To ‘start with a bang’ may be a clichéd metaphor. Yet understanding how to start a story off with the kind of anticipation that accompanies a starting gun will help to hook your reader. Read 6 ideas and examples:
How to start off a story:
- Start with a loaded prologue
- Begin with dramatic mystery
- Leap into momentous change
- Start with dynamic connection
- Jump into an emotional situation
- Begin with bold voices
Start with a loaded prologue
Like the raising of a starting gun before a sprint, a prologue could create a sense of imminent excitement.
Use prologues to build your readers’ anticipation for what’s to come.
Example of a bold prologue: Colum McCann’s Dancer
The Irish author Colum McCann begins his novel based on the life of iconic ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev with a prologue about the objects thrown onto the dancer’s stage mid-performance:
What was flung onstage during his first season in Paris:
ten one-hundred franc bills held together with an elastic band;Column McCann, Dancer (2003), p. 3.
a packet of Russian tea;
a manifesto from the Front de Libération National representing the Algerian nationalist movement, protesting the curfew imposed on Muslims after a series of car bombs in Paris; […]
As a story beginning, this is effective because the reader immediately sees:
- Context: The reader already has a good idea of ‘where’ and ‘when’ the story takes place, and that the story involves a performer
- Drama and event: There is immediate, exciting implied action. ‘What was flung onstage during his first season’ are brilliant starting words, implying movement, performance, and impact
The above example shows how a single, two-page prologue can supply setting, context, background, initial drama and more.
Begin with dramatic mystery
When we’ve sat down to watch an Olympic race, we know what a gunshot means. Yet what about a gunshot in an ordinary (sub)urban setting?
Mystery is the lifeblood of stories. When we start a story asking ‘why’, ‘what’, or ‘where’ (and the motivation to find an answer is urgent), the story’s has a compelling start.
Often (in crime or murder mystery novels in particular), ‘mystery’ implies dark conflict. A murderer’s hidden identity, for example. Yet even a gentler mystery may have an urgent and even dramatic quality. For example, a boy’s search for his father:
How to start a story off with mystery: Number9dream
David Mitchell begins his surreal coming-of-age meets detective story with a boy’s search for his father in Tokyo:
‘It is a simple matter. I know your name, and you knew mine, once upon a time: Eiji Miyake. Yes, that Eiji Miyake. We are both busy people, Ms Katō, so why not cut the small talk? I am in Tokyo to find my father. You know his name and you know his address. And you are going to give me both. Right now.’David Mitchell, number9dream (2001), p. 3.
There is a propulsive sense of urgency to Eiji’s demand.
In addition to this dramatic quality, the opening raises multiple intriguing mysteries:
- Why did Ms Katō used to know Eiji’s name – why no longer?
- Why does Eiji need his father’s name (and address)? Are they estranged or has he never met him?
- How will Ms Katō respond to Eiji’s demand?
David Mitchell manages to pack several mysteries into one short opening paragraph. This hooks us in.
Leap into momentous change
Many first paragraphs are masterclasses in how to start a story off with change. So much can change in the first pages of a book or short story:
- A character’s location (e.g. the missionary Price family in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible moving to the Congo)
- A person’s mind, feelings, status, belief or other previously static attribute
- A physical state or condition (for example Gregor’s transformation into a ‘monstrous vermin’ in Kafka’s Metamorphosis)
- The qualities of a place, society, or political system: For example, a sudden change in the power structures, security, peace, stability of a kingdom
One way to identify a significant change that could start your story is to examine your story idea:
Ask what is:
- Certain/fixed in this situation? (for the example above, the Price family all being confined together in their new, far-from-home location)
- Uncertain/volatile (and thus open to change). For example, the Price family’s existing dynamics, mission, etc.
How to start a story off with change: All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel about World War Two begins with a significant change: an evacuation order being air-dropped to Paris:
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.Anthony Doerr, All the Light we Cannot See (2014), p. 3.
A stark change such as this creates immediate interest. We wonder (and, with impending character attachments, will soon worry) who will get out, and who won’t.
