subconsciously becomes aware of it while you’re focusing on the plot itself—what’s happening.
For example, instead of:
The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by… (Description as a separate element.)
Wondering what could be so urgent that he had to meet Tim in the middle of the night, Fred pulled deep into the woods on an unpaved road and came upon… (Layering in the details.)
4. Show, Don’t Tell
When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.
You’re supplying information by simply stating it. You might report that a character is “tall,” or “angry,” or “cold,” or “tired.”
Showing paints a picture readers see in their minds’ eyes.
Telling: She could tell he had been smoking and that he was scared.
Showing: She wrapped her arms around him and smelled tobacco. He shivered.
Layered in as part of the action, what things look and feel and smell and sound like register in the theater of your readers’ minds, while they’re concentrating on the action, the dialogue, the tension and drama and conflict that keeps them turning those pages.
That way, you can subtly work in all the details they need to get the full picture and enjoy the experience from the first sentence.
5. Find your writing voice.
This isn’t as complicated as it sounds.
Put simply, your writing voice is you.
It reveals your:
Imagine saying to your best friend, “Have I got something to tell you…”
What comes next will likely be in your most passionate voice.
You at your most engaged is the voice you want on the page.
That’s what your writing voice should sound like.
To use it in fiction, give that voice to your perspective character.
Remember, the goal of your opener is to leave your reader with no choice but to turn the page.
Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my 12-step guide to writing a novel.
4 Ways to Start a Story
Learn from those who’ve done it successfully. Examples:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” —Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)
“High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.” —David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)
“A screaming comes across the sky.” —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
“It was a pleasure to burn.” —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” —Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)
“Marley was dead, to begin with.” —Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
2. Dramatic Statement
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
“I am an invisible man.” —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” —Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)
“They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
“You better not never tell nobody but God.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” —L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)
“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” —H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)
“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” —James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)
“It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.” —William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)
“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.” —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
“In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.” —Joan Didion, Blue Nights (2011)
“Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, 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 Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.” —Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away (1960)
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)
Writing a Great Opening Line Is Only the Beginning
Few pleasures in life compare to getting lost in a great story.
The story worlds you and I create and the characters we birth can live in the hearts of readers for years.
It begins with writing an opener so compelling they can’t help but continue turning the pages.