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“Call me Ishmael.”
In three words, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick demonstrated exactly how to start a story.
At first glance, it seems like a rudimentary introduction: the main character telling you his name. But Moby Dick doesn’t start with, “My name is.” It starts with “Call me.”
Right away, we have a hook: Our narrator may be hiding his true name from us. What else is he hiding? After only three words, we’re intrigued.
That’s how to start a book. But while it demonstrates all the right things, it’s not the only way to start one. Let’s look through some of literature’s great beginnings and find out how the best writers hook their readers from sentence number one.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
–Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
What makes that such an engaging opening to a book? In a word: intrigue. How can you not want to read more?
Think about how most people talk about their favorite reading experiences. “I got sucked in.” “I couldn’t put it down.” “I was absorbed in the story.”
In writer’s parlance, the first thing you do to suck the reader in is called your hook. Yes, it’s a crude fishing analogy, but it’s spot on. You either catch the reader or you don’t, and it all comes down to whether you’ve hooked them.
“Nearly all the great writers employ hooks in one form or another,” writes Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages. “It is a game; the less space you have to work with, the more creative you must become.”
The only question is: What does it look like when you nail the story’s opening?
Example Story Beginnings
We could go on and on about what makes a great beginning to a narrative story. But it might be easier if we simply show you some of the greats.
1. It by Stephen King
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
King does two things here. First, he introduces the tension of things to come—”the terror.” Second, he gets us wondering what a small image—a boat made from a sheet of newspaper—can possibly have to do with something so profound. We have to read on to find out.
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
On the surface, this isn’t as compelling a hook as a narrator turning into a giant insect. But Mitchell makes it compelling, bringing us directly into Scarlett’s head.
Subsequently, we’re right there with Scarlett at every step. Ashley Wilkes spurns her. Civil War erupts. She meets the rakish Rhett Butler. Since Mitchell had us right along with Scarlett from the very beginning, we watch the Civil War through her eyes, absorbing us in the story.
3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Stephen King’s hook focused on the story. Mitchell’s, with the character. Tolstoy’s hook is in the narration itself. He’s not even writing a story in this first sentence. But he is giving us such a unique and insightful comment about human nature, he’s established his authority.
Tolstoy’s famous quotation is a strong beginning because it makes us wonder: what other insights will this story unfurl?
4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
“Marley was dead, to begin with.”
Dickens is such a skilled writer that in only six words, he accomplishes a surprising amount:
- He starts the plot: Scrooge’s old partner, Jacob Marley, has died.
- He introduces Scrooge’s character with the nonchalance and subject of the opening.
- And in classic Dickens fashion, he even hints at just enough humor to keep our interest.
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
This is a beginning much like that of Moby Dick. On the surface, you’re not getting a lot of information. Characters sleeping in a gymnasium.
But dig deeper and you’ll see how much more is there. “We” suggests many. What’s going on that so many people have to sleep in a gymnasium? The setting is unusual, as most people would prefer sleeping in a bedroom. And four simple words—“what had once been”—suggest a completely disconnected reality from what the reader is used to. The section lives up to the sentence by developing the ideas presented so succinctly in a nine-word sentence.
Bring Your Readers Into Your Story
Descriptive Writing: Crafting Vivid, Immersive Scenes
Focus on the principle first: Whatever you write, it has to compel the reader forward. The question is, which strategy best suits the kind of story you want to tell?
Tip #1: Get Readers Into Your Main Character’s Head
Don’t think in terms of how to start writing—think in terms of how to get the reader somewhere else. The fastest way to do that is to show us your character’s innermost thoughts. What does the main character care about? What are they trying to accomplish?
The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t have a sympathetic protagonist. But because J.D. Salinger plants us directly in his head from the first sentence—it reads like a journal entry—we can’t help but be fascinated with his unusual take on the world.
Tip #2: Introduce a Complication
What brings us to the windows? When storm clouds gather. As readers, we don’t want to read about peace and harmony. We want to know how a character is going to get themselves out of a jam.
The fastest way to learn how to write a short story, for example, is to see how quickly you can introduce the problem. Can you begin the first sentence as close to the ending as possible? The longer it takes you to get to the first complication, the more we’ll wonder if there are any complications worth reading about.
Tip #3: Hint at Problems to Come
Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” starts out quite simply: with a backstory. “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.” Yet in that sentence, we still get our first uh-oh moment. “Finally equal”? What does that mean? Subsequent sentences (“Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else.”) only add to the tension.
You can learn how to start writing a story by creating a problem. But you can get even more subtle and attention-grabbing if you only hint at the problems—which compels the reader to keep going.
Tip #4: Set Up Pins—Then Knock Them Down
It’s great if you can learn how to start off a story so well you can write a magical first sentence. But it’s not always necessary. Sometimes you have to set up the reader’s “pins” before you can knock them down.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice starts with, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It’s a wonderful narrative beginning that earns authority. But it also sets up the cultural context for the interactions between Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet that will create tension throughout the novel.
Tip #5: Bring Readers Into Another World
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood uses a specific detail—sleeping in a gymnasium—to show us that these characters live in a different world. As Atwood’s writing demonstrates, it’s not enough to know how to start a narrative story in that world. You have to do it as quickly as possible. Starting off with a concrete detail or setting is a great way to physically link us to that world.
Consider the opening to Star Wars: the images of a tiny rebel ship fighting off a giant Star Destroyer don’t only introduce the plot, but establish the entire setting. We know who the underdog is without a word. Incorporate these elements into the beginning of your next story and you’re sure to capture our attention. When in doubt, make us ask a fundamental question: What comes next?
Write Characters That Your Readers Are Invested In
Writing Character-Driven Short Stories