Perhaps you’ve heard the old publishing proverb: The first page sells the book; the last page sells the next book. I’m convinced there’s a mammoth grain of truth in that. The beginning and the end of any story are critical elements that you really want to nail. Today, we’re going to focus on how to start a story—in other words, how you can craft a spectacular beginning that will hold readers spellbound and get them to turn that first all-important page.
Whether you’re pitching to an agent, a publisher, or direct to the reader, your opening lines form the basis for how they’ll judge the rest of your story. You have about a sixty-second window of influence before that initial judgment solidifies. It follows that this is a good place to invest your time and effort.
Granted, a compelling opening is not an easy task to accomplish. Besides grabbing the reader's attention, you want to ground readers in a setting, establish voice, hint at theme, and introduce a protagonist readers can get behind. To do this, you need to answer specific questions for your reader, while at the same time planting others.
Story Revolves Around Questions
Cultivating questions for your reader is what keeps them turning the pages, but you’ll lose them if you don’t provide answers, as well. If you want your reader to commit to your story, it’s best to establish a few essentials right up front.
- Whose story is it? You’re asking your reader to spend serious time with your protagonist. They’ll want to know who they’ll be rooting for.
- What kind of story is it? Readers go into a book looking for a particular type of reading experience and you need to let them know they’ve come to the right place.
- When and where is the story happening? Setting is hugely important to selling your reader. I did a workshop with top editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and one of the most frequent critiques she gave writers was: “There’s no setting. You lost me on setting.”
- What’s the story behind the story? When readers think story, they think plot. Writers know the real story is internal—not what happens, but how those events affect the characters. While you won’t necessarily lay your hero open on the first page of your story, hinting at his internal struggle gets the reader on his side.
- Why should the reader care? The most glorious descriptions or action-packed drama won’t hook your reader if you don’t give them a reason to care about your character. Answering the four questions above will help do this, but you’ll need to give more.
10 Compelling Ways to Start a Story
You’ve got to command reader attention and answer some important questions, but what does that look like on the page? How do you structure your opening to accomplish those objectives?
Have you heard of modeling? Life coaches and success gurus talk about it a lot. It involves finding someone who’s wildly effective at doing what you want to do and studying their methods to duplicate their success. If in doubt, go to the opening pages of bestselling books in your chosen genre and see how the masters did it.
Beyond that, there are so many ways to go. Here are ten ways to start a story you might consider:
1. Strong Voice
Example: “Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.” The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Example: “I smiled when I saw the dead girl. Just for a moment. Reflex, I suppose.” The Snow Angel, Doug Allyn
2. Relevant Anecdote
Example: “When Ella Brady was six she went to Quentins. It was the first time anyone had called her Madam. A woman in a black dress with a lace collar had led them to the table. She had settled Ella’s parents in and then held out a chair for the six-year-old. ‘You might like to sit here, Madam, it will give you a full view of everything,’ she said. Ella was delighted.” Quentins, Maeve Binchy
Example: “I hope this video camera works. Anyway, this (click) is a blowup of a model’s eye, the bluest I’ve ever seen. The only other time I remember seeing that exact color of blue was the day my sister Nicole drowned. It was everwhere: in the water, in the sky, Nicole’s skin. Blue, I remember, and coughing.” Forgetting The Girl, Peter Moore Smith
3. Intriguing Mystery
Example: “Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end?” The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks
Example: “People’s lives—their real lives, as opposed to their simple physical existences—begin at different times. The real life of Thad Beaumont, a young boy who was born and raised in the Ridgeway section of Bergenfield, New Jersey, began in 1960. Two things happened to him that year. The first shaped his life; the second almost ended it.” The Dark Half, Stephen King
4. Uneasy Suspense
Example: “The smell of newly rotting flesh hit Jakaya Makinda. He stopped his Land Rover, grabbed his binoculars off the seat beside him, and trained them in the direction of the odor’s source.” Death in the Serengeti, David H. Hendrickson
I used this as an example of Uneasy Suspense, but Hendrickson kicked it off with a startling first sentence and infused it with setting, layering the effect.
Example: “Water gushed out of the corroded faucet into the chipped, porcelain tub, pooling at the bottom with a few tangled strands of long, brown hair. The water was easily 120 degrees. So hot that Katelyn Berkley could hardly stand to dip her painted green toenails into it. The scalding water instantly turned her pale skin mottled shades of crimson.” Envy,Gregg Olsen
5. Stirring Theme
Example: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.” The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
I used this excerpt as an example of stirring theme, but it is bursting with other elements and could be placed under setting, suspense, voice, character, world tilting off-center, and an enthralling first sentence.
Example: “Sometimes it’s overwhelming: the burden of knowing that the man you most admire isn’t real. Then the depression that you’ve fought all your life creeps in, the anxiety. The borders of your life contract, stifling, suffocating.” The Adventure of the Laughing Fisherman, Jeffery Deaver
This one’s got a pretty kicking first sentence, too.
