Story starting guide
Every journey in every book starts with a single sentence and whether people decide to set upon this journey is often determined by this single sentence. Writing stories is tricky, writing a sentence that'll captivate your audience is even trickier, but hopefully this guide will help you with that process.
Of course there's more to a book and its beginning than just that first sentence and much of what I'll go through in this guide will apply to not only the first sentence, but the first paragraph, the first page and to some degrees even the first chapter. These first steps are the most important ones, they're the first impression you give your audience and first impressions are incredibly important, especially when it comes to books. A negative impression will generally cause you to lose the attention of your audience and they'll likely seek something else instead of continuing with your story.
Don't worry too much though, a first sentence can come in many different shapes, forms and sizes and there's plenty to play around with. So you won't have to follow strict guidelines or other similar kinds of rules to be able to captivate your audience with the first few words you write.
Everything in a story should have a purpose, so why would the first sentence or the first paragraph be any different? The obvious purpose of a first sentence is to captivate your audience, as mentioned before, but this isn't its only purpose. A first sentence, like any sentence, should contribute to the story, propel it forward and add information the reader needs to know at that particular time. But let's delve deeper into the different elements you'll probably want to keep in mind when writing that first sentence.
Hook the reader
Let's first look at the main purpose of that very first sentence and, to some extend, the entire first chapter. These first steps will determine whether a reader will want to continue reading your story, so you better make sure this part captures the interest of your audience. But how? By creating tension, intrigue and/or by getting the reader to be curious behind what might happen next. Sounds simple enough, right?
There's a little more to it than simply catching the attention of the reader, you have to make sure you capture it in the right way. This usually means you can follow up on what the opening of your story promises the reader. If your first sentence is "Every single day I'm forced to pass that wretched dragon skull and every single day I'm reminded of the terrors we'll soon face again." you better make sure that dragon skull is related to the terror this character has to face and not just a 'cool' looking set piece to try and capture the attention of the reader. This example is a little exaggerated, but it helps get the point across. One quick way of losing any attention you may have captured is by disappointing the reader when the first sentence or paragraph promises something the rest of the story doesn't deliver upon.
Set the scene
Another purpose of your first sentence is to set the scene. This doesn't have to be taken literally, it could merely be the state of mind of a character, a universal truth within your story universe or a mood. If your story is set in a fictional universe that differs from ours you could start by pointing out this difference. If your story revolves around a question (or a universal truth) you could start by simply stating it. If your story is about two different worlds within the same universe you could start out by pointing out a major difference. All of this is exactly what some great writers have done, as shown in the following 3 examples:
1. "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." This is the first sentence from 1984 by George Orwell. The stage is set immediately. It's a seemingly regular day in April, it's a cold day at that, but somehow the clocks are able to strike thirteen times instead of twelve. Something's up and I'm sure you want to know what, assuming you haven't already read this book of course.
2. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." The first sentence from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This simple 'truth' immediately sets the tone of what the entire story will revolve around and whether you agree with it or not is irrelevant. The only that that's relevant here is that it captures your attention and does so with the promise of giving you a story that will delve into this supposed truth.
3. "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense." The first sentences of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling. Not only do these sentences perfectly capture the Dursleys, they also manage to setup a contrast between what they perceive as normal and whatever they may perceive as strange and mysterious. Plus you can bet just by these few sentences that they will definitely be involved with 'such nonsense'. It's another promise to the reader.
Something that last example did is set a voice, which is a powerful tool. A voice is the way your characters speak and the way everybody in your universe might speak. The tone of voice, their vocabulary, the way they phrase their words. Whenever you delve into a story you want it to be about people you find interesting. The way they speak can convey how interesting they are, at least to the reader and thus the very first sentence they speak could be a make or break kind of sentence, especially if it's spoken by the main character. "I've never liked my brother, I hope he disappears." isn't a particular great opening sentence. Sure, you might wonder 'Why don't you like your brother?', but plenty of people dislike their brother. So let's use some language the character might use. "I can't stand my stupid, big headed, bossy, know it all brother! I can't wait until he's gone!" Can you picture a young sibling stomping up the stairs complaining about their older brother? Something says this sibling might get that wish fulfilled.
Or "My brother was, is and always will be a thorn in my eye and I'd be better off if I got rid of him.". Many characters could say this, but it's probably said by an older person. It also begs the question 'Well, why are you keeping him around then?' and immediately adds mystery to the opening.
