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How To Begin Your Story

November 20th, 2012 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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There is a raft of advice out there for what the first paragraph of your story should contain. But I’ve raked through the internet so you don’t have to! Distilled advice and links within!

I recently looked at how to end your story, because, hey, that’s where I’m at. But it will soon be time to begin again, so it seems only right to examine story beginnings.

As with my previous advice on endings, this will be a selection of tips gathered from some of the best writing blogs on the interwebs. The articles I found most useful will be referenced at the end of this post.


A classic fantasy story beginning. Here I’m using the term classic to mean clichéd, but I still love it!

Also, it’s important to note this is not about the practical steps needed to start writing a new story. Rather, it is about what your beginning should consist of.

I maintain that from a practical point of view, you can get away with ignoring these tips during a first draft. But it is probably a good idea to include them in your thinking when planning your story, at least bear them in mind when drafting, and certainly pay close attention to them when editing.

A Very Good Place to Start

So without further ado… the list.

  • Start late. Starting late is immediately more interesting because readers are on the back foot, playing catchup, working out what little details mean. Often you will be fighting the urge to start with some backstory or the lead up to a significant event, rather than starting with the event itself.

    Star Wars is often referenced here, George Lucas having always (or so he says, but then he also insists that Han never shot first) envisaged nine films, but starting with the middle three.

    Another more recent example is the pre-opening-credit sequence of The Walking Dead, series 3. Unbeknownst to the audience, we have skipped seven or eight months since the second series, but we are not told that. Instead we are shown what a tight, methodical group of zombie-killers (re-killers?) the group has become. We are also shown how conflicted they still are, and the uneasy lead they have accepted from Rick. It is immediately engaging.

    the walking dead

    The Walking Dead series 1 (and indeed the comic) begins with the rather clichéd intro of the protagonist waking in a hospital with no one around. Clichéd it may be but it’s an effective way of starting late, and putting the protagonist in the same position as the reader/viewer – completely in the dark.

  • Have a hook. Ah, this old one. This is one of those pieces of advice that seems so cut-and-dry until you ask what it actually means.

    Well, it means something to catch the reader’s interest obviously, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a huge thing. It can be a character quirk, some aspect of the world, or something slightly off-kilter.

    You could of course go crazy and make it truly bizarre, but it’s risky – you don’t want your audience to be all confused and give up at the first hurdle.

    My take on it is if you’ve written your beginning, and your story is interesting at all, there is probably already a hook in the introduction somewhere – especially if you’ve followed the rules below about establishing the basics. Your job then is to find these hooks and put them as near to the top of the page as possible. Save your most interesting thing for the very first line.

  • Start with action. Again, this doesn’t have to be in-your-face action. It’s not necessary to start every story with a gunfight. But your protagonist should be in there and doing something. Don’t let it be an info dump of backstory or the character ruminating on how they’re feeling right now. And don’t spend your first page describing the room. Doing, whatever it is, is far more engaging.

  • Avoid a lot of dialogue. Dialogue is for when you have established who the characters are and where they are. If all you have is people talking, it doesn’t matter how dramatic it sounds without context – you risk creating the white room effect. Two ambiguous heads, floating in nothing will turn your readers off (unless they are genuinely supposed to be floating heads – now there’s a hook!)

Establish the basics

I was going to write this as one rule, but there’s too much to write. So, this series of rules concerns all of the things that will accompany the reader throughout the story – voice, character, the central conflict, the question the story will answer, the rules of the world, tone and pace, and probably some other things.

  • Show us the protagonist. The reader is going to be spending a whole story with this character and first impressions are important. Show them who the character is from the get-go.

    This means starting with a well-defined character voice – know the way they speak and think, the way they move, their attitude to the situation they find themselves in. That’s why doing a character profile beforehand can let you hit the ground running. It’s also partly why beginnings are rewritten once the rest of the story has been completed. A lot of the time you don’t nail the character voice until you’ve spent some time with them as the writer.

