How to start a story in first person: 8 pointers

How to start a story in first person: 8 pointers

How to start a story in first person | Now Novel

There is no single ‘right’ approach to how to start a story in first person. That being said, there are several ways to start a story using first person point of view and hook readers from the start. Here are 8 pointers for beginning a book in first person:

1: Perfect your character introductions: Make the reader care

2: How to start a story in first person: Begin with revealing actions

3: Don’t tell the reader everything at once

4: Make your protagonist’s voice identifiable from the start

5: Make your protagonist’s voice active

6: Make your main character confide in the reader

7: Eliminate filter words and let the reader see through your protagonist’s eyes

8: Introduce secondary characters via your first person narrator early on

To expand on these pointers:

1: Perfect your character introduction: Make the reader care

Many novels now considered classics open with character introductions in first person. This type of opening, where the protagonist extends a friendly hand to the reader, can be very effective. Consider the opening of Dickens’ David Copperfield:

‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.’

As far as introductions go, this is very matter-of-fact. Dickens doesn’t create a particularly strong emotional connection with the character right away. What Dickens does do, though, is create intrigue in the reader about David. We want to know whether he turns out to be the hero he refers to or not.

In subsequent paragraphs, Dickens adds details that make us care about his main character more:

‘I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were—almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes—bolted and locked against it.’

Dickens makes us want to know the outcome of the story, then proceeds to make us empathize with his narrator through his story of loss.

Making the reader care doesn’t necessarily mean making the reader feel sorry for your character: Readers can just as easily dislike your cunning anti-hero or feel in two minds. The most important thing is to make readers care, whether about your character or the outcome of a situation they announce.

Besides making the reader care, there are other ways to make your first-person story opening enticing:

2: How to start a story in first person: Begin with revealing actions

Beginning with character actions is another useful device for drawing the reader in immediately. Instead of your character describing a memory or past experience, begin with your character doing something.

Think about the type of action your story opens with. To create immediate interest, try actions that:

  • Create suspense or foreboding (E.g. ‘I lift the body as carefully as I can – no inexplicable bruises – and move slowly towards the edge of the boat.’)
  • Create empathetic curiosity (E.g. ‘I hold it together until the last person passes through the airport terminal and break down only once i’m in the relative privacy of the car park.’)

Showing your main character in either a state of high emotion or in a process of perplexing activity teases the reader with a sense of there being much more to the story and promises the reader that more will be revealed.

3: Don’t tell the reader everything at once

Part of what makes the example openings above fairly effective is how little they give away about the first person narrator’s circumstances. For the first, the reader might ask ‘Whose body?’ or ‘Is the protagonist a killer disposing of the body or is the situation more complicated?’

This is an important element of how to start a story in first person: Leave some of the most interesting tidbits about your character for later. When we meet someone for the first time, it’s overwhelming if they tell us every minute detail about themselves. The same goes for your characters – a little mystery keeps us wanting to find out more.

How to start a first person story - infographic | Now Novel
Pin or save this image for a reminder of ways to make your first person opening strong.

4: Make your character’s voice identifiable from the start

Many writers make the mistake of making their first person narrators’ voices too similar to their own. Characters that feel like stand-ins for the author feel flat and one-dimensional. Instead, make your character distinctive from the outset. Do this with:

  • Personality: Is your character mostly optimistic or negative? Poetic in the language they use or plain-speaking?
  • Language: Does your character use lots of expletives or not? are they wordy or do they get to the point quickly?

Some other methods for making your first person narrator’s voice distinctive:

  • Choose 4 or 5 words that your character likes to use and make a note of them. They could be adjectives they use most often for things they like or dislike (e.g. ‘fantastic’ or ‘weird’), for example
  • As Jackie Cangro at Loft Literary reminds, it’s useful to think about tone. What is the tone of your character’s self-expression like overall? Do they come across as comical or serious, anxious or mellow? Sarcastic or sincere?

5: Make your protagonist’s voice active

Compare passive voice and active voice:

‘I was led to the hilltop house and told by my guide to wait while he disappeared around the side.’

Compare this to:

‘I followed my guide to the hilltop house. “Wait,” he said, disappearing around the side.’

In the second, active voice example, we have more of a sense of the first person narrator acting in his world as opposed to just being moved around in it. We have a stronger sense of the character as a real person who has choices and can make decisions of his own free will. We see the experience from his immediate perspective.