Using voice in your first sentence or paragraph allows you to introduce a character, probably the main character, in such a way that your audience will be left with a first impression that'll last throughout the rest of your story. A good first impression of any character is always important, but combine that with a first impression of your story and you could set yourself up for a very powerful beginning.
Ground the reader
Finally, the one thing you should definitely keep into consideration is how well your first few sentences ground the reader in a specific setting. A reader should have a pretty good idea of where and when the scene, and thus in all likelihood the entire story, is taking place after reading the first paragraph or so. If your reader struggles with answering the most basic questions based on what you wrote you will likely lose that reader. Let's illustrate this further by expanding upon the dragon skull example of earlier.
Every single day I'm forced to pass that wretched dragon skull and every single day I'm reminded of the terrors we'll soon face again. The kind of terrors that cause you to wake up screaming in the middle of the night. Blood curdling, spine chilling terrors that make you wish that even within your nightmares you could go to sleep just for that sliver of hope that you'll be able to wake up and escape it all. But you can't. There is no escape, not for us. How could we possibly stand a chance against those beasts? Gargantuan, winged behemoths with the power to rain fire from the sky and mouths so humongous they could swallow you and your entire family whole with a single bite.
No, our lives are over. Farmers, craftsmen, traders and wives, none of us know how to wield a sword and those who do will soon leave us for the city. King's orders. "In the name of the King, Brandon Ramsay Harding the Third, all capable fighters are to report to the royal palace. Further instructions will await you there.". Pompous coward.
While not perfect this little excerpt does provide you with much needed information to ground you as the reader. You know dragons attacked years ago and will apparently return soon enough. You know the people still wield swords, so the setting is likely medieval in some shape or form. The voice is a character probably living in a village and the king has summoned all the capable fighters to his royal palace, probably as a means to defend himself based on the 'pompous coward' comment.
If I didn't mention swords (or any specific weapons) and left out specifics about who lived in the village this opening could be taking place anywhere. A grim future, the time of cave men or even today.
The point is to drop little crumbs of information to help the reader know where the story is taking place, but you have to do so in a manner that doesn't come across as exposition for the sake of exposition. This is really tricky and will take some practice, but just as your entire story goes through several drafts so too does your opening, so don't obsess over the opening too much.
How to do it
As mentioned at the start there are many different ways to open your book and there's no single perfect type for all books. So don't consider all of the following to be a must follow as that'd be impossible. Some elements are more important than others though and I'll start with those first, but keep the others in mind as well and in doing so try to find a method that fits both you, your writing style and your story best and you'll be on your way to a great opening in no time.
Don't start too early
Now this is definitely something you do need to keep in mind. Starting your story too early can lead to a really dull start in which only the mundane happens and the mundane is not interesting to a reader whatsoever. Sure, some of the mundane things we do define us as characters and the same goes for our fictional characters, but those traits are best sprinkled in later and more often than not best in small doses. Let's head back to that dragon opening from earlier. I could make the story start with a regular day in which the character passes that dragon skull on her way to her job as a blacksmith apprentice, write all sorts of character exposition like how she's great with the swords she helps create, how she dislikes living in this tiny village and so on. However, this'd make for a boring opening and these details can be given at much more suitable times.
So instead I'd start the story at the date all the capable fighters of her village have to leave and this means some of those she loves will have to leave too. I might make her notice some of the swords the people are wielding to indicate she knows her stuff. I might make her vocalize a wish she could go with them to indicate her desire to leave the village all the while the story is taking place at an emotional moment and at a time where everything is pretty much being set up for the rest of the story.
Don't start too far ahead
By not starting too far ahead I don't just mean don't start after crucial scenes, but more importantly I mean you shouldn't start too far ahead of your reader. A reader requires some time to get the hang of your story universe, so to speak. So do not give your reader too many or too little details, especially details that will only make sense later once the reader has read and thus learned more of your story. For example:
"It took no more than a single glance to cause the destruction of an entire row of houses and all the men to tremble in fear. Such immense power and nobody there to challenge it. The world was up for the taking and he was ready to take it. Soon everybody would either obey his command or die if they dared stand in his way." What's going on here exactly? Does this character have some kind of laser eyes? Does this character have such strong authority or just pure intimidation skills that a mere glance can cause others to destroy a row of houses just to avoid the wrath of this character? We need a little more information here and we need it soon or things will become very confusing very quickly.