    But knowing the character is only half the story. Now you have to show the character to the reader in the introduction. What’s best at showing? Action. See the earlier rule.

  • Know the central question your story will ask. This has come up before, but a personal favourite tip is to have your story answer one single question, which summarises your character’s goal and what they have to overcome. Once you know that question (and you might not until you have already written your first draft), pose it in the beginning of your story. You don’t have to be blatant, but having it there sets up expectations.

  • Show the central conflict. Do this either through engaging and establishing the central conflict itself, or by showing echoes of it. When the farm boy’s small village gets trampled by the forces of darkness, that’s a microcosm of the larger-scale conflict, and sets up the eventual David and Goliath end game. That’s one way to do it.

  • The rules of the world. Your readers need to know what the score is, no matter what the world of your story. You may think your world is familiar, but even something as simple as sci-fi means different things to different people – magic gravity in a small fighter? Sound in space?

    And we may not be talking about those hard and fast physics rules either – it might be the rules of a family or work dynamic for example.

As before there are some useful links to go with this, so I’ve listed them below. I sincerely hope you check them out because there are some great tips there that I haven’t covered (because the focus of their article is slightly different from mine or whatever).

  • Writing World – Dynamic Beginnings: Getting Your Story Off to a Great Start
  • Writing Room – How to start your story
  • Karen Woodward – A Writing Taboo: Never Begin Your Story With Weather
  • Fevered Mutterings – 10 Ways To Start A Story
  • Writer’s Digest – 10 Ways To Start Your Story Better
  • And you might want to try out New Beginnings – A List Of Story Starters on this very blog.

Over to you:
As always comments are actively encouraged! I’d love to know your tips on beginning stories, or if you’ve found a particularly useful technique during your writing journey. Hit me! Go on, I want you to do it. HIT ME!

  • Craig

    There, I hit you. Happy now?

    Back on Topic…

    I usually try to avoid having overly gimmicky openings. I have read too many books where the opening line is written purely to be a hook, it comes off as either desperate or pretentious. It also depends on whether its an author you’re familiar with. Sometimes I quite like a slow burning opening (Something Michael Marshall is very good at)

    I discussed this in a post a few weeks back, but I have become awfully fond of the cold open. As I’m sure you know, I will often write my prologue without including the main character (the prologue is kind of a get out of jail free card, isn’t it?). It allows you the chance to introduce you to the world of the book, perhaps even introducing the turn of events that set things in motion, to show how the universe is conspiring against your protagonist.

    I cant remember now, but it may have been back at university, wasn’t one of the hints to kick start your story to write your opening chapter, then cut the first half of it? Part of the whole ‘starting late’ thing, dropping you right into the action.

    • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

      Yeah, the rest of your opening, and indeed the whole story, has to deliver on that initial hook. Otherwise the reader feels cheated.

      That post that mentioned cold opens is here:

      Actually that Walking Dead Series 3 opener is a perfect example of a cold open. It includes action, sure, but it’s just there to set the scene and to pique your interest. That opening doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the episode.

      • Craig

        I’ve got another one! Start with an ending. Not with THE ending, obviously. How tired and cliched is it that the majority of the story is told in flashback? Also, it doesn’t work for all stories, or genres for that matter, but if you start your tale with the ending, or rather conclusion of a previous ‘episode’, then it can do a number of things.

        It of course places the reader in a position where they’re playing catch-up, it places your character into the middle of the action, and allows you to see how they behave and react, but more importantly, it allows the reader to feel like the character has a life and existence beyond what is just in the book that they’re reading. That was another of the failures I feel (in my next post), in that all of the characters might as well have appeared out of the aether as soon as they appeared on the page. They had no sense of background.

        I’m not saying that you have to write, like, half a book to introduce them, but having the characters in the middle of something, or concluding something, can add them instant dimension, that you don’t need to spend time building in the main narrative.