Getting started writing a story is often the hardest part. Many students find creative writing a daunting prospect, often feeling embarrassed or suffering from a bad case of “mind blanks” when faced with a tricky starter. So what is the best way to rid yourself of these doubts – and write like a true pro? By learning from the pros of course! Here are five ideas based on famous opening lines, to get you off to a racing start next time you’re faced with that blank piece of paper.

These tips are just as applicable for pupils at 11+, GCSE, A Level (or even adult writers!) – after all, it’s the themes, phrasing, vocabulary etc. that are really going to make your story. Think of the following as the basic building blocks to which you’ll add the decoration. Good luck, and happy writing.

Good story openings make you ask questions…

To Mrs. Saville, England.

St. Petersburg, Dec. 11th, 17–

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday, and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking.

These classic opening lines are from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But what makes them stand out? First of all, this book is introduced as a letter. This allows Shelley to do something very clever – to instantly situate the story in time and space, with main characters, private emotions, dates and locations. Remember those 5 Ws? This opening gives us a tantalising glimpse into most of them, but encourages the reader to delve deeper into the mystery….

  • Who is Mrs Saville – and what is her relationship with the author? We find this out near the end of the paragraph…
  • Where is the writer? The recipient is in St. Petersburg, Russia – so they can’t be there…
  • When is this set? We know its December 11th, but the exact year is left blank…
  • What is the “undertaking” that the writer mysteriously refers to…?
  • Why does Mrs Saville regard this new enterprise “with such evil forebodings”?

Even better story openings will set up key conflicts…

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

These are the first lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. OK – so in the title we’ve already got “two” cities. Might there be some key differences between them? Possibly!? Read this paragraph again, and see if you can spot all of the juxtaposition (or antonyms) that Dickens has listed – there are at least 8. Just from these few lines, we may be able to guess that this book is concerned with extremes one way or another. Have a go at writing your own introduction using similarly paradoxical language…

Classic story starts will set the tone…

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armour plated , back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

This is the beginning to Metamorphoses by Franz Kafka (my all-time favourite author). It sets the tone for everything that follows. A man has been turned into a gigantic beetle? Why? He doesn’t know, and neither do we! The entire (short) story focuses on Gregor Samsa attempting to resume his normal life as best as possible, despite his new monstrous form. What could go wrong? Well quite a lot actually… but I definitely want to find out how he manages it.

Truly wonderful stories will drop you straight into the authors’ imagined world…

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs.

These lines are taken from George Orwell’s 1984; a classic piece of dystopian fiction. “Dystopian” is an imagined world where everything is not quite right (or very wrong, as it may turn out). So what strikes you as unusual about this first line? How many numbers are there on a normal clock?

In addition to surprising his reader from the start, Orwell also uses all of our senses to really make this world come alive. I can feel the cold “vile wind” and the “gritty dust” whipping against my cheeks. I can smell the “boiled cabbage” and “old rag mats” (whatever these are, I’m assuming they don’t smell great though), as well as see the man on the poster with his “heavy black moustache”. It’s a great example of that classic bit of advice to use 5 senses for setting the scene…

Last but not least – have you considered not starting at the start at all?

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s opening to One Hundred Years of Solitude (a story that from the title alone, tells us “time” will be a central theme) – we are faced with a wonderfully creative use of narrative time. How does this start? It starts in the far away future (presumably this is after the event, if the narrator is able to tell us about it), and then moves slightly back to the event with the firing squad, before delving into the character’s memories of a “distant afternoon” with his father.

Does he make it out alive? Did he deserve this punishment? Does he have any family left? You’ll have to read on to find out…

Have a go at writing a story opening in the style of each of the examples above. If you need any help thinking of titles, or want to share your work – let me know. I’d love to see it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s