How do you start a story? For many authors, writing the opening to any story brings on a special kind of anxiety. Like a first date, the pressure to make a good impression can be nerve-wracking – after all, it’s the first couple of chapters that have to hook a prospective agent, editor or reader.
But it doesn’t have to be that scary —with a simple process, you can generate multiple opening ideas and be confident you’ve written one that’s solid.
In this guide, you’ll learn the process of starting a story and discover some strategies for getting into the right mindset. We’ll also review 30+ opening ideas and a list of do’s and don’ts to help guide your writing.
Let’s get started!
To Start Your Story Well, Know Your Story Well
Imagine you’re at a party and you’re asked to introduce two people. Normally, you’d do that by sharing something about each of them that might spark a conversation.
But what if you barely know them? At best, you could recite their names and hope they take it from there. Awkward!
Story openings are like this. They need to spark interest and open a doorway to what comes next. To write a good opening, consider your story:
- What’s it about? Do you have a good sense of who your protagonist is, the key challenge they face, the events that will unfold, and the themes woven throughout?
- What will your reader’s experience be? What will your reader be feeling during the beginning, middle, and end of your story? Which aspects of your story will they welcome, and which will challenge them? How will they look back on your story, and what will stick in their mind?
Let’s talk about a specific process you can use to turn those answers into an outline for your opening scene.
How To Begin A Story
Here’s a process you can use to generate an outline for your opening scene. (We’ll run through an example below.)
- Confidently and clearly answer the questions “what is my story about?” (protagonist, conflict, plot, themes) and “what will my reader experience?” (feelings, resistances, lasting impressions).
- Pick one element of your story’s content or experience that you feel is compelling.
- Ask yourself how you might open a doorway onto that element for your reader. Think about two things: getting them thinking about the right things (focus) and making them eager to experience what’s to come (desire).
- With focus and desire in mind, build a great scene outline.
Here’s an example of the process in action:
- Let’s say our story is a heist novel. Our protagonist is a reformed thief whose lover died tragically during his last heist. Realising the danger of his lifestyle to the people around him, he got out of the game, and hasn’t let himself get close to anyone since. But now an old mob debt has caught up to him, and his only chance to pay it off is to come out of retirement for one last score. He takes on a new apprentice, and as they prepare, he finds himself falling in love with her. The reader’s experience will revolve around the thrill of the big heist, the May-September romance, and the protagonist’s memorable final decision.
- For this opening, let’s choose the romance as our focal element.
- For our doorway (focus + desire), we want to get the reader thinking about relationships, and rooting for the protagonist to find love and happiness.
- We decide that our opening will show the protagonist eating alone at a restaurant he used to frequent with his old lover. We’ll have him reminisce about their relationship and contemplate the pain of his loneliness. We’ll also convey his desire to live a decent life and never hurt anyone again. However, we’ll soon discover that our protagonist hasn’t chosen this location out of nostalgia. A mobster who demanded a meeting here shows up, intentionally late, and delivers an ultimatum: come out of retirement to pay your debts or face the consequences.
Not a bad starting point, right? Once we’d chosen romance as our focal element, the ideas came easily, because we’d taken the time to outline our story’s content and experiences.
The key is to work from the perspective of opening doors. If we’d been worrying about forcefully “grabbing” the reader, or focusing on a catchy opening sentence, there would be no process leading us to the restaurant scene.
Writing Multiple Openings
Using this process, you can create outlines for multiple opening scenes in two ways.
First, you can pick the same element and create a different opening. For example, instead of sitting in a restaurant, we could have had our protagonist walking in a park, watching a young couple in love. The meeting with the mobster could have taken place on a park bench. Most of the protagonist’s thoughts could be the same, and the differences are primarily aesthetic—day versus night, outdoors versus indoors, and so on.
Or, you can pick a different element. For example, let’s say we’d picked the thrill of the heist as our key element. In that case, perhaps we might open with the protagonist sitting in his poorly-kept bachelor apartment, watching a TV documentary about a new casino being built. He notices a subtle flaw in its security design and realises this is his chance for one last big score. His mind immediately begins working and the reader is pulled into his planning.
Or, finally, you could start the story right in the thick of the action (often referred to as in median res) or even include a prologue.
When you know what your story is about, and when you think in terms of opening doors, writing multiple openings becomes easy.
I suggest you try creating concepts for two or three openings before you commit to one of them—you may be surprised how many good ideas shake themselves free from the tree.
How To Begin A Story: 30+ Story Opening Ideas
Here are thirty-odd ways you can open doors to different elements of your story.
