How to Start a Story: Writing a Great Opening Line for Your Novel or Nonfiction Book

Great Opening Lines

Some say editors and agents can decide against your manuscript within the first three pages.

Harsh as that sounds, the truth is worse…

They can actually pass judgment within the first few paragraphs.

If they aren’t hooked immediately, they move on. That doesn’t sound fair, but we writers must face reality.

Except for loved ones and close friends, readers aren’t much more merciful. So even if you’re self-publishing and avoiding the harsh glare of professional eyes, rivet your readers from the get-go or most will close your book without a second thought.

There’s no formula for the perfect opener, but great writers have been creating them for centuries. The key, as with every other writing question, is to think reader-first and do what you believe will work best.

Novelist Les Edgerton began 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?

You’ll find some favorites below in four categories. Play off these and see what you can come up with for your work in progress.

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.

How to Start a Story: 4 Types of Opening Lines

1. Surprise


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)


By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. —Elizabeth Gilbert, The Last American Man (2002)

Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople. —Thomas Lynch, Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade (1997)

In the fall of 1993, a man who would upend much of what we know about habits walked into a laboratory in San Diego for a scheduled appointment. —Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (2012)

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)


My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark. —Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club (1995)

What are you looking at me for? I’m not here to stay…  —Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)

I was five years old the first time I ever set foot in prison. —Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (2001)

Beware thoughts that come in the night. William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways (1982)

My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life. —Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007)

3. Philosophical


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)


It’s not about you. —Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Life (2002)

No comet blazed when I was born. Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989)

4. Poetic


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)


The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” —Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1967)

When people ask—and seems like people always be askin to where I can’t never get away from it—I say, Yeah, that’s right, my mother name was Henrietta Lacks, she died in 1951, John Hopkins took her cells and them cells are still livin today, still multiplyin, still growin and spreadin if you don’t keep em frozen. —Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010)

Writing A Great Opening Line Is Only the Beginning

Then it’s your job to keep the reader with you.

So study storytelling, work at creating compelling characters, and become a ferocious self-editor. You just might produce a manuscript that keeps an editor or agent reading all the way through.

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.

Unlock Your True Writing Potential

What’s holding back your writing? Take this free assessment now and learn to unlock your true potential: