Story starters: beginnings to inspire and instruct

Creative lead-ins or "story starters" are dynamic, tight, small packages that yield big. First impressions mean everything, so the best first lines suggest that even better is yet to come. Every opening is unique, and there is no formula for an opening passage. 

Some authors will jump right into the action. Others will pan in from the outside like a long film shot moving in close from somewhere up in the sky. Others begin with startling statements or intense dialogue, perhaps even humour.

Story Starters to Analyze

The first lines below will provide numerous ideas for your own story starters, especially if you analyze how each sentence works:

  • How dense is the sentence?
  • How much information does it hold?
  • How much description?
  • How much do readers learn in that single sentence?
  • What questions does each sentence raise?
  • Which story openings most pique your interest, and why?

Sample Story Starters from Short Stories

  1. The pair moved through that gray landscape as though no one would see them—dressed alike in overalls and faded coats, one big, one little, one black-headed, one tow-headed, father and son. ~ Eudora Welty, LADIES IN SPRING

  2. To put us at our ease, to quiet our hearts as she lay dying, our dear friend Selena said, Life, after all, has not been an unrelieved horror—you know, I did have many wonderful years with her. ~ Grace Paley, FRIENDS

  3. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was President-elect there must have been sculptors all over America who wanted a chance to model his head from life, but my mother had connections. ~ Richard Yates, OH, JOSEPH, I'M SO TIRED

  4. Frank saw her more than a block away, in the town where he had come to live, where Maggie had no business to be, and he no expectation of seeing her. ~ John Updike, NATURAL COLOR

  5. In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns. ~ Annie Proulx, THE HALF-SKINNED DEER

  6. A woman I don't know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen. ~ Bharati Mukherjee, THE MANAGEMENT OF GRIEF

  7. My mother swore we'd never live in a boardinghouse again, but circumstances did not allow her to keep this promise. ~ Tobias Wolff, FIRELIGHT

  8. Being a Spokane Indian, I only pick up Indian hitchhikers. ~ Sherman Alexie, THE TOUGHEST INDIAN IN THE WORLD

  9. Fact is the care needs to be sold in a hurry, and Leo sends Toni out to do it. ~ Raymond Carver, ARE THESE ACTUAL MILES?

  10. You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with the funny names: Paris, Oblong, Normal. ~ Lorrie Moore, YOU'RE UGLY TOO

  11. First there must be a mechanism that allows entry: an invisible zipper a wave of heat shimmer that ripples the landscape, an incantation, a click. ~ Lisa Moore, GETTING AWAY WITH IT

  12. Women's lips are paler again. ~ Margaret Atwood, SPRING SONG OF THE FROGS

  13. At age seventy-one, Perpetua Resch could honestly say she had loved only four people: her mother, her father, her brother Martin and her sister Magda. ~ Jacqueline Baker, BLOODWOOD

  14. The father was drinking again, in celebration. ~ Lynn Coady, PLAY THE MONSTER BLIND

  15. Once, long ago, for just a few minutes I tried to pretend I was Harry Lapwing. ~ Mavis Gallant, THE CONCERT PARTY

  16. That boy works as a photographer for the Associated Press. ~ Nancy Lee, ASSOCIATED PRESS

  17. Dad takes the white marten from the trap. ~ Eden Robinson, TRAPLINES

  18. If you were to write a letter out of the blue, typewritten, handwritten, whatever, and remind me that you were once in the same advanced recorder class with me at the YMCA on the south side of Montreal and that you were the girl given to head colds and black knitted tights and whose Sprightly Music for the Recorder had shed its binding, then I would, feigning a little diffidence, try to shore up a coarsened image of the winter of 1972. ~ Carol Shields, CHEMISTRY

  19. Mashenka Pavletsky, a young girl who had only just finished her studies at a boarding school, returning from a walk to the house of the Kushkins, with whom she was living as a governess, found the household in a terrible turmoil. ~ Anton Chekhov, AN UPHEAVAL 

Sample Story Starters from Novels

The fourteen story starters below come from successful novels. Whether for short stories or novels, the first sentence serves several purposes—to pique our interest, to suggest voice and tone, and most of all: to make us want to read on.

  1. On a wet night in Thatcher's Britain, a miracle was delivered onto the pockmarked pavement behind a decrepit building once known as Lambeth Hospital. ~ Camilla Gibb, SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY

  2. First, the facts. ~ Richard Russo, BRIDGE OF SIGHS

  3. I have never looked into my sister's eyes. ~ Lori Lansens, THE GIRLS

  4. The only doctor in town was Tailgate Smith. ~ Robert Hilles, A GRADUAL RUIN

  5. The first time I met Cosmo, Your Honour, was in my mother's eyes. ~ Nancy Huston, AN ADORATION

  6. A few years ago it dawned on me that everybody past a certain age—regardless of how they look on the outside—pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives. ~ Douglas Copeland, THE GUM THIEF

  7. All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. ~ Kiran Desai, THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS

  8. One morning toward the end of the summer they burned away my face. My little brother and I were playing on the bank of the river that flowed past the eastern edge of our old neighbourhood, on the grassy flood plain that had been my people's home and misery for centuries. ~ Dennis Bock, THE ASH GARDEN

  9. Storms are sex. ~ Kevin Patterson, CONSUMPTION

  10. The trees whoosh in the wind, their leaves are green and black in the Ford headlights that bounce up and down through the grey dust of the road. ~ Marilyn Bowering, WHAT IT TAKES TO BE HUMAN

  11. On a sweltering afternoon in early June, Celia Fox stands at the railing of her deck and smokes the second-to-last cigarette she'll allow herself before going to work. ~ Barbara Gowdy, HELPLESS

  12. I seem to have trouble dying. ~ Lawrence Hill, THE BOOK OF NEGROES

The Most Brilliant Story Starters are unforgettable

Finally how about this brilliant story starter from Justin Torres novel We the Animals:

We all three sat at the kitchen table in our raincoats, and Joel smashed tomatoes with a small rubber mallet. We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that. We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. 

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