Starting a story is often the most daunting part of the writing process. Staring at a blank page, knowing that the first line plays a crucial role in whether your audience will keep reading or not can certainly add pressure.
Whether you are writing a short story or a novel, getting started is half the battle, so don’t let fear stop you in your tracks! Instead, use some proven techniques to jumpstart your writing.
How to Start a Story
Understand that you don’t always have to start at the beginning—you can actually start by writing any part of your story. Some writers even start by writing the ending!
But if you already know what you want your story to be and just need a little push getting started, these options for starting a story might help trigger the right words:
Nothing draws readers in like introducing them to your characters in the middle of an ongoing conversation.
If you want to use dialogue to open up your story, you can choose to start with a heated conversation that leads to action, or even casual talk that introduces to the characters and their relationships.
The following example is the opening scene of Eleanor Porter’s “When Father and Mother Rebelled” in her short story collection Across the Years:
“’Tain’t more ’n a month ter Christmas, Lyddy Ann; did ye know it?” said the old man, settling back in his chair with a curiously resigned sigh.
“Yes, I know, Samuel,” returned his wife, sending a swift glance over the top of her glasses.
If Samuel Bertram noticed the glance he made no sign. “Hm!” he murmured. “I’ve got ten neckerchiefs now. How many crocheted bed-slippers you got?–eh?”
“Oh, Samuel!” remonstrated Lydia Ann feebly.
“I don’t care,” asserted Samuel with sudden vehemence, sitting erect in his chair. “Seems as if we might get somethin’ for Christmas ’sides slippers an’ neckerchiefs. Jest ’cause we ain’t so young as we once was ain’t no sign that we’ve lost all our faculty for enj’yment!”
This conversation, though seemingly trivial, helps introduce readers to the two characters and offers insight to the dynamic of their relationship.
Another way of luring readers into the thick of things is by opening your story with action. This strategy is particularly common in fantasy and science fiction stories.
Here is an example from the opening scene of the dystopian fantasy Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:
It was a pleasure to burn.
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. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black.
3. Character Description
An exposition that describes your characters can be another effective way to draw your readers in.
Take this example from L.M. Montgomery’s “The Hurrying of Ludovic” in The Chronicles of Avonlea”:
Anne Shirley was curled up on the window-seat of Theodora Dix’s sitting-room one Saturday evening, looking dreamily afar at some fair starland beyond the hills of sunset. Anne was visiting for a fortnight of her vacation at Echo Lodge, where Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Irving were spending the summer, and she often ran over to the old Dix homestead to chat for awhile with Theodora. They had had their chat out, on this particular evening, and Anne was giving herself over to the delight of building an air-castle. She leaned her shapely head, with its braided coronet of dark red hair, against the window-casing, and her gray eyes were like the moonlight gleam of shadowy pools.
Then she saw Ludovic Speed coming down the lane. He was yet far from the house, for the Dix lane was a long one, but Ludovic could be recognized as far as he could be seen. No one else in Middle Grafton had such a tall, gently-stooping, placidly-moving figure. In every kink and turn of it there was an individuality all Ludovic’s own.
Anne roused herself from her dreams, thinking it would only be tactful to take her departure. Ludovic was courting Theodora. Everyone in Grafton knew that, or, if anyone were in ignorance of the fact, it was not because he had not had time to find out. Ludovic had been coming down that lane to see Theodora, in the same ruminating, unhastening fashion, for fifteen years!
4. A Character’s Thoughts
Another good way to grab your readers’ attention is by opening up a character’s thoughts, especially those that seem strange or out of the ordinary.
Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty uses this approach in starting the story:
The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside; at the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank.
While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.
When you start a story with a prologue, it’s usually to share some important information or backstory about your character(s). This can help your reader understand something important about the characters or the story before jumping right in.
Bodie Thone’s Warsaw Requiem, Book 6 of The Zion Covenant, starts with the following excerpt:
January 19, 1991
All the reading lamps had gone out, leaving the cabin of the jet muted by the soft twilight of recessed lighting.
Through the small window of the El Al passenger plane, the stars above the Mediterranean seemed hard and cold, unblinking in the thin atmosphere of 35,000 feet.
David Kopecky stared out across the moonlit wing, watching as a red light winked on and off with a steady rhythm. Closing his eyes for an instant, he remembered his own longing as he had watched lights like this pass over the night sky above Russia. Always he had craned his neck to watch, dreaming of the freedom that must surely lie at the end of the journey. He had imagined men and women encased in the sleek silver cocoon of a passenger jet high above his head. Where are they going? he had wondered. And how are they so privileged that they can leave Russia?
6. A Letter
Another unique way of opening a story is with a letter, which can reveal information about relationships between certain characters or their ongoing situations.
(Letter from Anne Shirley, B.A., Principal of Summerside High School, to Gilbert Blythe, medical student at Redmond College, Kingsport.)
“S’side, P. E. I.,
Monday, September 12th.
Isn’t that an address! Did you ever hear anything so delicious? Windy Poplars is the name of my new home and I love it. I also love Spook’s Lane, which has no legal existence. It should be Trent Street but it is never called Trent Street except on the rare occasions when it is mentioned in the Weekly Courier . . . and then people look at each other and say, ‘Where on earth is that?’ Spook’s Lane it is . . . although for what reason I cannot tell you. I have already asked Rebecca Dew about it, but all she can say is that it has always been Spook’s Lane and there was some old yarn years ago of its being haunted. But she has never seen anything worse-looking than herself in it.
Hook Readers from the First Line
By choosing the right type of opening for your story, you can tackle one of the most difficult aspects of storytelling: getting started!
So what are you waiting for? Grab a pen, pour another cup of coffee, and let those ideas start flowing!
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