10 Good Ways to start a Story
So we’ve looked at some of the technical structure of writing, now let’s look at some good ways of actually starting, because quite simply, every story has to start somewhere! You had a go in Session One at generating some ideas but let’s now take that a step further. As has been said many times, it doesn’t matter how you start, but it matters that you start. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s look at different ways that you can get started. Whatever it takes to get you writing.
The start of your piece of written work will really matter, 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 writing ever, pay particular attention to the beginning so that the rest of your work gets the chance it deserves to shine.
So, how do we begin a story? Let’s start with just one basic tip: you don’t actually 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 even 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 – especially as that will be your task this week!
As we’ve said already, make sure you begin in a way that makes your reader want to read on. Pose a question; introduce a character; set a scene; lure them in with enticing prose; lay a clue to the direction the narrative 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 if you’re looking at doing this writing stuff seriously also includes agents, editors and publishers) interested enough in your story to read on.
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. Things like:
- Grandma was setting out the cups for the funeral tea when I remembered I’d left the safe open.
- Fido always slept on the red blanket in the corner of the back room.
- Laurence realised he’d left his phone on his desk in the office.
- He couldn’t see the road for thick mist that had quickly descended.
All of these 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 Fido sleep in that corner on that particular blanket?
- What are the implications of Laurence going back to the office?
- Whose journey is being disrupted by the mist, and where are they?
Straight away, we have characters, locations, and questions begging to be answered – questions you might not even know the answer to at this point in your writing.
If your writing is character-driven, it’s important to bring them in very quickly. 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. Saying something like ‘this is Jane, and she works in HR’ is dull (no offence to anyone called Jane who works in HR)! Consider what you are going to talk to Jane about? Client confidentiality? Or some scandal that is brewing in the organisation? Is she a victim, a perpetrator, or just someone with information? Or is HR actually nothing to do with the story and it’s just Jane we want to get to know? ‘This is Jane and she collects taxidermy frogs’ – now that’s a story starter!
Don’t try to shoehorn in a full description right at the beginning: ‘Jane 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 Jane is or care about what she looks like or what she feels about her boyfriend. It’s your job to make the reader care enough to take in this information. ‘Jane had blue hair and yellow eyes and had just eaten her boyfriend Greg’ is much more intriguing because it reverses conventional expectations. It’s also a bit weird and very likely to grab the attention of your reader. But better yet, make it something that relates to the rest of the novel or story. ‘Jane watched the cars crash in the distance,’ is the kind of line that suggests something about her, as in she’s the kind of person who watches cars crash or maybe she has just witnessed something dreadful. It also hints at what might be explained in the novel, like why the cars crashed and why Jane was watching them. This will also give the reader a clue about your writing style and what kind of narrative might follow.
If you’ve chosen to write this from the characters point of view (first-person), then show something intriguing through their eyes and let their voice speak: ‘I’m watching the cars crash again. I got here just in time.’ It’s important to remember to continue that point of view where needed throughout the story otherwise the reader will get confused who is talking. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
Starting with action in a dramatic first scene is a good way to create impact and can be a really effective opener. Begin in the middle of things: at dramatic point in your story. Maybe even a point further in time before bringing the reader back to the build up to this point.
It might be the discovery of a body if it’s a crime novel; the breakup with an unsatisfactory lover in a romcom. Starting your writing by putting your reader right in the middle of a scene rather than build up to it over pages and pages is another great way to get them hooked. But if you are starting with action, keep it active. ‘Jane woke up, got out of bed, cleaned her teeth and put the kettle on’ is a bit plain and boring. ‘Jane jumped out of the helicopter’ is dynamic. Use active verbs but be careful – 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. Build your story up and hold your big reveals in reserve for when you really need them later in the story, to create a dramatic showdown. Flashbacks are also good for this as long as you make it clear to the reader where you are in time.
How you do this will have a lot to do with what kind of writing you’re undertaking. Here are some examples:
- You should create a unique voice and a scenario that will make readers think ‘I haven’t read anything like this before.’
- Your first task may well be to focus in on the incident 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 an interest in astronomy.
- You’ll be wanting to create a suggestion that all is not well: ‘It always felt damp in that room’.
- 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’.
- You’ll want to introduce the love interests or paint the picture of a romantic setting where the encounter occurs.
It’s amazing what you can do in a sentence when you really think about it.
Although you want to intrigue your reader and not give too much away, you also want to invite them to read on. This means putting them at their ease so they can comfortably carry on reading. If you can set the atmosphere of your story in the first few lines, 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 take on 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 overly confused. 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.
One of the most important elements at the start of a story is the voice in which it’s told – we touched on this earlier on. 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, Virginia Woolf, JK Rowling or Roger Hargreaves. Be like them. I don’t mean copy them completely but write those vital first lines in a voice that’s unique to you. 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. Panic? Confidence? Confusion? Determination? It’s up to you but make it clear and keep it consistent as appropriate to the developing story.
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 – you can always go back on the next pages as we’ve said earlier.
Think of how some films or TV dramas work. For example, 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. This would be a great way to launch a thriller, with a fight or chase, but would be less useful for a rural romcom, where the village knitting marathon will not lead to the same element of tension!
Just as you can be stopped in your tracks by hearing someone say something in real life, 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 of course that it’s relevant to the rest of the story. 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 Jane as she filled the kettle while her husband Greg ate his toast.’! You’d need to show how the sight of Ian munching his way through yet another slice of wholemeal fills Jane with complete despair that has led her to this declaration.
Go over this page as much as you need. When you’re ready, let’s head on to this session’s writing task.