6. Dynamic Setting
Example: “Out of a cloudless sky on a windless November day came a sudden shadow that swooped across the bright aqua Corvette. Tommy Phan was standing beside the car, in pleasantly warm autumn sunshine, holding out his hand to accept the keys from Jim Shine, the salesman, when the fleeting shade touched him. He heard a brief thrumming like frantic wings. Glancing up, he expected to glimpse a sea gull, but not a single bird was in sight.” Tick Tock, Dean Koontz
This is also a nice instance of uneasy suspense.
Example: “They were parked on Union, in front of her place, their knees locked in conference around the stick shift, Janna and Justin talking, necking a little, the windows just beginning to steam.” Shared Room on Union, Steven Heighton
7. Quirky or Startling Opening Sentence
Example: “The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.” The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,Stephen King
Example: “As soon as he stepped into the dim apartment he knew he was dead.” Garden of Beasts, Jeffery Deaver
Both of these examples also instill suspense, as they suggest danger and leave the reader anxious to find out more.
8. Compelling Character
Example: “First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.” The Book Thief,Markus Zusak
What kind of character is this you ask yourself, compelled to go on.
Example: “Everyone knows this kid. He is dirty and dumb and sits in a corner, lonely, but not alone. His face has an involuntary twitch, and when he makes eye contact, his lids and cheeks squeeze his eyes shut. We call him Blinky. Blinky rolls with it, though, smiles big and toothy when kids shout his name across the schoolyard.” A Bottle of Scotch and a Sharp Buck Knife, Scott Grand
I chose this for character, but it’s got a big dose of voice in it, as well.
9. Tilting World
Example: “The ravens were the first sign. As the horse-drawn wagon traveled down the rutted track between rolling fields of barley, a flock of ravens rose up in a black wash. They hurled themselves into the blue of the morning and swept high in a panicked rout, but this was more than the usual startled flight. The ravens wheeled and swooped, tumbled and flapped. Over the road, they crashed into each other and rained down out of the skies. Small bodies struck the road, breaking wing and beak. They twitched in ruts. Wings fluttered weakly. But most disturbing was the silence of it all.” The Doomsday Key, James Rollins
Is there any doubt the world in this story is twisting off its axis?
Example: “On the afternoon I met my new neighbor, a woman others in the cul-de-sac would dub ‘Ramba,’ I wasn’t looking for trouble. In fact, I wasn’t looking for anything other than to enter my first full month of retirement with a small military pension and dreams of a hop to Florida or Hawaii once a year until my expiration date arrived.” Many Dogs Have Died Here, James Mathews
Nothing explicit occurs off the bat, but Mathews sets up for the punch. This poor sucker’s world is tilting.
10. Engaging Dialogue
Example: “'You look like crap, Pen.' Pendleton Rozier, my longtime mentor, opened the door wide, then coughed into the crook of his elbow. ‘If only I felt that good.’” Rule Number One, Alan Orloff
Example: “'Which is even weirder yet,’ Gowan said. ‘But that ain’t the best part.’ At approximately which point, Kramer didn’t want to hear any more. It had been a mistake to let Gowan get started. He went outside into the mild March evening to take a leak and get away from Gowan for a little while before hitting the sack. ‘Seriousy, I got the skinny on ‘em,’ Gowan said, unzipping and joining him at the edge of the porch.” Spring Rite, Tom Berdine
You’ll notice writing voice and character here, too.
Invest in a Great Beginning
Spending the time and effort to craft a superb opening for your story is a good investment. However, worrying over it can hold you up. If you’re spinning your wheels over how to start a story, just get something down and move on.
Then, when you’ve reached the end of your story and you have a better understanding of the theme, tone, and characters, you can go back and fine tune or start from scratch to design your perfect beginning.
In fact, doing so may afford you the opportunity to bookend your story with a beginning and ending that reflect on each other, enclosing your entire story in a nice, thematic package that’s very satisfying to readers.
For instance, my thriller novel Nocturne In Ashes opens with the protagonist, a concert pianist, bombing her comeback performance. Then at the end, after surviving a series of harrowing experiences and battling her inner flaw, she’s gained the confidence she needed and nails the Beethoven that was her downfall.
I’ve touched on some ideas to get you off to a great start, but there are many other types of openings to explore. If you’re having trouble, hit the library and see how others have done it. You’re sure to find something that works for your story. And have fun!
How about you? Do you struggle with how to start a story? What book openings have made an impression on you? Tell us about it in the comments section.
Using one of the types of openings outlined above, write the beginning for a story idea you have in mind, or choose from one of these prompts:
Stella is nervous about meeting her ex-husband for dinner.
Darren takes his son on a hunting trip, determined to teach him how to be a man.
Cheryl wants to try out for the girls’ softball team, but the captain is her ex-best-friend.
Write for fifteen minutes and when you’re finished, post your work in the practice box below. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow readers!
Enter your practice here:
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.