Even with a great idea, getting started in the writing process can be pretty intimidating. It might seem like your premise has unlimited potential, but then it becomes awkward and unwieldy on the page. Plus, when you learn how much weight literary agents, publishers, and readers place on the opening of a book, it can feel like just writing “Once upon a time…” is a sand trap in disguise.
But! All is not lost. We’ll take you through everything you need to know about how to start a book effectively and write an opening scene that will win your reader’s attention.
Why is a book’s opening so important?
Think about the last time you chose something to read at a bookshop. After looking at the snazzy cover, you probably picked it up and glanced at the first few pages, or even just the first sentence, before deciding if it was worth your time. As a writer, when you’re submitting your finished manuscript to publishers or literary agents, they’re doing the same thing.
Because there are mountains of books waiting in the slush piles of publishers and the TBR piles or readers, they’re not going to spend a huge amount of time wading through dense expository prose to get to the good stuff. They want a story that will grab their attention and keep them riveted right from the start.
Crafting a strong opening to your book will help ensure it gets into the hands of your readers.
Components of starting a book
The beginning of a book is built of three nested elements: the opening line, the opening page, and the opening chapters. We’ll take a closer look at each one.
The opening line
Your book’s opening sentence is the reader’s very first experience with your story. The most effective lines will pull a lot of weight in a very compact space. They hook readers by raising questions, hinting at the kind of world they’re about to be part of, and establishing a distinct narrative voice.
Check out these fan-favourite opening lines from literature:
From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams: “The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
From 1984 by George Orwell: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
In your own opening sentence, try to grab the reader’s interest with a unique image or idea. Keep in mind that you don’t have to craft the perfect opening line immediately when you begin writing your first draft; you can go back and adjust it once you’ve gotten to know your story better.
The opening page
Once you’ve hit the ground running with your first line or first few lines, your reader will see the opening page. This first scene should introduce your main character as well as a few key elements of your setting and world.
Although the reader won’t have the whole story yet, the opening page will incorporate more details about who the protagonist is, what’s happening to them in that moment, and why their life is about to change forever.
By the end of the opening page, your reader should feel like you’ve earned the investment of their time (and money).
The opening chapter
Your opening chapter will comprise roughly the first 2,000—3,000 words of your novel. This section will expand on the elements you’ve already introduced: your protagonist, the world they live in, the inner or outer conflicts that they’re facing, and—most importantly—the inciting incident.
The inciting incident is a key plot point that usually happens in the very first chapter and splits the protagonist’s life into a “before” and “after.” Some new influence catapults into their life and sends the status quo into disarray. This divisive event will guide the rest of the plot and power the story forward.
The first chapter should also introduce your secondary characters, their relationships to the main character, and hint at any subplots to come.
How to start a story: tips for powerful story openings
With all that in mind, you’re ready to start writing your own story opening. Here are some tips to keep in mind so your beginning is as powerful and engaging as it can be.
Open in medias res
“In medias res” is a literary term derived from a Latin phrase which means “in the midst of things,” or in the midst of the action. This means not wasting a lot of space on unnecessary preamble such as worldbuilding or getting from one place to another; these elements can be incorporated later in the first chapter and further on as you go.
The first few pages should land the reader immediately in the action of the scene, raising intriguing questions about what’s happening and why.
Create a strong narrative voice
You’ll notice that some of the most compelling stories have very distinctive narrative voices; they capture a mood, tone, and often a time and place. Is your narrator sarcastic, analytical, dreamy, practical, observant, or focused? Do they use a particular regional dialect, or word choices and syntax that belong to a particular generation?
Even if you’re using an external narrator (rather than a first-person narrator, or the voice of your main character), think about what sort of tone you’d like to convey and what sort of connection you want to make with your reader.
Introduce your cast of characters
Your story’s opening chapter should introduce your reader to your protagonist, their friends, family, love interests, relevant professional relationships, and the people who create conflict in their life.
Although your reader won’t know their whole story yet, you should lay the groundwork for their character development later on: character traits, beliefs, strengths, flaws, preconceptions, and the things lacking in their life that they need.
Because strong, relatable characters are a reader’s point of connection with your book, show them a hero they can cheer on from the very beginning.
Keep exposition need-to-know
It can be tempting to lay out your main character’s backstory, the motivations and experiences which brought them to the moment at which your story begins. The problem is that this tends to slow down the narrative pacing and it requires some investment on the part of the reader before they get to the real action.
Look for small, subtle ways to communicate information without bogging down your narrative. For example, instead of saying your protagonist is divorced and detailing everything that led to the breakup, have the character unconsciously playing with the empty space on their finger where their ring used to be. The reader will know enough to get started, and you can work in more detail about the situation as you go.
