Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Start with a bang!

How to get your story off to a great start

If you’re struggling to find a great beginning to your story or novel for the Rosa writing contest, you know how important those opening lines and paragraphs are to your story. Right from the start of the story, you have to capture the reader’s attention and imagination. From the first few words, you know you have to give them an idea of what the story is going to be about, or create a scene or situation that’s so intriguing they will carry on reading. 

One way to help you along is to study just the first few paragraphs of the novels on your bookshelf or Kindle. You’ll notice that there are only so many ways to start a book. Below are some tips and examples of the most popular starting points in a story. Maybe they will help you get your entry off to a winning start.

Start with character’s goal
Kayla De Beer had less than twenty four-hours to find a husband and time was running out. If she didn’t find someone to marry her fast, she thought, she’d be out of her uncle’s inheritance and a chance to save her mother’s company.

Start with physical action
Tamara bolted between the brushed chrome doors just before they slid closed, clutching her portfolio to her chest, ignoring the loud beating of her heart and the curious stares of the middle-aged executives in the plush elevator. She couldn’t be late for this interview....

I slide down into the soapy bubbles of the bath, sighing as I lean my head against the warm enamel. It’s been a long, long day...

Start with the theme of the story
He didn’t believe in jealousy, Jack Sheldon told himself, but he was determined no woman would make a fool of him either.

Sometimes finding the heart to forgive someone who’s hurt you means finding the heart that allowed you to love them in the first place. Of course, I didn’t know this when I got Jack’s email that Monday morning...

Start with the setting
Hamilton Hall stood proud and intimidating on the hill, its wrought iron gates warding off interlopers, its stone walls protecting its secrets. I guess I was part of its secrets...

The table was set with fine bone china plates and expensive crystal glasses. Each name setting was elegantly written in calligraphy. It was going to be the perfect dinner party...

Start with the weather
The sun cast is brilliance across Summer Bay, turning it the ocean into a broken blue mirror...

Start with dialogue
‘I’ll agree to your proposal on one condition,’ she said. ‘You arrange for my sister’s release immediately and make sure all charges are dropped against her.’

Start with a summary of story and characters
The last thing Kelly Smith needed in her life was another difficult client. Months ago, she’d walked away from a successful career as public relations consultant in Sandton for that very reason. So when her friend, Megan Riley, suggested she apply for job as fundraiser for a non-profit children’s home, she’d jumped at the chance. That was until she realised rugby star, Luke Whitcomb, was its patron.

Start with a historical fact or a ‘factual’ document
In 1886, thousands of fortune hunters rushed to the Witwatersrand to find gold, fame, riches and their dreams.  James Walker Stewart was one of the first to arrive at the dusty settlement.

‘Heiress Elopes with Bad Boy of Rock!’ the headline shrieked. ‘Jenna Kruger, Daughter of billionaire businessman Jack Kruger, tied the knot with her rocker boyfriend, Matt McKenzie, in a hush-hush ceremony in Cape Town.’

Start with a physical description of character
Steven Meyer was not handsome in any conventional sense, but his aura of power and his reputation as ruthless lawyer made him irresistible to most women. Except Andrea Morrell, she was immune to his type.

Start with an inanimate object or symbolism
The cracked crystal vase held a dozen dead red roses, now the colour of old bruises.
‘Members Only’ read the discreet plaque outside the club, but the brass obviously needed a good polish.

Hopefully, these examples will help you see that starting your story is not as difficult as you thought. Experiment with the above suggestions – see which one best serves your story.

Essentially, you need to know what your basic plot is, who your main characters are, and get them into the narrative as soon as possible. The quicker you can get to the conflict in the story, the better. So make sure your first sentence is strong, that your character is interesting and is facing a problem of some sort!


  1. Thanks for this great post, Anthony - it serves as an essential reminder that the first words, sentence, paragraph and page of a novel are crucial to its success.
    May I add something? Personal preference, I am a total non-fan of 'was' and 'were' esp in the first sentence of a story, because it sidelines the reader, telling them what was happening instead of what happened, which is more direct and powerful. So, picky-wicky me would say 'Poised for the perfect dinner party, fine bone china and crystal gleamed on the table...'etc, or 'Not handsome in the conventional sense, Steven Meyer's aura...' blah blah. Off the top of my head, people, you can stop laughing now!

  2. That's a valid comment, Gina. It makes it more immediate and engaging. I'll be honest, I was just trying to come up with examples of each approach in the heat of the moment.

    I'd personally also never start my book off with a description of the weather, personal choice, and I sometimes hesitate to jump right in with dialogue.

  3. This is a very valuable post, Anthony. Thanks for sharing it. I've never found starting difficult, but this helps to remind me that there are so many different ways to begin a story.