How to Write a Story Opening

Story openings are tricky creatures. They can take many different forms, but how do you pin the perfect one to the page?

The main job of your opening is to hook the reader into the story, and I think one of the best ways to do that is to raise questions that they will want the answers to. Neil Gaiman does this to great effect in the famous opening line of The Graveyard Book:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

This works well because it’s both a very strong visual image that fits the dark and spooky tone of the book, and it has that element of mystery to it. Where are we? Who does this hand belong to? And what are they going to do with that knife…?

A common piece of advice is for the opening to be an image of the protagonist’s problem: where they start out before the adventure begins that changes everything for them. I think this technique can be great, but sometimes can feel a bit dull if your character begins in a place of boredom or sadness (less so if they’re in the middle of a train robbery).

I struggled with this at the beginning of my debut novel, where Ivy is alone and mourning the disappearance of her twin, Scarlet. But then I had the idea to add a single line that would foreshadow the adventure that was to come, and raise those questions for the reader:

This is the story of how I became my sister.

It’s also good if your opening can reflect something that is unique to your story; something that is unusual or noteworthy about your characters or setting. The opening of Mortal Engines does this as it introduces us to a world where cities are on the move, and we immediately want to know more:

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

I wanted the start of my latest book, A Case of Grave Danger, to introduce the reader to my unusual protagonist, Violet Veil – the daughter of a Victorian undertaker.

I was born in the mortuary. Topsy-turvy I know, but that’s the truth of it.

What are your favourite openings? Why not give them a closer look and see what makes them work?

Sophie Cleverly

Sophie has a BA in Creative Writing and an MA in Writing for Young People. Her book series Scarlet and Ivy and The Violet Veil Mysteries are published by HarperCollins worldwide, as well as being translated into 6 different languages.

Sophie Cleverly - Author
Published in
6 April 2021
Last Updated
29 April 2021