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How to Start a Story

Crumbly Writer

Grr! The Forum ate my extensive post again! Here it is, written all over again.

I found this blog on a writing group on LinkedIn: How to Start a Story: 9 Tips From Our Editors

At the risk of stealing their thunder (and violating copyright), I'm including the entire passage (mainly out of fear few will click the link to the original blog post).

If nothing else, be sure the read the final paragraph, as it's particularly apt for most of here in regards to the role of 'accepted styles' in fiction. If you decide to skip the blog, at least skip to the end first.

How to Start a Story

The opening lines of a novel act as an invitation for the reader to keep reading — it's like the white rabbit showing up and asking Alice to follow him. The reader has to decide whether to follow despite not knowing what will happen next, and it is the writer's job to convince them to go down the rabbit hole.

Whether you're just getting started on a novel or revisiting Page 1 of a first draft, Reedsy Editors are here to help with tips for how to start a story, with literary examples from a few favourites.

We asked our editors: "how would you start a story?" They came up with 9 insightful ways

1) Start with the unexpected

Gareth Watkins: Start with the unexpected. Think of the opening to "Nineteen Eighty-Four", or Iain Banks', The Crow Road, "It was the day my grandmother exploded". Of course, your opening doesn't have to be as outrageous as these, but always aim for the unusual. In other words: think of how people will be expecting the book to start, then go in another direction.

How to Start a Story — 1984

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

2) Start with an image

Harrison Demchick: Many editors will tell you to avoid exposition — the dreaded infodump — at the start of your manuscript. One of the best ways to avoid this is to begin on an image. By focusing on sensory detail right at the start — sight, sound, taste, touch, smell — and by conveying a particular, defined setting, you can absorb readers immediately within the tangible world of your novel. Context and background will come later, but a compelling image can be a fantastic hook.

How to Start a Story — Image

"It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history."
– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

3) Start with action

Jeanette Shaw: I find novels that open in medias res (latin for "in the midst of action") to be really effective at immediately grabbing the reader and establishing stakes and tension. A classic example is Lord of the Flies, which starts with the boys on the island and then fills in the details of how they got there later. If you go this route, you need to be sure your opening action is compelling enough that the reader is prepared to wait for character setup later.

How to Start a Story — Action

"The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead."
– William Golding, Lord of the Flies

4) Start with brevity

Fran Lebowitz: I'd say start with something sparse that flicks on our curiosity, above all.

How to Start a Story — Brevity

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

5) Start with a question

Nathan Connolly: The reader should be looking for an answer. The opening to your novel should be a question that can only be answered by reading on. This doesn't need to be literal, or overt, it can even be poetic, or abstract, but there must be a wound that can only be healed by reading on.

How to Start a Story — Question

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."
– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

6) Start by appealing to curiousity

Britanie Wilson: There are many ways to start a novel, but in my experience the most successful beginnings have the magnetic effect of appealing to an emotion that all readers possess: curiosity. Make them immediately ask of your characters: What is this place? Why are they here? What are they doing? Who is involved? Where is this going? If you can pique your readers' curiosity from the very first sentence, you can will them to keep reading before they even know they like your book.

How to Start a Story - Curiousity

"Royal Beating. That was Flo's promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating."
– Alice Munro, Who Do You Think You Are?

7) Start with an understanding of your fictional world

Meghan Pinson: What draws me into a literary novel is the sense that the author has a deep knowledge of everything they're writing about. If the first page conveys a mastery of place, time, and language, I can trust the novel is borne of good research, and I'll relax into the story. But if the details feel off, or are absent or vague, I won't read on. I think compelling writing is a result of specific language married to intimate insights or experience, and that literary fiction has a sense of gravity that's informed by deep history. The best novels never make us doubt that every sentence was weighed for truth and beauty against the world and the author's understanding. Literary fiction, in my mind, is at least as true as real life, and just as tough to get right.

How to Start a Story — Fictional World

"The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat."
– Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

8) Start with something new

Thalia Suzuma:
Consider these two lines:

1) "I'm sitting writing this at my desk."

2) "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."

Which line makes you want to read on? I'd hazard a guess that it's probably the sentence about being perched at a sink — the opening line to one of my favourite novels, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Say something in your first few sentences that hasn't often been said before! A brief line that is laden with foreboding and heavy with what has not been said often works well, too.

