The beginning of a story is like an appetizer to a great meal. It’s a taste of what is to come, an invitation to keep reading. Make it salty, crunchy, tantalizing, or mysterious, and you’ll draw your readers in to keep reading and turning those pages.
If it’s bland, unappealing, and fails to surprise, it may be a foretaste of what the rest of the novel is about and turn your reader away.
Read on to learn more about great story openings.
Why is the opening of a story important?
The opening lines of your story are the first thing your readers come across. That alone should tell you why it’s important. If it doesn’t work for them, they won’t read on.
Even if the ending of your story is brilliant but the opening lines fail to generate interest, your readers may struggle to get much further.
You want to garner and harness the readers’ attention. How you do that can vary, and the tips below will help.
6 Tips and examples of how to start a story
There are lots of great ways to start a story and plenty of excellent examples from fantastic opening lines in literature. Let’s take a look at some of these examples and why they are so good.
Use the unexpected: Think about how your readers might want you to start a story and do the opposite. You don’t need to shock or horrify them, but an unusual or different opening will impress them.
Example: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –George Orwell, 1984
The sense of futility and fruitlessness in these opening lines set the tone for Orwell’s dystopian novel and cautionary tale. While April in the northern hemisphere is usually a time of growth, Orwell insinuates that nothing has yet bloomed—it’s bright and cold. And if the clocks are striking thirteen—a traditionally unlucky number—it’s clear that nothing good can come of this. Completely unexpected.
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Start with immediate action or dialogue: You can immediately grab a reader’s attention by establishing high stakes or conflict. If this is compelling enough, the reader won’t necessarily need the context or details until later.
Example: “The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.” –Peter Benchley, Jaws
A whole generation of people were scared out of the water in the 1970s thanks to Benchley’s novel, and the subsequent Steven Spielberg film, of a lone great white shark preying upon a community on Long Island. And thanks to not only the title but also this first line, you get a sense of the horror that might be in wait if you dare to read further.
Ask a question or pose an idea: All readers are after answers, and posing an idea or even asking a question can get them thinking. This can be direct and overt, or subtle and poetic. But the reader can only make up their mind by reading on.
Example: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” –Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
These lines are not only some of the most famous in literature, but they give an incredible insight into nineteenth-century English society’s preoccupation with making socially advantageous marriages. While a reader may agree or not, the reverse was also true in this story, that single women with fewer social prospects were definitely after rich husbands.
The Twilight series (Stephenie Meyer) opens by posing an idea about dying that gets the reader thinking: “I’ve never given much thought to how I would die. But dying in the place of someone I love seems like a good way to go.”
Introduce a character: Introducing a key character in the first lines, or even having them introduce themselves, is a great way to plunge a reader headfirst into a story and the world of that character.
Example: “Call me Ishmael.” –Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Ishmael is the first-person narrator for much of this famous book and introduces themselves in these opening lines. In this way, they tell the reader who the story will be about and who will frame the storyline.
Stephen King also used this idea to great effect in The Shining, with the lines: “Jack Torrance thought: ‘Officious little prick.’” Jack Torrance is one of the greatest book and film villains of all time, and these lines give immediate insight into his character.
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Describe the setting: Another way to start a story is to describe the setting details. This means the sensory details—sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell—particularly if it’s a little different from the reader’s normal world.
Example: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” –J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
This is a great example of plunging a reader directly into the Hobbit world and what it might be like to live in a hole.
Background information: Another great way to start a story is to give some of the social, historical, or contextual information the reader needs to understand the story better.
Example: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
This line reads like social commentary, and it is. Dickens’s famous novel is set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The contrasting lines and words highlight the disparities in the living standards of different classes in France.