The start of your story bears a heavy responsibility: grabbing hold of your reader's attention and keeping it. If the beginning fails, you risk losing your reader before they see your gripping build-up or spectacular climax. Yes, knowing how to start a story is that critical.
But no pressure, eh?
There are two aspects to beginnings: where to start, and how to start. Here are guidelines to help you with each.
1. Where to Start a Story: The Breaking of the Status Quo
All stories are about change. A story happens when someone's life is interrupted by an event that throws them off-balance. This event is known as the inciting incident. Nailing down this event is key in figuring out how to start a story.
In order to throw your character off-balance, you must first give it some sort of balance. This balance is the character's status-quo. Without the inciting incident, your character would have stayed in this status-quo indefinitely.
If you start too far ahead of the event, you'll be writing too much of the character's status quo. Status quo, by definition, lacks conflict and interest.
If you start too far after the event, the reader will remain in the dark about your character's place in life and their current motivation.
The sweet spot is somewhere around your inciting incident. Give the reader a glimpse of your character in their status quo. Then bring in the event that changes it all. This way, the reader would know who your character was before the event, and why the event affects them.
There are, of course, other places to start a good story. One of them is just before the climax, leading up to the climax but stopping short -- and then doubling back to tell the full story before we see how it is resolved. This method has been used heavily in the past, so be careful in employing it.
A similar structure is the frame story, which is a story that takes place within a story. For example, a driver picks up a hitchhiker (the outer layer). Along the way, the hitchhiker tells the driver about a past visit to a haunted house (the inner layer).
With frame stories, it's important to tie the inner layer with the outer layer in order to give the entire piece a unifying theme. In our example, the hitchhiker can end his tale by saying that he died in that haunted house and that he is, in fact, a hitch-hiking ghost.
Avoid the Following:
- Many amateur writers begin with their hero waking up. This is an example of starting too early. Unless the hero wakes up because of a loud airstrike siren or another exciting event, resist this urge. People's morning routines are not that interesting.
- Another favorite trick is starting with dialog. Remember that unlike you, the reader has no idea of the acting characters yet. A spoken line would be, for the reader, devoid of context and personality. A long piece of dialog would be completely disorienting.
- The worst example is probably the false beginning. Something interesting happens on the page, we get excited about it -- and then the character wakes up, and we discover it was nothing but a dream. At this point, most savvy readers would toss away the story with disgust.
2. How to Start a Story: Using a Good Hook
Once you've chosen where to start your story, you have to decide how to do it. What would be the words that ensnare your readers?
Your opening line, known as the hook, has a chance to make or break people's enchantment with your tale. Make the most of it. Intrigue, entertain, mystify, or surprise. If your first line can do any of these, you're off to a good start.
Intrigue. The first line should give the reader some answers, like who the main character is, or what kind of story you're about to tell. But more importantly, it should make the reader ask questions.
For example, take the first line of The Secret History by Donna Tartt:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
We have a setting ("snow in the mountains"), we have an unknown crew of characters ("our situation"), and we have an unusual occurrence ("Bunny had been dead"). But who is Bunny? And unless he really is a bunny, why the nickname? What killed him? What is the meaning of the time lapse in "had been dead for weeks"?
These questions are certain to compel the reader onward.
Entertain. Give the first line a special quirk of personality with your distinct narrator voice. For example, consider the first line of A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor:
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.
It's short and precise. It gives us information about a character (a grandmother) and a conflict (over a trip). But the phrase "The grandmother" gives it a distant, cynical, and funny voice that appeals to readers from the get-go.
Mystify. State something plainly, but make your reader do a double take. How is that possible? Did I misread that line?
For example, Iain Banks begins The Crow Road with the words:
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
Say what? (Works for him!)
Surprise. A good first line will surprise your reader in some way, by taking an ordinary event and giving it an unexpected twist.
Strange names, for example, are nothing exciting, but the quirky addition here cinches it for C.S. Lewis in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
(You'll probably notice that most first lines engage the reader in more than one way; the last one includes intrigue and entertainment as well as surprise.)
Avoid the Following:
- Don't mistake "good hook" for "bombastic hook." The first line can be subtle, as long as it intrigues. You don't need some colossal event to occur in your first paragraph. Just make the reader wonder, what's next?
- Unless you're Dickens, avoid grand, general, and vague statements that are supposed to sound impressive. They usually sound outdated, instead.
- Unless you're spoofing horror stories, don't begin with a "dark, stormy night." That opening has been done to death. Also, readers usually care about characters, not the weather.
There are no rules about openings, except that they must work. Experiment. Write multiple beginnings to the same story and test them on various readers. See what works for every story's plot and voice. Risk leaving your opening to the last -- sometimes the best first lines come after you know the final lines of the story.