It happens to the best of us: you open a new word document, you’re faced with the many possibilities that a story can take, and then you realize you don’t know how to start a story. Or you do know, but you’re not sure how to start this story. Or you know exactly what this story is supposed to be, but you can’t seem to find the first words.
Whatever the case, there are many good ways to start a story, but simply starting somewhere can prove challenging. How do other writers do it?
This article tackles the tricky concept of how to start a story. We’ll take a look at different strategies, examples, and ideas you can use to improve your own work. And, we’ll look at what not to do as you start a new draft of your story.
In order to understand how to start a story, we should first examine what your story’s beginning must accomplish.
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What Should the Start of a Story Accomplish?
No matter where your story begins, it needs to accomplish a few things for the reader. There are many ways to start a story, but without a certain amount of context and intrigue, the reader will fail to understand what the story is about or where the story is headed.
Most stories, regardless of length, will establish the following items early on:
Who are the main characters of your story? Of course, many more characters may be introduced as the story progresses, but we should know early on who our protagonist is, as well as some relevant relationships that make the story unfold.
Try to give the reader a peek into your protagonist’s psyche right away. Learn more about this at our article on Character Development.
Try to give the reader a peek into your protagonist’s psyche right away.
Where is your story taking place? Often, the story begins somewhere safe, where the protagonist hasn’t yet been forced from their home. Or, if your protagonist doesn’t go on a physical journey, they still go on an emotional one—a journey in which their home begins to feel a lot less like home.
Establishing the protagonist’s relationship to their setting helps define where the story exists and where the story will go. Learn more at our article on Five Functions of Setting in Literature.
Establishing the protagonist’s relationship to their setting helps define where the story exists and where the story will go.
Point of View
Who is telling the story, and from what vantage point? Is it the protagonist themselves, or a close friend of the protagonist, or some distant third party observer?
A story’s points of view can shift over time, but we should know right away “who’s holding the camera” as the story unfolds before us. Our article on Narrative Point of View explains this in detail.
We should know right away “who’s holding the camera” as the story unfolds before us.
The mood of a story refers to the general emotional atmosphere conveyed by the work itself. It is both the feelings expressed in the work and the feelings that the writer wishes to evoke from the reader.
Stories are often defined by specific moods, and although the mood of a story is complex and shifts over time, it should be established right away through the author’s style and word choice. Here’s a succinct write-up on how literature establishes mood.
Although the mood of a story is complex and shifts over time, it should be established right away through the author’s style and word choice.
Your story starts where the conflict starts. No, many stories don’t have an inciting incident within the first paragraph. But, your story must establish early on the cause for the story’s existence: the conflicts, disagreements, and contradictions that the story will develop and (maybe) resolve.
Your story starts where the conflict starts.
As we examine “how to start a story” examples, take note of how each story start establishes character, setting, mood, conflict, and point of view. Other elements in story writing, like plot, style, and themes, are developed over time, as are these initial 5 elements. You can learn more about working with the elements of fiction at our article The Art of Storytelling.
How to Start a Story: Examples from Literature
Every story requires its own unique beginning. The ideas we list below can help you decide where you jumpstart your story, but pay careful consideration to the intent of your opening lines. Are you trying to surprise the reader? To situate them in the story’s setting? Or, perhaps, to baffle the reader while also generating intrigue?
Here’s 12 ways to start a story, with examples from published works of literature.
1. How to Start a Story: Dialogue
Readers are nosy: they like being involved in the social lives of the story’s characters. Dropping the reader in the middle of a conversation will certainly pique the reader’s interest, especially if that conversation itself is interesting.
One such story that drops the reader in the middle of dialogue is “Never a Gentle Master” by Brittany N. Williams.
“Ain’t no good coming of messin’ in other folks’ business.” Madear’s voice broke through the silence of the workroom. “Especially not Qual’s.” Kae jerked, and the dried lavender cracked in her hand, spilling the remnants of fragrant purple flowers all over the table. The venom in her grandma’s voice as she spat out the name shook her but she didn’t dare look up from her work.
“The man’s meddling with death magic,” Momma said to Madear as she strode into the workshop, “and that right there makes it our business.”
By starting with dialogue, this story drops us in the middle of the tension: meddling, death magic, and workroom gossip. Dialogue writing has its own challenges; learn how to start a story with proper dialogue at our article How to Write Dialogue in a Story.
Note: some writers and publishers don’t like this method of starting a story, because we don’t know anything about the character before hearing them speak. If you open your story with dialogue, that dialogue should intrigue the reader, introduce conflict, and offer some characterization. Show us through the character’s word choice who the character is.
2. How to Start a Story: Conflict
Conflict is the lifeblood of a story. Without conflict—man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, etc.—there is little else propelling the story from beginning to end.
Of course, conflict doesn’t have to be an all-out war. Yes, dueling wizards and angry gods counts as conflict. But, it can also be something far more everyday.
In “A Duck Walks into a Bar” by Joshua Bohnsack, for example, the conflict is a child’s struggle to understand jokes—and his parent’s struggle to teach him about the world.
