How to Start a Story: 4 Proven Tips

Great Opening Lines

Acquisitions editors and agents can reject some manuscripts within the first two pages.

If they aren’t hooked immediately, they move on. That doesn’t sound fair — and maybe it isn’t — but that’s the reality we writers face.

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.

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?

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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 — and sometimes all three.

In exchange, the reader expects

  • to be treated with intelligence, not spoon fed everything
  • to participate in the journey of discovery
  • you to conform the conventions of your genre

So set the tone of your novel early and stick to it.

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.

2. Introduce your main character early, by name.

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.]

Work in enough details 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 will drive your story.

3. Don’t describe; layer in.

We’ve all been sent napping by an opening scene that began something like:

The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by…

Don’t.

Rather than describing the setting as a separate element, make it part of your story. This 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.)

Try this:

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

Not: She could tell he had been smoking and that he was scared. (Telling)

Rather: She wrapped her arms around him and smelled tobacco. He shivered. (Showing)

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.

5. Find your distinct writing voice.

This isn’t as complicated as it sounds.

Put simply, your writing voice is you.

It reveals on the page your distinct…

  • Personality
  • Character
  • Passion
  • Emotion
  • Purpose

Imagine saying to your best friend, “Have I got something to tell you…”

What comes next will 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 Types of Lines You
Can Use to Start Your Story

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)

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)

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 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)

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)

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)

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)

Writing A Great Opening Line
Is Only the Beginning

It’s your job to keep the reader with you.

So study storytelling, create compelling characters, and become a ferocious self-editor.

jerry-jenkins

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