22 March 2022

Where to Start - the Importance of Choosing the Right Story Opening

All writers, but especially newer writers, sometimes start their stories in the wrong place. And by "place," I don't mean the wrong setting, which I've written about before. See here. I mean starting in the wrong moment of the story.

Let's take a story about a bank robbery. There can be many places to open the tale. Do you start with your gunman stepping up to the teller? That opens right in the middle of the action. Excellent! Readers will love that. Or do you start the story when the robber enters the bank and looks around? Showing him checking out where the guard is and if he's distracted, and deciding which teller to approach (which one looks the most compliant?) and other such details could raise the tension even before the robber gets in line. Such an opening could work nicely too. 

But there are other options, aren't there? Do you open the story with the robber and his getaway driver in the car, on the way to the bank, talking about their plans? Or do you start with the robber getting a foreclosure notice on his house a week before the robbery, when he realizes he needs to get his hands on some money and fast? Or do you start when he's twenty years old with his first credit card, frivolously buying things he'll be paying back for years at a high interest rate, thus setting him on the path of getting that foreclosure notice? Or do you start on the day he's born, because everything that happens to him from that moment on ultimately brings him to the second when he shoves an empty bag at the teller and says, "This is a robbery"?

Lots of choices. Hopefully, no matter if you're writing a novel or short story, you won't start with the robber's birth. That could make for a very long tale. (Charles Dickens, I'm looking at you and your David Copperfield, the second sentence of which is, "To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born.") 

Every storyteller has to figure out for herself where the best place to start any particular story is, but it's always good to have the beginning centered around something happening or soon to happen. You don't want to start too early in the story (too long before some action occurs) because the reader could get antsy for something to happen to move the plot forward. (And, since we're talking about timing, you also don't want to start too late in the story. Imagine a bank robbery tale that started with the robbers running out out of the bank, into the getaway car, which takes off. The reader would feel confused and cheated because they missed all the excitement. If you're going to write a bank robbery story, you have to show the robbery!)

Given all of this, you might expect I'd say the absolute best place to start a robbery story is when the robber is about to shove his bag at the teller, thus starting with the action. But you'd be wrong. (Ha! A good story--including a good blog--can always benefit from a surprise, just like this one.) Anyway, while starting with the robber reaching the teller can be excellent, there is something to be said for a slower--or even slow--opening that showcases the main character and his emotional wound that sets him on the path to robbing the bank. A beginning that sets up the conflict from which the action will later (but not too much later) unfold also can work (such as the receipt of a foreclosure notice). So can an opening that introduces the setting, hiding little details you'll use later when all hell breaks loose. 

I used a slow opening in both my stories currently nominated for the Agatha Award, one a bit slower than the other. "A Family Matter" (from the Jan./Feb. 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine) opens with the main character, Doris, watching a moving van outside the vacant house next door. It looks like a nice family is moving in. At least that's what she thinks until she hears their chickens. The reader learns quickly that chickens are unacceptable in this nice neighborhood, and Doris believes she must take action to prevent them from taking roost. The conflict from which the story will unfold is thus quickly born, even if there isn't a lot of action right away.

In my story "A Tale of Two Sisters," (published in the anthology Murder on the Beach), the beginning is slower. We open in the middle of a wedding ceremony, with the maid of honor thinking, "My big sister, Emma, was no bridezilla, but heading into her wedding today, she’d been wound up so tight she was like a jack-in-the-box ready to spring." So, we open with the tone--the reader understands that this day is not just joyous but also tense. As the ceremony proceeds, Robin, the point-of-view character and maid of honor, sets the stage, introducing the reader to the key characters and their emotional needs. She addresses things she feared would go wrong during the ceremony. She mentions details the reader will (I hope) overlook until those details come into play later in the story. Finally the scene ends with the newly married couple's first kiss and Robin thinking: "A sigh of relief escaped my lips. Finally, we could relax. Fingers crossed, it would all be smooth sailing from here." This was a quiet opening. Nothing bad happened at all. But I expect the reader will know that poor Robin is kidding herself. If she thinks it will all be smoothing sailing from here, surely a shipwreck is in the offing. And many of the pieces that will go into creating the upcoming storm were baked into the story right from its slow start.

So, those are two openings that don't start with big action. But notice where I didn't start. I didn't open "A Family Matter" on the day Doris and her husband moved into the neighborhood and learned its social rules. I didn't open the story on the day the prior family moved out of the house next door. I opened with conflict: the new family moving in--with their chickens.  