Alternatively, giving too much details could look something like this:
"With a single glance he commanded every rock of every house to obey him, their energy was now his to control and control them he did. All that energy was directed downwards and within seconds an entire row of houses collapsed. Not even the Silver Wolves, an elite force with similar, but far less powerful powers, could stop him. All they could do was watch as their homes tumbled before their very eyes. Half the town of Mornwood gone within seconds and all because of one man.
It had taken him years of training in the mountains of Whitcrest and the marshes of Dunmire, countless sacrifices of blood and life and inhuman amounts of dedication to garner this power, but he had done it and now there was nobody to stop him. I doubt even the heralds of light with their infinite wisdom and incredible strength could stop him."
There's far too much detail in this excerpt. There's a whole lot of names, various bits of exposition and just an overall large amount of information that could all easily be given later without taking away from the story. In fact, giving them later would only add to the flow of the story and help make sure the reader stays interested.
An example of giving just enough detail could look something along the lines of:
"With a single glance he commanded every single rock of every single home to obey his command and he commanded them to fall, so fall they did. An entire row of houses gone within seconds, enough to make even the bravest of men tremble in fear and it was all they could do to keep themselves from fleeing or collapsing to the floor like their homes had done before their very eyes. How could one person possess such power? How could one person be virtually unstoppable? It had taken him years of training, immense sacrifices and inhuman amounts of dedication, but he had done it."
We're shown that some kind of supernatural power is at play and it is one that clearly isn't normal within this world. We know one person is responsible for the destruction of an entire row of houses and nobody could stop him and we know that since he's unstoppable he likely is aiming for something huge. But we're not bombarded with how those powers work exactly, how much and what kind of training it took, what lead up to this moment, all sorts of names and so on. Those details can and will be given later, once the reader is ready.
More of too much
Giving too much detail can also come in the form of merely describing everything in too much detail. While this isn't a problem unique to first sentences or paragraphs, it is worth mentioning either way. If you introduce a character at the start of your novel (or anywhere else for that matter) don't describe that character with the entire thesaurus. Something like "Her eyes were the color of sapphires glimmering in the evening sun and silky strands of golden blonde hair dangled playfully above her shoulders." and so on and so on. These kind of sentences often tend to bore the reader as they're completely irrelevant to the story. They can work well at the right time, like when a character spots their crush, but when done for every character and every description of every scene it gets old real quick.
These kinds of details often don't tell you anything about the character either, besides what they look like of course. A description works far better if you can intertwine it with the personality of the character and perhaps with how that character is perceived by whichever character is the point of view character at that time. So taking the previous description you could end up with something like: "I hated those piercing blue eyes of her. A single glance was enough for her to determine who you were as a person and of what use you were to her." The fact she has blonde hair is irrelevant at this point and may or may not come up later. Even the fact she has blue eyes could be irrelevant, but adding that works well here and arguably sounds better than simply "those piercing eyes of her.".
We're now slowly delving into the points that aren't as strict or important as the previous two, but they're still worth taking into consideration. Dialogue and the amount you give at the start is one of those points. Starting of with a lot of dialogue, especially story rich dialogue can be a quick way to lose a reader. Dialogue's often full of exposition, which means it's often full of details and, like we saw in the previous point, details can be a mess.
Also note that dialogue and voice aren't the same. Dialogue is what is spoken, but voice could be used while describing things, like in the Harry Potter opening example.
That doesn't mean dialogue should be avoided all together. Dialogue can still be a means of getting to know a character and to setup the story, but try to avoid making it too heavy. Of course, don't compromise on your characters either. If one character would say something one way don't make him say it another for the convenience of your reader, it just means this part may be best left for later.
Alternatively you could have a whole lot of dialogue in the form of discovery. If your reader discovers everything alongside a few other characters you'll be able to let the reader discover the characters, the setting and other bits of exposition without having to immediately give a whole range of details the reader might not be ready for. Sticking to the dragon example of earlier it could translate into something along the lines of two or so characters discovering dragons may be on their way to the village. I could still add all the elements I added earlier, minus the main character most likely, by making the two characters mention them in ways that are natural. So after stripping down everything down to just dialogue and to paraphrase everything a little to keep things short you could end up with something along the lines of this:
"Look! Up there, just to the right of the mountain summit."
"Are those what I think they are?"
"Dragons, two of them. They're back."
"By the five divines, it can't be. We have to go back, we must warn the village."
"Warn the village? And then what? Throw rocks at those beasts? All the fighters are leaving and so should we. I say we flee, right now, while we still have a chance."
We have most of the same exposition we had in the previous example. Fighters are going away, dragons are returning and the village is in danger. But we've also introduced two characters who may be important and we got to play with dialogue without using too many details.
