How to Start a Story

By Jennifer Cornick

We’ve all been there, staring at a blank page wondering how to start the story that crept up on us in the middle of the night.  The cursor blinking back at you, words refusing to appear on the screen.  Or sitting in a café, staring at the cleanest page in your notebook, the pen categorically rejecting your attempts at telekinesis.  And the phrases that spin in our heads then are the worst sort of cliches: “it was a dark and stormy night”, “once upon a time”, or “it all started that one morning”.

More often than not these feelings leave every writer with questions about what makes a good first line or opening paragraph.

The Weight of the Opening …

Openings can sometimes be stressful, because it is the set up for the whole novel.  The opening is the first impression your book makes on editors, publishers, and readers.

As Dr. Joanna Nadin, author of The Queen of Bloody Everything and The Talk of Pram Town, says, “the beginning is only the start – everything a writer puts in their opening pages must resonate for the reader throughout the rest of the novel”.  And that puts more pressure on the pen, lying there on the open notebook page while you sit there with your arms crossed, staring at it doing nothing.

We have all read great opening lines.  Literature is littered with them, from Moby Dick to The Testaments.  They are all memorable in their own way and they all draw a reader into the story before they realize what is happening to them or the protagonist.  The “best” openings continue into paragraphs and pages which are equally memorable.  Here are some of the best we could find on our collective bookshelves:

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
  • “It was the day my grandmother exploded” Iain Banks, The Crow Road.
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle.
  • “Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead” Laura Whitcomb, A Certain Slant of Light.
  • “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast” Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions.

Every writer feels the pressure to have the most memorable and quotable opening line.  It is enough to leave you with mental paralysis and the cursor blinking more furiously on the screen, refusing to move even a pixel to help you out.  

The good news is every writer has been there, from Margaret Atwood to you.  As we said in the post Guides for your Writing Journey, the blank page is an undiscovered wilderness and sometimes all you need is a little help to find your way through it.  

The Answer…

There is an anatomy to openings which can be analysed and learned.  Writers can learn from the greats and understand how to shape their own openings.  Austen takes her readers from the principle of society at large, to the feelings of a neighbourhood, and finally, characterizes the Bennet family.  Almost like a funnel, she starts large and eventually takes you to the microcosm she created.  This is merely one way to start a book.

Nadin’s The Queen of Bloody Everything takes the tired cliché of “once upon a time” and turns it around, making it new again.  Much like the way one can turn a Delft vase on the shelf and see a new aspect of the painting, refreshing a tired tchotchke.  The pages capture a moment in time for the character and forges a relationship in the “now” for the reader with a simple and familiar question: “So how shall I begin?” That fourth wall break and instant connection is a great way to hook readers. 

However, sometimes an unguided romp through the literary greats is not the best way to learn.  As we said before, sometimes you need a guide in the wilderness.   And fortunately, we have a guide for you.

Beginnings: The Workshop

Dr. Joanna Nadin, professor of creative writing at Bristol University and best-selling author, returns to Sunday Writers’ Club with a new workshop.  Over the course of two hours, she will take writers through some of the greatest openings in literature, show you how they work, and help you to shape your own writing.

Dr. Nadin will discuss introducing characters, backstory, setting and description. The Beginning is only the start – everything a writer puts in their opening pages must resonate for the reader throughout the rest of the novel.

This is an event not to be missed.  When Dr. Nadin was last with us at Meet the Professionals, she was generous with her time and expertise.  We learned so much about the planning and revision process from her.  We are looking forward to her advice as we go back to the beginnings of our own work and learn what makes them memorable, how to retain a reader’s attention, and how to introduce our characters to their audience.  We hope you will join us on this adventure and hopefully help us all to fill in a few notebook pages with inspired writing.

Workshop details:

Sunday 7th November, 7.30-9.30pm CET

Online (Zoom)

Ticket €45 | SWC Member ticket €29

Click here to register for the workshop!

What are some of your favourite opening lines in literature; put them in the comments below.  We are looking forward to hearing from you!

Jennifer Cornick

Jennifer Cornick

Sunday Writers' Club Member

Reading is not my hobby, I am pretty sure it forms a vital part of my autonomic nervous system. I am never without a book and I will read anything, including cereal boxes. My journalism has appeared in Metropole: Vienna In English, Impact Hub Vienna, Ted x Vienna, and the EU Observer.

Find out more about Jennifer by visiting her blog: The Curiosity Cabinet