How to Start a Story

Four Parts:Sample StoriesUnderstand the Short StoryStart Your StoryRevise Your Opening

Writing a short story is no easy task, and coming up with the perfect opening is the hardest part. But have no fear — once you understand the components of a short story and try several different openings, you'll be able to find the right one. If you're looking for tips for starting a story the right way, then look no further!

Sample Stories

Sample Short Horror Story

Sample Short Literary Story

Sample Short Love Story

Part 1
Understand the Short Story

  1. Image titled Start a Story Step 1
    Read as many short stories as you can. Though you can write your own short story whenever you want, you'll be able to write more effectively if you have read a wide variety of short stories, from classics to contemporary pieces. Once you've read enough short stories, you'll have a better sense of the elements of a short story, and a deeper understanding of what will appeal to an audience. Pick your favorite stories and pay attention to how they start. See what works and doesn't work in an opening.
    • Read the short stories of classic writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, and Guy de Maupassant.
    • Read the short stories of writers from the earlier part of the 20th century, such as Isaac Babel, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, or Jorge Luis Borges.
    • Read the short stories of more contemporary masters of the short story, such as Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
    • Join a writing workshop, either in school or in your community, and read the works of other writers who are still honing their craft. Sometimes, the works of true masters can be overwhelming, and reading the work of writers who are starting out can make you feel like your task is more surmountable.
  2. Image titled Start a Story Step 2
    Understand the components of a short story. Your amazing opening won't work if you don't know how to follow it up with a strong middle and end. Though short stories vary in their narration and subject matter, and some stories are traditional while others take a more experimental track, you should be aware of the key aspects of a good short story:
    • Plot. The plot is "what happens" in a story. Stories that are plot-driven are heavily dependent on what happens next, such as the detective stories of Poe. Some short stories follow the pattern of having rising action, a crisis, and falling action, while others start in the middle of a crisis, or end with a crisis without telling the reader what happens next.
      • Your plot doesn't have to be as structured like a detective story, but there should always be a sense that there is something at stake, whether it's whether a character can come to understand that her husband is unfaithful, or if a character can win a much-anticipated spelling bee to please her father.
    • Character. Your story should have at least one character that your readers can care about and root for. Typically, your character should be sympathetic so your characters can better understand his motives, but if the character is original, well-realized, and fascinating, your readers will love reading about him whether he's sympathetic or not.
    • Dialogue. Dialogue can be considered the poetry in the prose and should be used sparingly to convey a character's voice. However, there some writers, such as Hemingway or Carver, who write excellent stories that are very heavy in dialogue.
    • Point-of-view. Point of view is the perspective that the story is told from. It can be told in the first person, second person, or third person. First person is directly from the perspective of a character, second person addresses the reader as "you," and third person creates a distance between the narrator and the characters.
    • Setting is where and when the story takes place. Setting can be crucial to a story, such as the setting of the Southern works of William Faulkner, or it can play a more minor role.
  3. Image titled Start a Story Step 3
    Reflect on the story you want to write. Though there are many different ways to write, it will help to take some time to consider the story you have in mind. Maybe you were inspired by something you saw, or have always been fascinated by a strange story about your grandfather's childhood. Whatever your reason for writing the story, it can help to ask yourself a few questions before you begin:
    • Will your story work better in the first, second, or third person? Though you can experiment with these perspectives once you begin writing, thinking about which point of view will be more appropriate in advance can help you start strong.
    • Where and when will your story take place? If your story will take place in a town you don't know much about, or in a time period that you don't know very well, you may have to do some research before you can begin to write your story with confidence.
    • How many characters will there be in your story? If you have a sense of the main players in your story, you'll have a better understanding of how long and detailed the story should be.
    • Don't underestimate the power of writing without a plan. If you're inspired, just put a pen to paper and see what happens. If trying to plan out your story before you start bogs you down, just dive right in and figure out the details as you go along.