Having said that, the risk you take with using dialogue is that you may end up merely telling your reader what happens or happened, rather than showing the reader. In the previous dialogue example I could have the characters explain why the fighters are leaving though clunky dialogue, have one remind the other that it was the king's orders that causes the fighters to leave, not cowardice and so on. But instead I could just show the fighters leave reluctantly and with heavy hearts. It makes for a far more emotionally loaded scene and it'll allow me to focus on the characters that actually matter.
A great way of catching the attention of your reader in your opening is by using humor. It could be the most powerful opening in fact, but only if it fits of course. Whether it fits or not doesn't depend on whether the story is a comedy or not, the story could be the darkest of stories and still work great with a humorous opening. The contrast between the joke and the setting could provide a powerful image and it may even be in the nature of a character. But humorous openings do tend to be easier to work into more humorous or otherwise lighter stories.
Two famous examples of humorous openings are as follows:
"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.". This is the opening to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adam. Not only is it funny, it immediately sets the tone and it also grounds the reader in a setting. Our entire planet may seem like too broad of a setting, but when you're reading a story about the Galaxy it definitely isn't.
"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.". The opening to The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. The opening is fun, quirky and accentuates the nature of hobbits, especially considering you likely didn't know about them yet at the time this book was published.
Mystery and intrigue
Another great way of catching the attention of your reader is by starting of with something mysterious. This doesn't have to be a literal mystery like a murder, it could be something as simple as a question the (main) character might be asking, a question that makes the reader go 'Huh, I wonder.' and thus makes the reader keep on reading. I'll delve into this more with some examples, as follows:
"Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu." The first sentence of Waiting by Ha Jin. Of all the sentences that make you go 'Hold on, what?', this one is definitely up there. There's no way that sentence doesn't make you curious about how, what and why this all occurs. I'm sure some of you are curious enough right now to look up this book. What more could you expect from a first sentence than that?
"It was the day my grandmother exploded." The first sentence of The Crow Road by Iain Banks. I'm not sure whether to laugh or be concerned, but I definitely want to know how that grandmother exploded. It may be a literal explosion or a figurative explosion of anger, but it definitely catches your attention and makes you wonder.
Of course, if you're going to start with a mystery do make sure it's easy enough to follow for somebody just starting your story. If you're going for a murder mystery you don't want to involve all the witnesses, several different officers and the main character straight away, that'd be really difficult to follow. Ease into it, tempt the reader with bits of mystery and gradually build upon them.
Prologue: Yay or nay?
Plenty of stories start with a prologue, but is this something you should definitely do or perhaps something you should avoid? In most cases it's something you best avoid. Prologues are usually used to give some form of backstory or other important information to the reader in a part that is mostly separate from the main story line. To many it comes across as lazy and, judging by what I've seen online, many agents seem to hate prologues, so they could hurt your chances of being published if that is your aim.
Most people far prefer to be put right into the story and a prologue tends to accomplish the exact opposite. During the prologue you tend to meet characters that are most likely (mostly) irrelevant to the rest of the story, so you don't really care about them. You learn information that could easily be given at later moments and often in far smoother ways and you pretty much spend the first part of the novel following something that'll end soon enough, only to start back somewhere else and gradually make your way back to the events of the prologue.
This doesn't mean all prologues are bad and some of the most highly praised novels have started with prologues, but if you can avoid starting with a prologue definitely do so.
Practice makes perfect
I've covered quite a lot in this guide and hopefully you've got a good idea of where to start (pun totally intended), but remember that writing that perfect first sentence isn't something you can force. Simply begin writing and go back once in a while to see if the first sentence is still as good as it seemed or, if you consider it to be a bad first sentence, see if you've found a better one after having written more of your story.
Having said that there's always more you can do to find that first sentence. Write a whole bunch of them and compare them. See which you like best and keep improving from there. Show them to others, see what they think and use their feedback to improve again.
There are plenty of lists online with the 'best first sentences of all time' and similar tag lines that could not only help you with inspiration, but also help you with showing all the various ways a novel could start and, trust me, there are countless ways to do so.
Finding the perfect opening for your story is tricky, but so is writing the rest of it. Just remember this fact and don't get too focused on making sure every detail is perfect right away. Stories go through several drafts for a reason, so move on once in a while and come back at a later point in time. You'll probably find the start becomes easier to improve once you've worked on the rest of your story as well and if not, ask for help. There's always somebody willing to help online, including me.