Similarly, with "A Tale of Two Sisters," I didn't open with the maid of honor awakening the morning of the wedding and thinking about everything to come that day. I didn't open on the day the bride got engaged or met her fiance. I didn't open on a fateful day the prior year when something happened between the bride's mother and aunt that set certain things in motion. I started the story during the ceremony, late enough into the action so that the upcoming storm isn't far off, yet early enough that I could quietly plant a bunch of seeds that soon would bloom. 

Let's bring things back to my bank robbery scenario. Do you have to start such a story when the robber approaches the teller? Nope. You could start when the robber enters the bank. Or you could open with the robber outside the bank, in the car, debating if he should go through with his plan. Maybe you even could open when the would-be robber gets that foreclosure notice, which pushes him to devise his desperate plan. 

How you start your story is up to you. But whatever you choose, make sure there's something going on in that opening scene that's important, be it shoving a gun at a teller (starting with action) or opening a foreclosure notice (starting with the conflict from which the action will unfold). That way, whether you start with a bang or start slow, you'll have something to intrigue and lure in your reader and keep her turning the pages.


Want to read "A Family Matter" and "A Tale of Two Sisters"? You can find both stories on my website. Click here for "Family" and here for "Sisters." If you'd prefer to read a PDF version of "A Family Matter," you can find it on the AHMM website. Just click here.

And if you're interested in reading the three other short stories currently nominated for the Agatha Award (stories by Richie Narvaez, Gigi Pandian, and Shawn Reilly Simmons), you can find links to them on the Malice Domestic website. Click here and scroll down to the list of the nominated stories. The titles are all links.


  1. Excellent, Barb, but I htink a lot of it is the writer, the QUALITY of the writer and gut instinct. YOU have it.I love your stories. You can guide us, but few will have your gidft.Thanks for the pointers, though.

    1. That's very nice of you to say, Tonette. Thank you. (And you're welcome.)

  2. I would say good luck on both of your Agatha nominated stories, but since only one of those two can win, I'll just say best wishes on that one.

    Good article.

    1. Thanks, R.T. about the article and my stories. (And there could always be a tie!)

  3. Or you could start the story the night after the bank robbery. It's 4:00 a.m. & the robber wakes up to the sound of breaking glass. Someone is pointing a gun at him & shouting demands for more money. This person could be his getaway driver, one of the bank tellers, or someone who heard him bragging about how much money he stole.

    1. This is an interesting idea. It would have to be crafted just right, but it a very interesting idea--the robbery is backstory. Hmmm.

  4. Great article. Deciding where to start the story is important, and smoetimes tough to handle.
    I enjoyed "A Tale of Two Sisters." The opening truly set the tone of the story.

  5. Love this! My writing coach called stories with, e.g., the robbery in progress as "pot already boiling." My writing group was good at reminding me that I've written two or three paragraphs of warm-up that I'd be better off deleting. Write them, get them out of your system, then discard. BTW, I noticed none of your examples started with the weather! (Thank you, Elmore Leonard, for that bit of wisdom.)

    1. Thanks, Vicki! You could start with the weather, though, if it's pertinent to the story. Maybe a lightning strike could take out a town's 911 system, which is the start of chaos. There are so many possibilities!

  6. Your post highlights how individual each story is, or should be. It reflects how we can make any action or scenario uniquely our own. Something we need to remember when we write. How boring it would be if every opening aligned with our preconceptions. Thanks for the insight.

    1. You're welcome, Ellen. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. This highlights something I've been going through for some time. The first draft of my WIP started with a mother-daughter conflict at the same time that a small town is on edge because of a serial killer in a nearby city. It wasn't until 1/3 into the story that a young girl came up missing (not the daughter) and nearly halfway before a body was discovered. My group thought it was too slow. So I rewrote to open with the young girl missing. But that made for a LOT of backstory/flashbacks for the personal conflicts to make sense. Ugh. Right now I'm working with the alternate time-frame chapters which has enjoyed some popularity lately, i.e:
    Chap 1 girl missing
    Chap 2 20 yrs before
    Chap 3 search for girl
    Chap 4 15 yrs before
    Chap 5 girl's body discovered
    Chap 6 10 yrs before
    Well, it might be popular, but since I don't generally like this skipping-around style myself, I'm not feeling excited. So, still working!
    Thanks for a great read.

  8. Personal conflicts don't always have to make sense right away. Backstory should only be provided in as small an amount as necessary when necessary for the story to make sense. When there's conflict and the reader doesn't know what's going on exactly, that can lure the reader to keep reading to find out what the big secret is. Anyway, I hope that's helpful. I'm glad the blog was helpful too. And good luck.


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