Part 2
Start Your Story

  1. Image titled Start a Story Step 4
    Start with your intuition. Relax and write the first thing that comes to mind. You don't have to figure out which character or form of narration you'll be using. Just start writing without stopping to think for a few minutes and see what happens.
    • Write for at least ten minutes without stopping. Once you're done, you should read over what you've written to see how your opening sounds, or to see if you can find a good starting point somewhere in the pages you've filled.
    • Don't stop to correct your work for grammar or punctuation. This may slow you down and will make you self-conscious about your ideas. You can perfect your writing later.
  2. Image titled Start a Story Step 5
    Start with a compelling flashback. Though flashbacks take the risk of being sentimental or confusing the reader, they can draw the reader in, and make your reader wonder about how the story moved from the past to the present.
    • Pick a moment that was memorable to a character. It can be a truly dramatic moment in the character's life, or it can be a significant memory that is developed later in the story.
    • If you choose to start with a flashback, make sure that your readers know when you've transitioned into the present, or you will lose or confuse them.
    • Start with a moment when a character acts in a surprising way. Move to the present, and leave your reader to wonder why the character would have acted this way.
  3. Image titled Start a Story Step 6
    Start with a strong declarative statement. Don't be afraid to start with a bold voice that says a lot about the main character and tells the reader what to expect in the rest of the story. The opening of a story sets the terms of the story and helps the reader interpret the events that take place, so a clear, bold statement can help hook your readers.
    • Melville's novel Moby Dick simply starts with the statement "Call me Ishmael." From there, the narrator talks of his love of sea voyages, and about how much the ocean means to him. This statement draws the reader in and makes him feel more comfortable with the main character. Though this is the opening of a novel, it would work just as well for a short story.
    • Amy Bloom's story, "The Story," opens with the line, "You wouldn't have known me a year ago." This simple-but-direct opening draws in the reader and makes him want to know more about this character, and why this character has changed.
    • Chekhov's "Lady With a Little Dog" begins with the statement, "It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea front: a lady with a little dog." This story continues to discuss Gurov, another guest on the sea front, who begins to take an interest in this woman, and eventually delves into their passionate love affair. The statement is simple yet effective, and leaves the reader wanting to know more about this woman.
    • The right line of dialogue can also grab your readers and provide insight into the person who is saying it, but be aware that starting a story with a line of dialogue is tricky.
  4. Image titled Start a Story Step 7
    Start with characterization. Your character doesn't have to speak to the reader right away. Instead, you can let your reader see your character in action, to show the kind of person your character is and what is at stake for him or her in the story. Here are some ways to start with characterization:
    • Begin with your character's quirk. Maybe your character likes to eat a meal with two forks, or maybe your character showers with his shoes on. Tell your readers what makes your character unique.
    • Reveal what your character is thinking. Invite your readers into your character's head to let them know whether she's wondering about the gender of her baby, or worried about her mother's new memory lapses.
    • Show the character interacting with others. Letting your readers see how the character interacts with her mother, or an old friend she ran into on the streets, can provide insight into who he is and what he'll do next.
    • Describe your character's physical appearance. Your character's appearance can say a lot about him or her. Don't bore your reader with the ordinary details. Instead, show how your character looks to other people, or describe an aspect of the character's appearance that most people will overlook.
    • A typical short story is around 15-25 pages in length, so you don't have to worry about developing ten believable characters. Work on having an engaging protagonist, and a few other interesting characters, but know that not all of the minor characters have to have depth.
  5. Image titled Start a Story Step 8
    Introduce the stakes of the story. Tell your reader what is at stake in your story from the very first line or paragraph. In a short story, you only have so much time to develop your ideas, so if you start with the dramatic tension of the story, you can work backwards to explain why it's so important. Here are some ways to do it:
    • Tell your readers a secret. Say, "Mary had been sleeping with her sister's husband for the past three months." As you tell your readers more about this situation and how Mary is being forced to deal with it, your readers will feel included in the drama and will be waiting to see how it unfurls.
    • Introduce a conflict. Say, "Bobby hadn't seen his brother Sam in over twenty years. He wondered if he would have the nerve to show up to their father's funeral." These two sentences already set up the central conflicts for the reader: that Bobby and his brother have stopped speaking for some reason, and that Bobby may have to confront him. As the story unfolds, the reader will want to know why the brothers stopped talking.
    • Hint at something significant from the character's past. Say, "The second time Anna left her husband was just before her eightieth birthday." Without giving the story away, you can show your readers that the story will describe why Anna was leaving her husband again, and why she did it the first time.
  6. Image titled Start a Story Step 9
    Develop the setting. Another way to start a story is to develop the setting. If the city or home where the story is set is significant, you can let your readers know about what it looks, smells, and sounds like before you develop the characters or plot. Here's how to do it:
    • Focus on sensory details. Tell your readers what a place looks, sounds, smells, and even feels like to the touch. Is it freezing in the story, or is it the hottest summer on record?
    • Anchor your readers. Without being too obvious, let them know where you are and when the story is taking place. Though you don't have to announce the year and location, provide enough information for your readers to figure it out.
    • Show how the setting relates to your characters. Pretend like you're a camera zooming in from bird's eye view to the home of a character. Start by looking at the whole town, neighborhood, and then show how your main character fits into this environment, or is a product of this environment.
    • Don't bore your readers. Though describing the setting in just the right amount of detail can grab your readers, if you're starting out as a writer, this may not be the way to go. Your readers may be impatient and will want to know who or what your story is about, not just where it's set.
  7. Image titled Start a Story Step 10
    Avoid the pitfalls of short story openings. As you choose your opening, beware of falling into a trap by starting your opening in a way that is too predictable, confusing, cliched, or just overwhelming. Here's what not to do:
    • Avoid clichés. Don't start your story with a trite image or an overused line like, "Sarah's heart was torn to shreds." This will make your readers think that the rest of your story won't be very original either.
    • Avoid the "information dump." You don't have to tell your readers who the story is about, where your story is set, what conflict is at stake, and what your main character looks like all in the first two pages of the story. Think of writing as helping your readers climb a mountain. You want to give them enough information so they can move forward, but if you give them way too much information, then they'll be bogged down and will fall.
    • Avoid starting your story with a lot of questions or exclamation marks. Let the story speak for itself instead of trying too hard to convey excitement.
    • Don't confuse your readers with fancy language. Above all, make sure your readers know what the heck is going on in your story. You can sacrifice a few beautiful lines of imagery or too-clever dialogue to help your readers understand what's happening.

