Start a Story Right

Doug Landsborough
March 16, 2022
May 12, 2022
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Figuring out how to start a story can be agonizing. The first word, line, paragraph, and even chapter in your story are the hardest to write in your entire book. They are arguably the most important words you’ll write, because they will be the ones that help a reader decide whether or not they want to read the rest of your book.And while we can’t stop you from the hours of obsessing over writing the perfect opening to your masterpiece, we can at least help make those hours a little less painful. In this article, we’re going to go over how to start a story, including seven different ways you can grab your reader’s attention right from the first word.

Always Start a Story with a Promise

The way you start your story is a promise to your readers. No, it’s not an explicit promise–please don’t write I promise you this will be the best post-apocalyptic dystopian you’ve ever read. That’s weird. Don’t be weird.When I say that your opening is a promise, I mean that it’s setting the stage for where you are about to transport your readers and makes them look forward to who they’re going to meet. Try and keep these two things in mind:Your first line sets the entire stage for your story. The tone, your word choice, the dynamic nature (or lack thereof) of your very first sentence has a big impact on how your reader is introduced to you and your story. No pressure, though.

Your first chapter tells your reader what they are getting into. The first chapter of your book should highlight your strengths as a writer. Do you excel at intricate, immersive details? Is your writing fast-paced or a slow burn? While your first chapter shouldn’t cram a million things into it, your reader should have a decent idea of what they are getting into before they go any further.Don’t make the first chapter a massive fight scene just to draw readers in only to go the rest of the book without another fight.

Start a Story With Genre

Genres are important to both writers and readers because they let us make some assumptions and carry some expectations with them. With that in mind, understand how other stories in your genre open. A fantasy book might include different races in its first chapter. A romance novel might open with a chance encounter (also known as a meet cute in romance lingo) or a breakup.Pay attention to the tone and pacing of other books in your genre, especially in the first line and chapter. How did they capture your attention? Read them out loud to understand how the words feel when you say them.When in doubt, look at how the best authors in your genre open their books. “Best” is subjective, so either look for popular authors or those who resonate with you specifically.No matter which one of the different ways you choose to start your story, understand how the expectations of your genre play a part in your first line and chapter.

Seven Ways to Start a Story

So all of that is well and good, but starting with a promise and analyzing genre is a little abstract, right? Accurate and important, but abstract.I’m going to get a little more practical right now and introduce you to seven ways that you can start a story that are sure to captivate your reader and keep them interested well beyond Chapter One.

Action

One of the most effective and popular ways to start your story is through immediate action. This sort of opening is known as in media res (if you’re into Latin), and it does away with slow burns and pretext to capture your attention with swift pacing and edge-of-your-seat tension.That doesn’t mean that your story’s opening doesn’t need to establish an ordinary world. Instead, use exciting action to help establish that world. A main character who’s hunting a deer is doing so because their family will starve if they fail. A soldier in the middle of combat knows nothing else, and every day is a fight for their life. The couple who is out too late is a midnight snack for the vampires who run the city.Using action to kick your story off is a great way to grab your readers by the shirt and yank them right into your tale.

Curiosity

Aside from the ruthless murder of innocent cats, curiosity is a powerful emotion that all human beings share. When we are shown something mysterious or new, we all want to know about it. We need to know about it.To harness the power of curiosity, you simply have to show your readers something that you know they won’t understand. An assassin skulking in the shadows. A bloody knife on a bed. The dark, brooding millionaire who is throwing a party.When you introduce an unknown in your first sentence, you are forcing the reader to continue on. We must figure out what is happening, who that person is, or why the world is the way it is to satisfy our innate curiosity. The Warriors does a great job of this by making us wonder who Cyrus is right from the first scene.

Imagery

No, this doesn’t mean to start your story with an actual picture or image. Rather, imagery in this sense is about painting a very clear picture of a particular setting for your reader. When you use powerful imagery from your very first word, it sucks your reader in and immerses them in the world you are building throughout your story. If your first sentence or chapter makes your reader get lost in a scene you create, then you’ve already made headway in keeping them hooked for the rest of the book.Painting a perfect picture (intentional alliteration) isn’t easy, though. If you stumble at creating an immersive scene, it’s going to have the opposite effect of what you’re looking for. So, when opening your story with imagery, really hone in on the details and make use of the five senses:

  • Sight: The most obvious of the senses that most writers default to. Focus on what is unique about the situation or what makes it so normal. Make use of colors, irregularities, items that are unique to the space.
  • Smell: What does the space smell like? What is unusual about the scents there? Is there a particular item causing the smell?
  • Sound: What is making the sound? Is it annoying or soothing? What effect is the sound having on the rest of the scene?
  • Taste: While taste can be kind of specific–usually reserved for eating, of course–it can be used to invoke a very visceral feeling. The iron taste of blood in your mouth. The gritty taste of sand after waking up in a desert. Fire and smoke at the first sip of bourbon.
  • Touch: Using tactile descriptions can bring a smile to your reader’s face or make their skin crawl. Touch can also be used well with the other senses, like singed nostrils at a particularly nasty scent or ringing eardrums after an explosion.

