How to Start a Story
What’s one of the hardest parts of writing? Writing very first paragraph (like this one)! The first paragraph of any piece of writing, also called the “lead,” has to accomplish a lot. It must give the reader an idea of what the piece is about. And it must pique the reader’s interest and encourage them to keep reading. How do writers do it?
To find out, I studied the openings in several books from this month’s book list.
Start with a Question
Did you notice I used this technique to begin this blog post? It’s the same technique Kathleen M. Reilly uses to open her book, FAULT LINES & TECTONIC PLATES:
“Did you know that the surface of the planet Earth is similar to one enormous puzzle? A puzzle is made up of anywhere from a few pieces to thousands of pieces. And each piece has a very specific shape that allows it to fit perfectly against another piece of the puzzle, right?
Take a close look at the shape of the continents on our planet. If you study them very carefully, you’ll see that they kind of look like puzzle pieces. …”
What else do you notice about Reilly’s beginning? She uses second-person point of view (you) to address the reader directly. That makes you feel like you’re part of the story. She also introduces the analogy of the puzzle, which she builds on subsequent paragraphs. It helps her explain plate tectonics in a reader-friendly way.
But are questions the only way to start a story? Nope. Read on.
Start with a Scene
In THE BIG ONE, Elizabeth Rusch starts her story this way: “At first you don’t notice the shaking. You think a bus or truck is rumbling by. But the trembling doesn’t start. A few seconds later, paintings and photos on the wall swing slightly. Glasses and dishes rattle. Thud. Bang! Objects all around you – cellphones, water bottles, books – slide off surfaces and clatter to the ground. …”
What do you notice about this opening?
Just like Reilly, Rusch has used second-person POV to put the reader in the story. But she’s gone even farther. She’s put the reader in the middle of the action – an earthquake! She’s used details from the five senses to help us see, feel, and hear what it would be like to experience an earthquake as it happens. And the action is unfolding minute-by-minute, like a television or movie. It’s a captivating opening for sure.
Make It Personal
Johanna Wagstaffe starts with a personal recollection in FAULT LINES: “When I was four years old, I lived with my family in Tokyo, Japan. I remember seeing the polite nods and warm smiles in the crowded subways, riding on the back of my mother’s bicycle through the alleys of the city, and wishing we could visit the five-story Sanrio store. I also remember the regular earthquake drills in our kindergarten class. We would scramble to get under the desks and then line up and march outside. It seemed like a fun game at the time, but there was a seriousness about it.
I first felt the ground move one day when I was playing at home after school. …”
Wagstaffe goes on to relate her first-hand experience of an earthquake.
What is your response to this opening?
Like Rusch, Wagstaffe paints a scene filled with vivid details, but instead of having us imagine ourselves in the middle of the action, four-year-old Wagstaffe is the main character. And she’s the main character and a character in real trouble – an earthquake. What will happen to her? We have to keep reading.
Grab several nonfiction books and study the first paragraph of each. How does the story start? Has the author used one of the techniques we’ve discussed or something different? Did the opening give you an idea of what the book is about and get you excited to read more? Why or why not?
Whenever you’re stuck, remember all these options for openings. Test some out and see what works.
More great posts about story beginnings:
- “Leading to Great Places in the Middle School Classroom” (NCTE)
- Elementary Teacher Whitney Ebert shares her story-starting tips at TeachWriting.org.
- Teacher Deb Conley shares the Q-DIPA acronym for story beginnings (Question, Dialogue, Interesting Face, Picture/Unique Image, Action).
Kirsten W. Larson
Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek), an NSTA Best STEM BOOK, A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion), which earned two starred reviews, and the forthcoming, THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Spring 2022), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Find her at kirsten-w-larson.com or on Twitter and Instagram @KirstenWLarson.