Raise questions for the reader
Your secret weapon when it comes to crafting a compelling story opening is curiosity. Everything you say in your first paragraph, first page, and first chapter should make them want to know more.
Consider this opening line from Brighton Rock by Graham Greene:
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”
Sorry, what?? Who means to murder him? And why? Why has this person come to Brighton? You’re going to have to keep reading to find out.
Introduce tension and conflict
Similar to the points about exposition and opening with action, your novel’s opening should introduce some kind of conflict in your protagonist’s life. This might be something overt, like an impending alien invasion or upcoming boxing match; or, it might be subtler, like discord within a family or relationship.
Although the beginning of your books will show only small hints of the bigger issues to come, these moments will give the reader an idea of what to expect from the character’s journey across the plot.
There are plenty of different kinds of conflict and tension you can introduce, and you can read about them in more detail in our dedicated lesson on conflict here!
Show what’s at stake
Conflict in a story is meaningless if your characters have nothing to lose (this is true in life as well as in story). In the opening chapter, readers should get a sense of what the protagonist has to lose if the tension you’ve introduced was to escalate.
This might be something like financial security, personal safety or the safety of a loved one, romantic attachment, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, freedom, or personal self worth. The reader should sense that something very precious to the main character, something either tangible or intangible (or both), is about to be put at risk.
Bring your story world to life
Even though a story’s opening isn’t the place to expand on extensive details about your world, a few well-placed details in the first pages can really hook readers and make them want to read on. This might be in the way the character interacts with the setting, something they eat or drink, an everyday obstacle that they need to overcome, or some sort of personal ritual that exists within this environment.
Whether your story world is magical, futuristic, historical, or contemporary, it should immediately feel real to the reader right from the opening lines. They won’t know everything yet, but they’ll trust you because they’ll see that it’s real to you.
Use imagery to enhance mood and theme
A novel’s opening paragraph will often have strong, resonant imagery that creates an overall atmosphere that immerses the reader. Consider the classic example of George Orwell’s clocks striking thirteen, or the first line of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
By using the right imagery, language, and sensory detail, you can create an immediate and immersive world from the very first sentence. Plus, we have lots of tips on creating mood in our detailed Academy lesson!
End your first chapter on a cliffhanger
The best way to keep your reader reading? End your opening chapter or section on a thrilling cliffhanger —a big dramatic question that has them asking, “What’s going to happen next?”
This might be a classic moment of peril, a big reveal, or a game-changing choice that’s about to be made. By carrying the scene’s resolution into the next chapter, you give the reader a reason not to set your book aside just yet.
Hold your reader’s attention
In the end, the only rule that truly matters is this: Hold the reader’s attention. If you can manage that, you can break every other rule in the book.
Examples of powerful story openings
Let’s see how some successful writers have put these ideas into practice.
From The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.
But it is not open for business. Not just yet.
The title of this opening chapter is “Anticipation,” and it leans hard into the ~vibes~. The author uses very strong imagery to create intrigue: What is this mysterious circus? Who’s performing, and what do they want? This opening excerpt reads like a piece of music, and promises the reader an experience.
From The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton
When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. I was wishing I looked like Paul Newman—he looks tough and I don’t—but I guess my own looks aren’t so bad. I have light-brown, almost-red hair and greenish gray eyes. I wish they were more gray, because I hate most guys that have green eyes, but I have to be content with what I have.
First published in 1967, this opening paragraph uses a little more exposition than most contemporary editors would prefer today. However, it does one thing very effectively: it creates a vibrant, distinctive narrative voice. Immediately the reader can see this person very clearly just from the way they talk and think. He seems like he would be fun to hang out with for 70,000 words or so.
From The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis
She had to tell Jack.
He wouldn’t be pleased.
As Laura Lyons returned from running errands, turning over in her head the various reactions her husband might have to her news, she spotted the beggar perched once again on the first tier of the granite steps that led to her home: seven rooms buried deep inside the palatial New York Public Library. This time, the beggar woman’s appearance elicited not pity but a primal fear. It was certainly some kind of ominous sign, one that made Laura’s heart beat faster. A woman on the verge of ruin, alone and without any resources. Unloved.
Tell him what?? What is happening??? This opening section raises a big dramatic question, and also sneaks in a compelling detail: this character lives in the New York Public Library. It has mood, tone, and the promise of a conflict soon to come.
The first scene of a story holds all the cards
Whether you’re writing a novel or a short story, the first few lines are essential in grabbing your readers’ interest—not to mention the attention of competitive publishing houses. A strong start to a story will also make it easier to maintain momentum and finish that first draft.
Once you have your story off to a running start, be sure to check out our other lessons that will make your work the best it can be—including how to find the right ending.