12 April 2019
Begin your story well and you will hook readers from the off
Every story has to start somewhere. It almost doesn’t matter how you start, but it matters that you start. So start your story. Whatever it takes to get you writing.
Later, the start of your story will matter very much, because it’s the first thing people will read, and if it doesn’t work, they won’t read on. Even if you’ve written the most brilliant piece of fiction this century – especially if that’s what you’ve written – pay particular attention to the beginning so that the rest of your work gets the chance it deserves to shine.
So, how to begin a story? Let's start with just one basic tip: you don’t have to begin at the beginning. You can start it at any point in the process. You don’t have to stick with the first line you think of. Or the second, or the third. The only thing that matters is that the beginning of your story hooks its reader and makes them want to read on. It’s worth taking time to think of good ways to start your story, so follow our tips on how to write your beginning.
Spark a reader’s interest
At the start of a story, all you want is for readers to read on. So make sure you begin in a way that makes them want to with our tips. Pose a question; introduce a character; set a scene; lure them in with enticing prose; lay a clue to the direction the novel is going to take; plant the seeds of an idea; create a dramatic impression; give them a taste of action. There are lots of ways to start a story but what they all have in common is that to be effective they need to make a reader want to carry on reading. The first few lines are the calling card to get readers (which vitally means agents, editors and publishers) interested enough in your story to read on.
Put a character in a setting
No, we don’t mean ‘it was a dark and stormy night’, the flowery opening to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford that is now regarded as a benchmark of bad writing. But you could introduce a place and create an atmosphere. ‘Grandma was laying out the cups for the funeral tea when I remembered I’d left the safe open’. ‘Mingus always slept on the red blanket in the back room’. ‘Laurence realised he’d left his phone in the office’ and ‘He couldn’t see the road for mist’ all locate someone in a place at the same time as introducing elements that invite people to read on. Whose funeral? What is in the safe? Why does Mingus sleep on that particular blanket? What are the implications of Laurence going back to the office? Whose journey is being stalled by mist, and where are they? Straight away, we have characters, locations, and questions begging to be answered.
Introduce a main character
If you’re writing a character-driven novel or short story, begin with the character. Let the reader see something about that character that will make them want to get to know them better. Think of it as being introduced to a real person. ‘This is Emma and she works in HR’ is dull. What are you going to talk to Emma about? Client confidentiality? ‘This is Emma and she collects taxidermy frogs’ is a conversation starter.
Don’t try to shoehorn in a full description right at the beginning: ‘Emma had yellow hair and blue eyes and was madly in love with her boyfriend Greg’ is a terrible start because the reader doesn’t know who Emma is or care about what she looks like or what she feels about her boyfriend. (You have to make them care). ‘Emma had blue hair and yellow eyes and had just eaten her boyfriend Greg’ is much more intriguing because it reverses conventional expectations. But better yet, make it something that relates to the rest of the novel or story. ‘Emma watched the cars crash in the distance,’ is the kind of line that suggests something about her (she’s the kind of person who watches cars crash/she’s a person who has just witnessed something dreadful). It also hints at what might be explained in the novel (why the cars crashed and why Emma watched them) and gives a clue to the writer’s style and what kind of narrative might follow (detached, dystopian).
If the narrator is first-person, show something intriguing through their eyes and let their voice speak. ‘I’m watching the cars crash again. I got here just in time.’
Start with action
Starting with action in a dramatic first scene is a good way to create impact and can be a really effective opener. Begin in media res, literally in the middle of things: at dramatic point in your story. It might be the discovery of a body if it’s a crime novel; the breakup with an unsatisfactory lover in a romcom. Put your reader in the middle of a scene rather than build up to it over pages and pages. Keep it active. ‘Emma woke up, got out of bed, cleaned her teeth and put the kettle on’ is humdrum. ‘Emma jumped out of the helicopter’ is dynamic. Use active verbs. But be careful here – if you want to start writing a novel with a dramatic scene you have to leave yourself somewhere to go throughout the rest of the story, so build up your story and hold your big guns in reserve for when you really need them later in the story, to create a dramatic showdown.
