Nailing the beginning of a story can be a challenging task for authors. Right off the bat, you need to introduce the characters, hint at their fears and dreams, and set them on a journey that, hopefully, readers will care to follow. Since the opening often determines how the reader will get on with the rest of the story, how do you write a good one?

There is no one-size-fits all formula to begin a story, but in this post I’ll share five strategies that you can use to effectively hook the reader and set the right expectations from the start. Let’s dive in.


1)  Define the stakes

The stakes in a story are the risks, consequences, or rewards that the protagonists need to juggle in the pursuit of their goals. Your story should define the stakes as soon as possible, as this adds tension, suspense, and emotional investment to the audience.

To give a few examples, your protagonist could be an immigrant trying to integrate in a new country, or a detective faced with a puzzling murder case, or maybe an astronaut stranded alone on Mars. The stakes of personal success, justice, and survival are clear in each scenario, and should be introduced early on to let the reader know why they should care and where the story is going. Moreover, remember that the higher the stakes, the more compelled the reader will be to read along and find out how the protagonist’s struggles will be resolved.

Additionally, if you’re planning to submit your story to a literary agent, most experienced professionals will decide whether your story is worth it within the first few pages. For this reason, it is important to lay out your stakes in the beginning, as well as in the hook of your query letter, or they may not even get to read the first chapter in the first place.


2)  Start with forward movement

Good storytelling engages the reader’s imagination and creates a movie in their head as they read. A way to achieve this from the opening sentence, is to start in medias res or with action 一 with your protagonist “moving in space” to accomplish something. An example could be a character rushing to a hospital, or digging a hole in the ground, or simply pulling over at a gas station on the highway.

The action can be more or less fast-paced and dramatic — what matters is that the character is up to something and “on the move”. This will help the reader visualize the scene and start engaging with the story. Once you identify your first “moving scene,” try to keep the movie rolling.


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3)  Write with a distinct voice

Readers are drawn to unique voices and perspectives, and having a distinct narrating voice is an effective way to capture their attention. It’s thrilling and entertaining to enter a narrator’s mind and access their honest, unfiltered thoughts. Take this classic example from the first page of The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

There’s a strong voice and personality coming out, a sort of “confidential sharing” that helps the reader trust and empathize with the narrator, and hopefully, over little time, care about his struggles and dreams.

Though this strategy may be better suited for stories told from the first-person point of view, where the narrator and the protagonist are the same person, it’s not impossible to achieve in other points of views, like with an omniscient third-person narrator. Either way, writing with a raw and sincere voice from the start can do wonders to get the reader hooked.


4)  Paint a mysterious image

When writing stories set in different worlds, such as in sci-fi or fantasy novels, a common mistake authors make is overwhelming the reader with too many worldbuilding details. Excessive exposition right from the start can bore or confuse the readers, making them reluctant to turn the pages.

A better way to start your story is to paint a powerful yet mysterious image of your world that keeps the reader wondering. Here is an example of how C. S. Lewis does it in the first pages of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

“It was almost quite dark in there and she kept her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took a step further in — then two or three steps always expecting to feel woodwork against the tips of her fingers. But she could not feel it.

[…] And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air. Lucy felt a little frightened, but she felt very inquisitive and excited as well.”

Just like Lucy, the reader wonders “What is this place? What happens here?” The only way to find out is to keep reading. By painting a mysterious image of a snowy forest in the back of a wardrobe, the author creates a sense of wonder and intrigues the reader. So, find what the “snowy forest” image could be in your case, and start from there, slowly revealing more details as the story unfolds.


5)  Make it easy to read

On a more technical side, clear and concise language can also be a great tool to begin your story. Shorter sentences are easier to read, drawing the reader in little by little. Think of how Albert Camus starts The Stranger:

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”

Each sentence is so easy to digest that, before you know it, you’re invested in the story. Ask yourself: does the audience need to read the first paragraphs of my story twice before they understand what is happening? If yes, then simplify it. As Charles Bukowski once said, “The secret is writing down one simple line after another.” Especially in the beginning, we would add!

While there’s no secret formula to successfully start your story, we hope these tips can nudge you in the right direction. A strong opening will help you publish a captivating story that will win the hearts and minds of readers and give your book the chance it deserves.




Rose Atkinson-Carter writes about writing and publishing at Reedsy — a website that connects authors with publishing professionals and gives tips on a wide range of topics, from making audiobooks to improving one’s craft.