How to Start a Story — New

"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day."
– Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

9) Start with intensity

Rebecca Faith Heyman: Openings should be intense, but that doesn't necessarily mean "loud" or "explosive." So many authors are keen to start with a literal bang — something going up in flames, or a car accident, or some other catastrophe. But recall that even a smoldering fire can burn your hand; draw us in like moths to the flame, but don't let the bonfire rage so fierce we can't get close.

How to Start a Story — Intensity

"At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country."
– Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See

Establishing best practices for how to start a story can be tricky because, as Reedsy Editor Nathan Connolly says, "fiction should, by nature, seek to defy, redefine or expand beyond rules." It should not be an author's goal to emulate the words or tastes of another person while writing a novel. However, many well-loved novels share a thread of commonality when it comes to their first few lines — such as a question, a brief to-the-point line, or in the middle of action. While there's no hard rule for what works, these are guidelines you can follow when determining how to hook readers down your story's path.

awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer

Blasphemers! Where is "It was a dark and stormy night"?

AJ

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@awnlee jawking

Blasphemers!


It was a stark and dormy night as the cadets huddled in their bunk beds at the Military Academy ...

Replies:   awnlee jawking  graybyrd
awnlee jawking

@Ernest Bywater

It was a stark and dormy night as the cadets huddled in their bunk beds at the Military Academy ...


I think you missed out a 'naked' somewhere ...

AJ

graybyrd
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater

The dormy riot began when Cadet Strunk in the lower bunk realized that rain rarely falls inside the barracks, and even so, it's never warm. He hurled Cadet Struthers, starkers and screaming, from his sodden upper bunk.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@graybyrd

Cadet Strunk


I saw what you did there.

Still, it's better than Cadet Chicago Style Manual ;)

AJ

awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer

Instead of just a bunch of opinions, I've been mulling over how difficult it might be to add some confidence to those assertions.

Each author would need to submit an opening corresponding to their stated preference and a story starting with that opening.

A random selection of potential readers would look at each opening and decide whether they'd like to continue the story or not. Those who voted to continue the story would then be presented with the complete story and would be monitored as to whether they actually completed it.

The trouble is, with nine different opening strategies, the number of readers partaking in the experiment would have to be prohibitively large to have any expectation of significant confidence in the results.

Oh well, back to 'start with a bang' to attract a dead-tree publisher :(

AJ

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

Actually, the number of different options were what attracted me to the article. Instead of the traditional "Start with the action" and then backtrack to the story (which I've NEVER understood how to implement), this offers a number of options for making the opening memorable. You (the author) can pick whichever might apply in whatever story you're writing (or not).

However, it should also be noted, none of these items were written by an actual author. Instead, they were listed by editors who'd like to read/work-with those types of stories.

But mostly, I liked the closing summary, that styles, while helpful for understanding what you're doing, only produce blasé fiction.

Replies:   REP
Switch Blayde

They convinced me to take out "Once upon a time..." as the beginning of my work-in-progress.

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

"Once upon a time..." as the beginning of my work-in-progress.


Ahh, is it a spicy cooking story with such a start?

StarFleet Carl

@Switch Blayde

They convinced me to take out "Once upon a time..." as the beginning of my work-in-progress.


I thought that was semantically equal to "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ..."

The favorite opening line I've ever written was, "You are a boil on the ass of humanity, and deserve to be lanced."

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

They convinced me to take out "Once upon a time..." as the beginning of my work-in-progress.

I wouldn't assume that. Follow suggestion #1: "Once upon a time, my grandmother exploded during Thanksgiving dinner." That'll get readers attention as well as leaving them guessing.

By the way, that would ruin Thanksgiving, as no one could identify which were cranberries or bits of grandma!

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


"Once upon a time, my grandmother exploded during Thanksgiving dinner."


and the next line is:

We all hit the floor while Grandma McCoy swore and abused the Hatfield clan.

edit of typo caused by changing thought direction mid typing of sentence.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

We all hit the floor while Grandma McCoy swear and abused the Hatfield clan.

Or (exercising my inner editor):

We hit the floor while Grandma McCoy swore and abused the Hatfield clan with the rosemary flavored stuffing.

It was a very abusive stuffing. The rosemary was especially strong!

Replies:   Dominions Son  REP
Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

It was a very abusive stuffing. The rosemary was especially strong!


And here I thought that there were two Hatfield clans, one of which brought the rosemary flavored stuffing.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@Dominions Son

rosemary flavored stuffing


Irrelevant factoid - in the UK that would indicate the stuffing contained no rosemary, and the flavour was the result of some arcane e-number.