Hook them in
How you do this will have a lot to do with what kind of story you’re writing. If it’s literary, it’ll be by creating a unique voice and a tantalising proposition that will make readers think ‘I haven’t read anything like this before.’ If it’s crime, your first task may well be to home in on the inciting incident – ie, the crime that sparks the investigation. ‘The stab wounds precisely corresponded to the positions of the stars in the constellation of The Plough,’ might make you want to read on and discover about a serial killer with a penchant for astronomy. If it’s horror, you’ll be wanting to create a suggestion that all is not well: ‘It always felt damp in that room’. If it’s historical, you’ll need to introduce setting and period as well as character: ‘Abigail wished she had the freedoms permitted to her brother, and was allowed to ride up front on the coachman’s seat’. It’s amazing what you can do in a sentence when you really think about it.
Make it clear
Although you want to intrigue your reader, you also want to invite them to read on, which means putting them at their ease so they can comfortably carry on reading. If you can evoke the atmosphere of your novel in the first few lines, or suggest something about its storyline, or introduce a main character, you’ll be giving readers a taste of what they can reasonably expect the rest of the book to be like. Readers will be looking for clues about what to expect right from the beginning so anything you mention at the start will assume a particular significance.
As readers are actively hoping to be invited in by the start of your work, you want them to be intrigued enough to carry on reading but not bewildered – even if you’re conjuring a dark wood full of murderers you need to make your reader feel ‘safe’ – in the sense of understanding that you have created a fictional world that they can rely on to deliver a satisfying reading experience.
Have a distinctive voice
One of the most important elements at the start of a story is the voice in which it’s told. Your opening is the first and most important opportunity for the reader to encounter your narrative style, or voice. So give them a taste of it. Think of the beginnings of stories you love, and how each one could only have been written by that particular writer, whether it’s Stephen King, Charles Dickens, Zadie Smith or Virginia Woolf. Be like them, as in write those vital first lines in a voice that’s unique to you. But don’t try and copy them – find your own writing voice and showcase it to best effect right at the beginning of your story.
If your story has a first-person narrator, you need to establish their voice right at the beginning, so make sure their first words create an impression, and evoke a sense of the person saying them.
Make it dynamic
Drop readers straight into a scene; give them the impression that they have caught something really interesting as it’s unfolding. Rather than build up to a climax, put the reader right in the middle of an event. Think cinematically. The opening scene of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV showed a family being chased through the woods. At that point viewers didn’t know who the family were or the significance of the chase, but it made for a gripping start to the series. You can replicate narrative style to dramatic effect in your writing by plunging the reader into the middle of a scene. No set-up, just action and impact. Later, you will need to make sense of it but this is a striking way to begin a story if you have an opening scene that justifies such impact (ie, it might be a great way to launch a thriller, with a fight or chase, but less useful for a rural romcom, where the village knitting marathon will not lead to the same element of tension).
An arresting line of dialogue
Just as you can be stopped in your tracks by hearing someone say something – in real life, in a play, in a film – you can grab a reader’s attention from the start with a great line of dialogue. Just make sure it’s either really great or at the very least has dramatic impact. And remember to add context as soon as possible after the dialogue, to start to fill in the picture to give the reader a sense of the context in which the words are spoken. This does not mean starting with ‘I want a divorce’ and adding a mundane line like ‘said Emma as she filled the kettle while her husband Ian ate his toast.’ You’d need to show how the sight of Ian munching his way through yet another slice of wholemeal fills Emma with existential despair.
The start of your story is so important it’s worth experimenting several different introductions to see what works best. It may be that you know exactly where your story begins, or it may be that you’re looking for the best way in. As with everything with creative writing, there’s no one-size-fits-all method, and you need to apply the best one for your particular story. Test it several ways. Be prepared to revise it when you’ve finished and refine it until it’s perfect. We hope these story-starting tips will help you. Good luck!
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