|If you want to open a doorway to appreciate…||You might focus your opening on…|
|Novelty and new ideas||A complication the reader wasn’t expecting; Your original setting or a unique character; A strange situation the reader wouldn’t have seen before.|
|Immersive experiences||A vivid environment with rich sensory cues (but remember to put a character in that environment); A single, strikingly-described image (choose one that has significance to your story, or that you can revisit or invert later)|
|Action||An in medias res action sequence (make sure it has stakes, but make sure it doesn’t sprawl or overshadow later action sequences); A briefing (formal or informal) that describes a potentially explosive situation.|
|A compelling protagonist||(If first-person) The protagonist’s distinctive voice—let them experience or relive something they can narrate in a way that’s distinctly “them”; A situation that showcases the protagonist’s talents, principles, or quirks; A situation that forces the protagonist to make a decision; A situation that lets your protagonist expound on something or share their insights and opinions. (Note: Your opening scene is not a “first date”. Let your protagonist’s flaws show as well or they won’t seem compelling.)|
|Curiosity or mystery||Letting the reader notice a contradiction without explaining it immediately; Leaving something crucial unsaid: pick one of the five W’s that your reader is most likely to ask, then don’t answer it, but play around the edges of answering; An event which has consequences or a conclusion that you hold back for now; Raising a question and giving the reader only part of the answer.|
|Emotion||Making the reader identify with a character who’s going through an emotional event; A situation that arouses your reader’s sympathies; Implicit questions centred on the reader, such as “what would you do?” or “can you blame her?”; An idea or concept presented with intensity or burning emotion; Narration that uses emotion and relationship vocabulary (this isn’t a substitute for making the reader feel an emotion, but can help to signal the focus of the story’s viewpoint).|
|Big Ideas||A mundane event with deeper causes or meaning that is then questioned; A character posing an intellectual or philosophical question.|
|Romance||A flirtation; A fantasy; An intriguing new interest entering the protagonist’s sphere; A complication coming up in a relationship; A previous relationship crashing and burning (leaving the protagonist available).|
|An epic or sweeping story||Anything other than focusing tightly on a single character and their immediate concerns; A setting or image that implies a much broader setting (for example, a monument commemorating a war or unification); A prologue that broadens the scope of your story; Showing how a location has changed over time.|
|Masterful writing||A place (or time, or worldview) for which you can display a deep understanding or appreciation to the reader; Making the reader laugh; A scene that showcases excellent pacing, tone, and atmosphere; Artful (but not purple) use of words and phrasing.|
If in doubt, constrain yourself with these two rules:
- Introduce your protagonist first;
- Start your story immediately before or immediately after the inciting incident (in most cases it helps to show the characters before the inciting incident so you have a better character arc at the end and the reader can see how far they have come).
It’s often okay to break these two rules, but it’s rarely wrong to follow them!
Writing Strategies For Starting Your Story
Writing a good opening is about more than just the outline—it’s also about putting yourself in a position to write well. Here are some strategies you can use:
Putting Yourself In The Right Mindset
- Remember to define your opening in terms of how it opens doorways to the content and experience of your story.
- Don’t write your opening first or last. If you write it first, you won’t be warmed up to your characters and story; if you write it last you’ll put too much pressure on yourself. Write a rough beginning, but be prepared to go back and tighten it once you know your story and characters better.
- Many authors struggle with too much scene-setting in their openings. To combat this, pretend your opening is actually your second chapter. Write an extra chapter that comes before your opening, then write your opening. When both are done, throw away the extra chapter and pass your opening to a beta-reader. Ask them if anything confuses them, and only make additions to correct any confusion. (Using this method will help you see that much of your scene-setting is “insurance”, and not really necessary.)
- Here’s another trick: outline your first chapter, but don’t write it. Instead, challenge yourself to modify your second chapter to make it work as your opening. This isn’t always possible (especially if the two chapters have separate viewpoints), but by trying, you become aware of which parts of your opening chapter are truly essential.
- When reviewing your opening, try reading your back-cover blurb first, just like most of your readers will do. Does your opening feel redundant in that context? Are you re-using language from the blurb in a way that saps it of impact?
Controlling Detail And Sprawl
All of the writing advice that applies to your other scenes applies to your opening as well—show don’t tell, write with a distinctive voice, avoid clichés, and so on. However, pacing, focus, and controlling the level of detail are especially important in your opening.
Keep the following advice in mind:
- Use exposition carefully—keep it diffused.
- Don’t allow yourself detours in your opening. Know what the scene is about and execute it in a compact fashion. Detours are for middle chapters!
- Trust your reader to make common-sense assumptions.
- Don’t overload your opening with too many responsibilities. Focus on introducing one key element of your book in an interesting way, and let your subsequent chapters build from there.
- Action—things happening—doesn’t automatically hook a reader or make your opening strong. What matters is meaning; action is just a tool for creating meaning. In your opening, include action that builds meaning; cut action that doesn’t.
- Voice is key. Ensure the reader gets a taste of the main character(s), the tone of the book and the genre within the first three chapters.
Revising Your Opening
If you believe your opening is important, it should receive its proper share of revision. Here are some revising tips:
- Like any scene, the most important first step is simply to write something. Don’t put it off! Even a terrible opening is something you can analyse, improve, and compare against alternatives.
- It’s never wrong to test a new opening. Challenge yourself to write at least two different openings and ask yourself what works well about each of them.
- Spend some time polishing your opening sentence.
- At the same time, don’t hyper-focus on your opening sentence or opening page. An intriguing first line is great, but no reader will put your book down just because the first paragraph is simple. Although do aim to make your entire first chapter one of your strongest, including its closing sentence, and link to your second chapter.
How Not To Begin A Story
Here are a few common mistakes authors make when they begin a story:
- Writing in a different voice, or with a different sensibility, than the rest of your novel.
- Trying to please everyone. Never be afraid of turning off readers who wouldn’t enjoy the rest of your story anyway. People-pleasing leads to bland openings and shows the reader you aren’t committed to your story concept.
- Giving away too much detail too soon.
- Spending time setting the stage in ways that aren’t yet meaningful to your reader. (Imagine your characters and locations are friends whose careers you’re trying to help—let them shine by introducing them at the moment when they can be most compelling!)
(For some more don’ts, read our guide to 7 novel-opening mistakes that make literary agents groan.)
Starting Your Story Well
In this guide, we’ve discussed the concept of opening doors for your reader, a process for generating scene outlines, ideas for starting your story, writing strategies, and some don’ts to avoid.
So what are you waiting for? Now that you know how, it’s time to start that book of yours!
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