AJ

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@awnlee jawking

@Dominions Son
rosemary flavored stuffing

@awnlee jawking
Irrelevant factoid - in the UK that would indicate the stuffing contained no rosemary, and the flavour was the result of some arcane e-number.

Irritating nitpick - is that because of some difference in meaning between 'rosemary flavored stuffing' and 'rosemary-flavored stuffing'?

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@Ross at Play

No, it's the law about how to describe the ingredients in the 'Contents' list. If it says rosemary, it has to contain real rosemary. If it says rosemary-flavoured, it doesn't have to contain any rosemary and therefore almost certainly won't.

I bought some throat pastilles a few days ago when I had a sore throat. The contents used to say blackcurrant. They now say blackcurrant flavour. Cheapskate bastards!

AJ

REP

@Crumbly Writer

It was a very abusive stuffing. The rosemary was especially strong!


I wonder where she buys rosemary flavored buckshot. :)

REP

@Crumbly Writer

One interesting aspect of starting in the middle or end of the story and then backtracking is - if you are using First Person POV, it explains how your narrator knows what will happen and conceivably why the other characters did what they did. Thus, you won't be head hopping.

Ernest Bywater

@REP

starting in the middle or end of the story and then backtracking


That works well if you start and do only one backtrack. Not so long ago I tried to read a story about some very interesting real life events, but by the time the idiot who wrote it (a reporter by trade) go to the fourth backtrack I was sick to death of it and dumped it.

Replies:   Switch Blayde  REP
Switch Blayde

@REP

One interesting aspect of starting in the middle or end of the story and then backtracking is - if you are using First Person POV, it explains how your narrator knows what will happen and conceivably why the other characters did what they did. Thus, you won't be head hopping.


Stephen King did that in "The Green Mile." Since the former death row supervisor was telling a story that happened many years before he would say something like, "I found out later after reading the report that..."

It pissed the hell out of me. I felt King cheated since keeping POV straight is the hardest part of writing for me.

Replies:   REP  Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater

That works well if you start and do only one backtrack.


Depends on the story. "Prince of Tides" is told almost completely through flashbacks.

Replies:   REP  Ernest Bywater
REP

@Ernest Bywater

Agreed. I started a story here on SOL where the author was doing something similar and bailed on the story. At the time, I was so turned off that I moved all the details into that big room in my head where I put stuff I don't want to recall. I just opened the door, tossed it in, and slammed the door before anything could escape.

REP

@Switch Blayde

"The Green Mile."


I saw the movie, but didn't read the book.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
REP

@Switch Blayde

told almost completely through flashbacks


Multiple flashbacks presented serially is one thing. Multiple flashbacks nested within each other would be very confusing to the reader.

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


Depends on the story. "Prince of Tides" is told almost completely through flashbacks.


And not everyone liked it because of that, due to the constant flashbacks making it hard to keep track of things. I never finished it, hardly got started on it.

typo edit

Switch Blayde

@REP

I saw the movie, but didn't read the book.


If you saw the movie, don't read the book. It's almost identical. I even remembered some of the dialogue being word for word. I found the book boring even though I loved the movie.

The only great part about the book was the scene where the electrocution went wrong. King nailed the description.

Replies:   REP
REP

@Switch Blayde

It's almost identical

Now that is a rarity.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@REP

One interesting aspect of starting in the middle or end of the story and then backtracking is - if you are using First Person POV, it explains how your narrator knows what will happen and conceivably why the other characters did what they did. Thus, you won't be head hopping.

Except, I'm not sure how much that restricts head-hopping. Better writers tend to avoid it (for the most part), while lesser writers rarely use flashbacks, so there's not necessarily a direct causal relationship between errors found and the backtrapping.

However, I can't remember how often it occurs in backtracking stories, especially on SOL where headhopping would be more likely to occur. I tend to avoid those stories. Has anyone else noticed any correlations?

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

It pissed the hell out of me. I felt King cheated since keeping POV straight is the hardest part of writing for me.

In investigative pieces (including mysteries or surprise endings), the repeated backtracking (usually done in dialogue, rather than in narrative) is used to slowly reveal more and more about what actually happened, until someone finally pieces together wtf actually happened.

Crumbly Writer

@REP

Now that is a rarity.

Knowing King, it was probably in the contract, he wrote the screenplay himself, or more likely, a combination of the two. Consider it a contractual 'hands off' approach.

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