Part 3
Revise Your Opening

  1. Image titled Start a Story Step 11
    Reflect on what you've written. Now that you've written your opening as well as a draft or two of your story, you should reflect on the story as a whole to see if the opening still fits. You should make sure that the opening hooks the reader, sets the tone for the rest of the piece, and puts the reader on the right track. Here's what you should do:
    • Read your story twice. First, read it to yourself without marking it, and then read it with a pen to mark any places where you want to cut passages or where you'll need to add information to bring the story together. Once you do this, you'll have a better sense of whether the opening is working or not.
    • See if you can start later in the story. The first few pages of a rough draft of a story can often just be the writer's way of clearing his throat before he can cut to the heart of the story. You may find that your opening provides too many unnecessary background details and that you're better off starting on page 2 — or even page 10.
    • Read your story aloud. When you read your work aloud, you may notice things that you wouldn't have caught while reading the words on the page. You'll be able to tell if your story flows naturally and if it has dialogue that is compelling and believable from the very beginning.
  2. Image titled Start a Story Step 12
    Ask for an outside opinion. Once you feel confident about the rough draft of your story, you should be ready to ask for feedback. Remember that asking for feedback too early in the writing process, before you even really have a sense of what you're writing about, can discourage you from pursuing your ideas. Having the right opinion can help you revise your opening, as well as the rest of your story. Tell your readers that you're focusing on the opening but would like an overall opinion as well. Here are some places to turn for feedback:
    • Ask a friend who loves reading short stories and is able to give constructive feedback.
    • Ask a friend who is a fellow writer.
    • Turn your story in to a writer's workshop and pay attention to the feedback that you get, especially about the opening. Remember that your opening won't be effective if the rest of the story doesn't come together.
    • Once you feel confident about your story and want to try to get it published, try sending it out to a number of literary journals. Even if your story is not accepted, you may receive valuable feedback from editors.


  • Don't delete the story if you get upset; instead, let it stay on hiatus for a few weeks and look back to it later on.

  • Start a few stories at a go if you can't decide on one idea. You may even find yourself merging them later in the editing process.
  • Remember that writing is a craft that take a lifetime to master. You may write twenty drafts of a short story before you get it right, or you may have to write twenty short stories before you write one you actually like.

Article Info

Categories: Books