How to start a story Storytelling guide

How to start a story and ignite the spark of curiosity in audiences

So, you want to know how to start a story that grabs readers by the eyeballs and won’t let go? You’ve come to the right place! This guide is your treasure map to crafting story beginnings that not only grab attention but also hold it.

Got a unique take on how to start a story? Share your wisdom in the comments!

1. The Power of a Strong Start

Picture this: You open a book, watch a movie, start a comic, or tune in to a TV show, and the first few moments leave you spellbound. That’s the magic of a strong start. Your opening has two crucial jobs: it sets expectations for the rest of the story and makes the audience desperate to find out “what happens next?” bad enough to keep going.

1.1. Setting Expectations

Imagine this: The first lines of a book, movie, comic, or TV show that instantly pull you in. That’s the allure of a powerful beginning. A compelling start does two things: it sets the tone and makes readers eager to dive deeper.

The first lines of a story serve as a sneak peek into what’s coming. They give readers, viewers, or listeners a taste of the story’s tone, genre, and overall feel. For example, in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling, we learn that the Dursleys are “perfectly normal.” Right away, we know magic and something extraordinary are about to happen!

1.2. Curiosity Ignition

A great start kindles curiosity. It makes the audience demand to know “what happens next?” so bad that they can’t help but turn the page.

Ever binge-watched a TV show because you couldn’t stop wondering what’s going to happen in the next episode? A strong start plants that seed of curiosity in the audience’s mind. Whether it’s a kids’ story, a gripping novel, or a thrilling movie, that burning desire to know more keeps the audience hooked.

2. Know Your Audience and Genre

Writing for little munchkins? Aim for a fun, playful start. Penning a spooky folk tale? Begin with an eerie atmosphere. Understanding your audience and the genre you’re working in will guide your opening choices.

2.1. Respect Your Audience

Identify with your readers – are they teens, romance enthusiasts, or mystery buffs? Align your opening with their interests, or defy their expectations. But no matter what, for God’s sake, always respect their time – be concise and impactful.

2.2. Genre-Specific Nuances

Each genre has its quirks. In a kids’ story like “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, we dive right into Max’s imaginative adventure. A folk tale like “Cinderella” by the Brothers Grimm often starts with “Once upon a time” to whisk us away to a magical realm.

3. Elements of Story Openings

There’s no universal blueprint for how to start a story. But here are some tools for your writer’s toolkit:

3.1. Waste No Time

Zoom into a thrilling event! In the TV show “Stranger Things,” the first episode opens with the disappearance of Will Byers, setting the stage for an incredible supernatural journey.

3.2 Introduce Key Players

Introduce main characters early. In the comic book “Spider-Man,” the first issue has a classic opening line: “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.” We don’t yet know Spider-Man’s story, but we immediately begin to imagine it.

There’s an endless amount of ways to accomplish this but here are some questions to try to answer when considering how to introduce your characters:

  • Why should the audience care?
  • Are the characters compelling?

The audience needs to understand why they should spend their precious time consuming the rest of your story. One way to think about this is Blake Snyder’s famous save the cat! approach, which is, “to describe a decisive moment when the protagonist demonstrates that they are worth rooting for.” In other words, have them save a cat stuck in a tree.

Remember that your audience doesn’t need to like the characters – in fact they might be disgusted by them. Simply put, the characters should be interesting enough to keep the audience’s focus, otherwise the audience might doubt that the rest of the story will keep their interest.

3.3. Paint the Scene

Create a vivid world. Let the story world come alive through your descriptions. In “The Lord of the Rings” movie, the narration introduces Middle-earth’s history, captivating the audience with its rich world-building.

Painting a vivid scene doesn’t mean revealing everything at once, but thinking through a few key elements can make all the difference:

  1. Tone: The tone at the beginning should align with the overall story. Whether it’s matching the tone or being deliberately contrasting, be clear and intentional.
  2. Central Question / Theme: Give the audience a sense of the central question or themes your story will explore. They don’t need all the answers, just a taste of the ideas you’ll delve into.
  3. Structure / Design: Orient the audience to the overall design of your story. You don’t have to reveal it all upfront; let them discover and digest it as they go.