My son is trying to write a joke. He thinks this will help him make friends and let people know he’s friendly. He wants me to tell him if the jokes are funny. He doesn’t know whether I am being sincere most of the time, so he asks me to clarify.
He says, “Mommy. What does the scarecrow say to the pigeon?”
I tell him I don’t know.
“‘Just leave me alone.’”
I tell him I don’t think that’s a funny joke.
By starting with conflict, the author wastes no time getting to the heart of what they’re writing about.
3. How to Start a Story: Setting and Mood
Stories transport us to faraway places—places we’ve never visited, times long past, and settings we can only dream about. Every character has a relationship to their setting, and that relationship often lends itself to the mood of the story: the overall feeling, aesthetic, and emotional landscape of the work.
Starting the story with its setting can pull the reader in and establish a compelling mood. In “Fjord of Killary” by Kevin Barry, the author does just that.
So I bought an old hotel on the fjord of Killary. It was set hard by the harbor wall, with Mweelrea Mountain across the water, and disgracefully gray skies above. It rained two hundred and eighty-seven days of the year, and the locals were given to magnificent mood swings. On the night in question, the rain was particularly violent—it came down like handfuls of nails flung hard and fast by a seriously riled sky god. I was at this point eight months in the place and about convinced that it would be the death of me.
“It’s end-of-the-fucking-world stuff out there,” I said.
By giving the reader details about the place, its people, and its bleakness, the author sets the mood of the entire story. Learn more about developing settings at our article What is the Setting of a Story?
4. How to Start a Story: Backstory
Backstory refers to events that have happened prior to the story’s present-day action. While backstory isn’t necessary to follow the story’s plot, it is essential for understanding specific pieces of information.
Backstory offers context, and sometimes, the author wants to get that context out of the way first. In “The Missing Limousine” by Sanjena Sathian, the story explains why the protagonist gets hooked on The Bachelor, and why this is unusual for her, before getting into the story’s actual conflict.
By establishing basic facts, the author uses backstory to characterize her protagonist and propel the story into its central conflict. Do note: don’t write too much backstory, just give us enough to contextualize the conflict before moving the story forward.
5. How to Start a Story: Everyday Life
Your story’s conflict might dramatically alter your protagonist’s life. They might go on a journey, a quest, or even be forced into a life they didn’t ask for. Something that will highlight this dramatic shift of events is showing the reader what the protagonist’s everyday life was like.
“The Tunnel Under the World” by Frederik Pohl does just this.
On the morning of June 15th, Guy Burckhardt woke up screaming out of a dream. It was more real than any dream he had ever had in his life. He could still hear and feel the sharp, ripping-metal explosion, the violent heave that had tossed him furiously out of bed, the searing wave of heat.
He sat up convulsively and stared, not believing what he saw, at the quiet room and the bright sunlight coming in the window.
He croaked, “Mary?”
Guy Burckhardt wakes up from a terrible dream and finds himself back to everyday life: a shower, a wife, and an office job. It’s only when Guy investigates the eerie normalcy of his life that he comes to find all of it is a façade.
Note: starting your story with the protagonist waking up is generally a cliché idea. But, if you read all of Frederik Pohl’s story, you’ll understand exactly why he has to do this. Whether your protagonist gets shipped to the other side of the world or the other side of the universe, consider starting your story at home.
6. How to Start a Story: Theme
A theme is a central idea that propels a story forward. Themes are often abstract concepts, like love, justice, and fate vs. free will. When the characters of a story have to reckon with certain difficult situations, their decisions become springboards for the story’s various themes.
Sometimes, the story needs to unfold before any themes emerge. Other times, the author might lead with the theme before letting the story act that theme out. Take the opening lines from two works of classic literature:
Anna Karenina leads with the story’s dissection of happy and unhappy families, while A Tale of Two Cities leads with the bifurcated realities of the rich and the poor. Both novels, of course, have many more themes than just these, but these stories start rooted to a central idea, then unfurl to encompass a wider understanding of life.
7. How to Start a Story: Interesting Language
Charles Baudelaire once said “Always be a poet, even in prose.” Following this advice, sometimes all you need to start a story is some interesting word choice.
Take, for example, the story “Bread Week” by JoAnna Novak.
This brief introduction is packed with interesting language. For starters, it’s written in the second person, which is a daring way to write a story, because it situates the reader as the story’s protagonist without any other context. Additionally, the sentence is a mix of dialogue and narration, but without the use of quotation marks, making it structurally intriguing. Finally, the alliterative phrase “beady, bootblack eyes” is rich with description and characterization while also being a pleasure to read.
8. How to Start a Story: In Media Res
Under traditional storytelling models, like Freytag’s Pyramid, there’s a clear progression of events. After the exposition introduces us to the story’s characters, and settings, an inciting incident kicks off the story’s conflict. During the rising action, the conflict escalates, until a climax decides the fate of the protagonist.
When a story starts in media res (Latin: “in the middle of things”), the author chooses to start the story in the middle of the rising action, skipping over the exposition and the inciting incident.
For example, Homer’s The Iliad begins in the 9th year of the Greeks’ 10-year siege against Troy. We are introduced to major characters like Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, and also to the influence of the Gods like Hera and Zeus. Only as the story unfolds do we also gain some backstory, such as the reason for the war’s beginning and the previous lives of the story’s protagonists.
