How To Start a Story
Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, coming up with the perfect opening can feel like the hardest part. But, while this can seem daunting, it is by no means impossible! Start with a good idea or generate one if you’re not sure what you want to write about. Outline your plot and characters to narrow your focus, and then start writing!
1. Resist the urge to start too early.
You might be tempted to begin your narrative before the action actually starts, such as when a character wakes up to what will eventually be a challenging or dramatic day. But unless you’re rewriting Sleeping Beauty, waking up is rarely challenging or dramatic. Often, when we start this way, it’s because we’re struggling to write our way into the narrative, rather than letting the story develop a momentum of its own. Far better to begin at the first moment of large-scale conflict. If the protagonist’s early-morning rituals are essential to the storyline, or merely entertaining, they can always be included in backstory or flashbacks—or later, when he wakes up for the second time.
2. Beginning a novel with crucial memories
Often novels open with narrators recalling memories that are core to the plot. This is especially common in novels where a single, unforgettable event casts its shadow over the rest of the book. Choose a scene that shows a dilemma or choice, or a powerfully emotional experience that is bound to have consequences for your character.
When you begin with your narrator recalling a key memory, remember to:
- Choose a scene that immediately starts giving the reader the keys to understanding the rest of the book. Haddon’s narrator proceeds to hug the bleeding dog, for example, so that we start to realize that Christopher is unusual
- Show the reader the memory: Haddon does not just say ‘Christopher found his neighbor’s dog, killed with a garden fork.’ We discover the dog through Christopher’s eyes, and this increases the scene’s impact.
3. Avoid getting ahead of your reader.
One of the easiest pitfalls in starting a story is, to begin with, an opening line that is confusing upon first reading, but that makes perfect sense once the reader learns additional information later in the story. The problem is that few readers if confused, will ever make it that far. This is not to say that you can’t include information in your opening that acquires additional meaning once the reader learns more. That technique is often a highly rewarding tool. But the opening should make sense on both levels—with and without knowing the reader will acquire later.
4. Strong ways to start a story: Opening with the unexpected
Take Bradbury’s beginning to Fahrenheit 451 above, ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’ It’s unexpected. This is partly because of its inner contradiction. We know that getting a burn from a hot plate is painful, and the idea of pleasure is thus surprising. The ambiguity of ‘it’ means we don’t know initially whether the narrator is describing an odd pleasure in burning himself or burning something else.
5. Start with a minor mystery.
While you don’t want to confuse your readers, presenting them with a puzzle can be highly effective—particularly if the narrator is also puzzled. This has the instant effect of making the reader and narrator partners in crime. An unanswered question can even encompass an entire novel, as when David Copperfield asks, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
6. When in doubt, test several options.
Writers are often advised to make a short list of titles and try them out on friends and family. Try doing the same with opening sentences. An opening line, like a title, sometimes seems truly perfect—until you come up with several even better choices.