When you start your story, put these senses to great use by digging deep and bringing your scene to life with them. You don’t need to shoehorn every single sense into your opening, but don’t limit yourself to just one or two.

A Question

Leveraging the same strength as curiosity, sometimes the most powerful first line is simply a question.This question can be explicit–Who killed the mayor? What happened to that attractive person I met at the bar? Why do bad things happen to good people?–and sometimes they are implicit. The latter are questions you force the reader to ask themselves.Whichever type of question you go with, it has to be so important, so engrossing, your reader can’t put your book down for fear of losing sleep over not finding out the answer.

Setting

Let your reader get lost in the world you’re building. Starting a story off with the setting is an effective way of pulling emotion out of your reader rather than activating their senses.Instill a sense of wonder by describing the magnificent fairy kingdom your story takes place in. Horrify them with the brutality of your dystopian society.Use the first few pages to show the reader that your world is alive and has the depth that it deserves. Historical details, architectural style, language, clothing, mannerisms, and so much more are all aspects of your setting that can make your setting real for the reader and keep them captivated.

Don’t be afraid to start big with your setting and then narrow it down to a particular image with some of the senses. In fact, don’t be afraid to mix and match any of these opening styles. Just be sure you don’t do either of them halfheartedly.Also make sure that your characters are actually doing something during this description. Build the setting by having them move from place to place. Describe the world as someone is experiencing it. Including characters makes your setting dynamic and alive. No one wants to read three pages of pure description.

Tension

Starting your story off with action–again, in media res for fancy folk–can sometimes be a little too much, especially for genres that have a slower pace. Even for action-adventure stories, an explosive opening (literally) might not suit your writing style.Enter another way to start a story: tension.Tension is a great way to start a book because it raises the stakes from the first line. It makes the reader wonder how the scene is going to unfold or why it got there in the first place, all while adding a sense of urgency to the story that makes the reader want to keep going.There are countless ways to add tension to your opening. Your protagonist could be staring down the barrel of a gun. Air raid sirens could wake a family in the middle of the night. Even a text message stating “We need to talk.” will do it.When you open with tension, your story grips your reader (and your reader might physically grip your novel harder).

Emotion

The final way you can start a story is by cranking the emotions up to eleven. While some other openings use emotions, I’m talking about digging right into the hearts of your readers.What better way to promise your readers that they are about to read the best story ever than to pour your heart and soul into each and every word? Each sentence should hit home. Every word should be intentionally chosen to have the utmost effect.Starting your story with emotion means that you are drawing on a bigger idea than the literal meaning of your words. Life. Death. Love. Fear. Hope. Draw on these powerful emotions to captivate your reader.

And, just like love, you have to commit to an emotional opening if this is how you start your story. Go all in, don’t pull any punches. The more raw and emotional, the better.

Fulfill Your Promise to Your Reader

Your opening is one of the most important parts of your book. Too many amazing stories are left unread because of weak first lines and first chapters. That’s why you need to put a lot of thought into how you start your story.But that thoughtfulness doesn’t end when Chapter Two begins.Remember that the start of your story is a promise to your reader. Don’t spend all this time crafting a beautiful opening, only to have your second chapter be lifeless or bland. The style that you use, the tension that you build, the way you highlight details, the pace that you establish, and everything else you use to create a perfect opening should carry through the remainder of your story.Don’t do yourself or your reader the disservice of making the best opening in the world and not carry that quality through the remainder of your work. So while the way you start a story is important, it’s equally important to keep up that passion and skill throughout every other chapter.Writing a book is hard, though! Between balancing the details of your characters and world and making sure your tone and pace are perfect–and everything else you need to manage–being a writer is a tough gig.That’s why we’ve created Dabble, the perfect platform to help you write your story. With easy ways to keep notes, manage your plot and subplots, and an emphasis on getting your book finished (along with all the other features being added all the time), Dabble was made for writers just like you.So if you want to make the perfect opening, followed by the rest of your perfect story, click here to try all of Dabble’s Premium features for fourteen days, no credit card required.Happy writing!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.