9. How to Start a Story: Frame Story
A story that starts at the end is called a frame story, which is another way to play with traditional narrative structures. Also known as a story-within-a-story, frame stories begin at the end of the conflict. Often, a character who is not part of the conflict will wander into the story; eventually, a character who was part of the conflict regales this wanderer, transporting us to the story’s beginning.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë offers a great example. In this novel, Mr. Lockwood, who is not part of the story’s conflict, becomes a new tenant of Thrushcross Grange. Thrushcross Grange is tended to by Nelly, a housekeeper who witnessed all of the story’s conflicts. Nelly tells Mr. Lockwood about the romance, violence, drama, and death that has unfolded in Thrushcross Grange’s recent history.
Thus, the story begins at the end, with Mr. Lockwood moving into a now-quiet Thrushcross Grange. Then, the story jumps to the beginning, with the cast of characters that propel the house’s strange and awful history.
10. How to Start a Story: A Hook
A hook is a simple premise for a story that, when told to the reader, instantly draws them into the story. Many of the other examples listed here can also be viewed as hooks, but a hook directly states the reason for the story’s existence and invites the reader to learn more.
For example, the story “Chouette” by Claire Oshetsky hooks the reader instantly.
I dream I’m making tender love with an owl. The next morning, I see talon marks across my chest that trace the path of my owl-lover’s embrace. Two weeks later I learn that I’m pregnant.
You may wonder: How could such a thing come to pass between woman and owl?
I, too, am astounded because my owl-lover was a woman.
There is so much happening in these first few lines. A same-sex owl romance leads to an inter-species pregnancy? Yes, please tell me more.
11. How to Start a Story: A Question
Some stories begin with a question, and the entire story responds to the conundrum that question presents. Just like a story that starts with theme, starting with a question will draw the reader into the story’s central ideas.
Of course, a story can also begin with a question that baffles the reader, hooks them in, or tries to characterize its protagonists. Take the opening line of Gilbert Sorrentino’s novel Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things:
12. How to Start a Story: Compelling Characterization
Readers are drawn to stories for a variety of reasons. However, very few stories would satisfy if they lacked interesting characters. Great characterization can be a byproduct of the many good ways to start a story.
In “The Killer” by Sarah Gerard, we learn so much about the story’s protagonist just by watching her observe other people.
How Not to Start a Story
Because people have been telling stories for at least 4,400 years, there are many ways to start a story—and many of them are cliché, unconvincing, or simply boring for the reader. Let’s briefly look at how not to start a story.
Do note: rules are made to be broken, and there is no single standard of good or bad writing. So, while we discourage people from starting stories using the following methods, there might be a reason for doing so in your story. Just be intentional: if your story starts with a dream, for example, make sure that dream is absolutely essential to the story’s conflict, and that there is no better place from which to begin the story.
Nonetheless, if you want to submit your stories to literary journals or publications, be wary of the following story beginnings:
Starting with a dream.
This story start will mostly confuse the reader. They’ll think what’s happening in the dream is happening in real life, and when that turns out not to be the case, the reader will feel tricked, as well as bored with real life. Plus, dreams are rarely a source of conflict, which your story should start with.
The protagonist wakes up.
This is perhaps the most cliché method of starting a story. It doesn’t generate conflict or tell us anything interesting about the character. Yes, some stories need to show us everyday life before it’s drastically altered. But, since all people wake up, we don’t need to know about your character waking up, we just need to know details about everyday life that will, eventually, be altered.
Starting with character summary.
Don’t introduce your characters with basic, summaristic info. In other words, don’t start your story like this: “Sean Glatch was a 20-something writer in ABC City; one day, he woke up on the other side of the world.” This kind of writing is devoid of any style or intrigue. The reader wants to connect with the story’s characters on a personal level, so these summaristic details should be embedded in the story itself, rather than stated directly to the reader.
Once upon a time, people started their stories with “once upon a time.” But, even if your story begins on a dark and stormy night, tell the reader something a bit more compelling.
Starting before the conflict.
If the first page of your story doesn’t have conflict, then your story hasn’t started yet. Readers will nod off very quickly if they don’t know why they’re reading this story. The conflict doesn’t have to be clear or explicitly stated, but it does need to drive the narration right away, even as we’re learning about the story’s characters and settings.
Perhaps your story begins on Planet X, which has an icy surface, endless tundras, and snowy mountains as tall as Olympus Mons. Nonetheless, the reader wants to follow people, not planets. So, instead of introducing the reader to this snowy world devoid of human conflict, show us the protagonist fighting against the cold, baring their teeth against chilling winds and subzero hypothermia.
Further Readings on Storytelling
For more resources on story writing and development, take a look at these handy articles.
- What is the Plot of a Story?
- Character Development Definition: A Look at 40 Character Traits
- Capturing the Art of Storytelling: Techniques & Tips
- Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction
- Novel Writing Tips: The Basics of Novel Writing
Additionally, the American Book Review has a list of the 100 best first lines from novels. Perhaps one of those lines will inspire your own story’s beginning.
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