Remember, you don’t have to cram the entire story into the opening. A well-told story might do that, but it’s not a requirement. Addressing these elements even in part can be a valid and engaging alternative.

4. Crafting Engaging Openings

Now, let’s craft that mind-blowing opening to your story:

  • Start with a bang: Call me Ishmael” from the novel “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville immediately draws readers in with a personal and intriguing tone.
  • Show, Don’t Just Tell: Describe emotions and scenes with flair.
    • In the movie “Up,” the first few minutes show the life journey of Carl and Ellie through images and minimal dialogue, pulling at our heartstrings.
    • “It was a pleasure to burn.” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” sets a fiery tone!
  • Pique Interest: Leave the audience curious. In the novel “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, the opening lines are: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” That’s enough to make us want to uncover more secrets.

5. Pitfalls to Avoid

Dodge these common story-starting pitfalls when considering how to start a story:

  • Avoid Clichés: Avoid overused openings. Skip lines like “It was a dark and stormy night” (unless it’s meant to be humorous).
  • Maintain Mystery: Don’t reveal everything at once. Keep ’em guessing and wanting more.
  • Pace Wisely: Don’t rush into action or bore your audience with endless details. Find the right balance.

5.1. Beginning Your Writing Journey

Especially when considering pace, less practiced storytellers might think that the beginning has to be a super-fast summary of the whole story. Well, here’s the thing: while it’s totally fine to have a start like that, it’s not the only way to do it!.

You’ve got options, my friend. So don’t worry if you’re not condensing your whole tale into a few lines – you can still create a compelling start. Keep on exploring and experimenting, and you’ll find the perfect beginning for your story.

5.2. Revisiting and Editing Your Start

Last but not least – don’t be lazy. Make sure you’ve spent time carefully crafting your opening.

  • Revise Like a Pro: No story springs out perfectly on the first try. Revise, revise, revise!
  • Get Feedback: Share your opening with friends or fellow writers. Fresh perspectives can work wonders.

6. How to start writing a story

Sometimes people that ask, “how should I start my story?” are asking where to start constructing it. In other words, they have some of the key elements figured out, but they’re not sure how to begin putting the different pieces together. (I see this a lot on reddit, and often leave a comment with some version of the advice below)

If you’re struggling with characters and plot, here are a concepts to think about:

  1. Character Development: Think about what your character thinks they want versus what they truly need. For instance, they might desire a pile of gold, but deep down, they crave genuine friendship.
  2. Character Weaknesses: Explore your character’s flaws. List down ten weaknesses that make them unique. Now, imagine how the beginning of your story can place them in situations that bring out these weaknesses in the worst possible way. For example, if your character fears heights, imagine them having to face skydiving to get that coveted pot of gold!
  3. Plot Focus: Pinpoint the main dramatic question your story aims to explore. This could be something like, “How far are you willing to go to save the ones you love?” Compelling plots often dwell at the extremes of the answers to these questions.

By playing around with these ideas, you’ll start to see the puzzle pieces fitting together. Your characters will come to life, and the plot will unfold naturally. So have fun with it, and remember, there’s no one right way to start – trust your instincts and let your imagination lead the way!

Happy Storytelling!

You’ve unlocked the secrets of how to start a story that wows readers, viewers, or listeners. Embrace the power of a captivating opening, understand your audience and genre, and experiment with various beginnings. Whether you’re writing kids’ stories, folk tales, TV shows, movies, novels, or comic books, remember that even the greatest writers were beginners once. So, go forth, pen your tale, and let your imagination soar!

Share your thoughts

I study narrative in my free time. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below if you’d give storytellers different advice. Or, let me know if you think there are some mediums where these techniques don’t apply well, and what you would suggest instead.