6: Have your first person character confide in the reader

One way to start a book in first person effectively is to make your narrator take the reader into her confidence. Secrets and intimate revelations create curiosity. As readers, being let into the narrator’s confidence makes us feel party to (and even complicit in) something important. Whether your narrator confides a misdeed in the reader or shares an intimate fact about their history (like David does in the opening pages of David Copperfield), this act makes the reader invest in the story by making the reader feel privy to privileged information.

7: Eliminate filter words and let the reader see through your protagonist’s eyes

Filter words are words that place the reader at one remove to seeing and experiencing what the character is seeing and experiencing. For example, a character might say ‘I saw that the building had started to collapse’. Instead, however, you could simply make your first person narrator say ‘the building had started to collapse’.

Ruthanne Reid has an excellent piece on filter words over at The Write Practice. Says Reid:

‘Filter words can be difficult to see at first, but once you catch them, it becomes second nature. “I heard the music start up, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music started up, tinny and spooky and weird.” One is outside, watching him listen; the other is inside his head, hearing it with him.

“I saw the dog, brown and shaggy.” You’re watching the character see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy.” Now you’re seeing what the character sees, and there is no space between you and the character.’

Reid does also make the important point that filter words aren’t always bad. Reid’s example of an acceptable use is the sentence ‘I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don’t see the scissors’. This is describing the act of seeing explicitly – you could write ‘The shelves are there and the counter but not the scissors’, but the former question conveys the character’s frustration at not finding what she’s looking for better. There is a keener sense of the character’s eyes roving over the counter.

Make sure that you aren’t unintentionally placing your reader at one remove to your first person character’s observations and experiences, right from the start of your novel.

8: Introduce secondary characters via your first person narrator early on

Just because you’re starting your story with your main character’s first person perspective doesn’t mean the focus has to be on them alone. Create intrigue by having your protagonist refer to a secondary character in your opening. Having your main character mention a cast member of your novel who is yet to appear will keep readers anticipating developments in your story and new entrances and exits.

Create a blueprint for your novel so you can find the voice of your first person narrator easier. Use the Now Novel process to start or finish writing a book.

28 Replies to “How to start a story in first person: 8 pointers”

  1. Hi, I am currently making a story on how my character is destined to become a murderer. She doesn’t find out till a certain age. Its a fantasy story. I just have no idea how to start it. Do I start from the top and give action and rise down to the beginning? I have no inspiration at all. Everything I come up with seems so basic or embarrassing. I’m not sure how to go on about this. I want it to be like a hook. Its for school and I really wanna impress my teacher with the story. I just don’t know how to professionally start it. Thank You.

    1. Hi Eunice, thank you for sharing that. I would suggest going back to that first premise and asking:

      • Why is the protagonist destined to become a murderer?
      • How does fantasy/magic come into the protagonist’s life/world? Are they magical themselves? Is their destiny to become a murderer related to magic in any way (for example, is it a curse that has to be lifted or something else?)
      • What kind of start would introduce interesting mystery that connects to the above ideas? For example, maybe the reader sees the consultation with the prophet who reveals the destiny, but we don’t fully understand the destiny yet. Or else we start with the period of innocence before the character finds out about their darker destiny
      • I hope this has given you some ideas. Please feel free to ask any questions in our online writing groups, you’ll find people helpful in chat.

  2. I’m considering first person for my next story, my first attempt at it, and keep reading that you shouldn’t change tense. What are some opinions on it, where the first few lines or scene are in first person present then switch indefinitely to first person past tense? An example I’m thinking of is interview with a vampire. He starts with the boy then tells his story. My story I want to hook the reader with the present then tell how the protagonist got to that point. Thank you.

    1. Hi Tony, great question. Changing tense is fine provided that the two distinct time-frames are clear. ‘Tense drift’ is different in that it occurs when one changes grammatical tense while describing events occurring within the same time-frame (e.g. ‘I went to the store where I will want to buy milk’). As the example shows, it leaves the reader wondering where (or rather when) on earth they are.

      Say, for example, you had a prologue in first person and then chapter 1 began with the same narrator in past tense, you could make the distinction between time periods very clear with a chapter subheading giving setting time elements. For example:

      Budapest, 1895
      I hurry down the cobbled side-street…

      Budapest, 1920
      Let me tell you first what I found out about…

      As for changing tense in the middle of a scene, it’s quite natural if someone is remembering earlier events, e.g.:

      ‘I hurry down the cobbled side street when I see an old building that takes me back to 1895.

      I had just moved to the town…’.

      If the rest of the story stays in this past tense, the reader might well wonder why the presently unfolding ‘later’ time of the first present-tense narration was necessary; why they need to know about it at all (if there are no significant revelations within this present-time). I hope this helps!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Shares
Share This