Start with dynamic connection
When we discuss how to start a story off with a bang, it’s easy to focus on conflict.
Conflict isn’t the only propelling force, though. Stories are as much about connection. Connecting incident to incident, and person to person. The magnetic snap of one character’s eyes meeting another’s on a crowded platform.
How to start a story with connection: The Hungry Tide
Amitav Ghosh begins his novel The Hungry Tide with a Delhi businessman, Kanai Dutt, being drawn to an enigmatic Indian-American girl on a train platform:
Kanai spotted her the moment he stepped onto the crowded platform: he was deceived neither by her close-cropped black hair, nor by her clothes, which were those of a teenage boy – loose cotton pants and an oversized white shirt.Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide (2004), p. 3.
Ghosh continues to build Kanai’s (and the reader’s) intrigue about the girl, as Kanai notes:
… the neatly composed androgyny of her appearance seemed out of place, almost exotic.Ghosh, p.3.
Why would a foreigner, a young woman, be standing in a south Kolkata commuter station, waiting for the train to Canning?
Ghosh effectively builds intrigue. He starts his story off with an instant magnetic attraction between a local and an ‘outsider’. This leads to a simple yet intriguing question regarding the foreigner’s purpose.
Jump into an emotional situation
A dramatic starting situation for a story, such as a breakup, has many moving parts. In the case of a breakup, warning signs and red flags. Deception of self or other. Texts and calls, or silent treatment. The arrivals and departures.
Within all these moments are countless inciting incidents to imagine and explore:
Starting with emotional situations: The Snow Queen
Michael Cunningham begins his novel The Snow Queen with a character being moved by a mysterious light in the sky in the midst of a breakup:
A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love. It was by no means his first romantic dropkick, but it was the first to have been conveyed by way of a five-line text, the fifth line of which was a crushingly corporate wish for good luck in the future, followed by three lowercase xxx’s.Michael Cunningham, The Snow Queen (2014), p. 3.
Cunningham begins his novel with the banal way only a modern-day romance can end – a breakup via text message.
The emotional character of the situation gives us an immediate sense of Barrett’s feelings, his state of mind.
Begin with bold voice
The explosive force starting a story need not be a gun going off. Or even a rare or dramatic event. It could simply be your reader alone with a compelling voice (or place) on the page. Think of Holden Caulfield’s angry, sarcastic opening lines in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap…J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (1951), p. 5
If you want to introduce your reader to your narrating character’s persona from the first paragraph, ask:
- What is my narrator’s emotional or mental state? Are they angry, jovial, sly, witty, pompous, excited, apprehensive?
- What is their world and outlook like? For example, in Holden’s opening narration, we get the sense he doesn’t rate fictional autobiography like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield or his ‘lousy childhood’ very highly
Writing exercise: Starting stories with bold voices
- Choose an emotion from this list: excitement, anger, fear, jealousy, love, compassion, amusement.
- Pick a random character interest. Pick up a book and flip to a random page and write down the first word your finger lands on (repeat this if you don’t find a word that works for you (example word found in The Hungry Tide: ‘Dust’).
- Try to write a paragraph from a character’s POV who is feeling the emotion you chose in step one. Include either: a) An interesting anecdote about something that happened to them involving the word in step 2, or b) an association they have with that thing/object.
We were getting ready to go out this morning when there was an unexpected knock at the door. M swept into the hallway with her usual pomp, in a lurid magenta pantsuit. I could practically hear my mother grinding her teeth as she did her best to simper a sweet, “Hi, Meredith, nice of you to drop in.”
Her mother-in-law said nothing, running a finger over a writing bureau like she was Inspector Clueso instead. She inspected her finger for dust with a shocked face.
“You might have cleaned before I came…”
Seeing mom’s murderous face behind Merde-rith’s back (as we privately called her), I wrestled down a fit of laughter.
Share the result of your exercise in the comments section below. Then start a story with easy steps to develop it and extra help in the Now Novel dashboard.