Techniques of Story Opening

If you’re lucky enough for a bookstore browser to pick up your debut novel and read the back cover, the next goal is to get them hooked on the first page of the story. At a book signing recently, one reader told me that she decided whether she liked the style of an author in the first three to four paragraphs. With millions of books to choose from, it is an enormous challenge to engage the reader fast.

James Scott Bell[1] says the keys to a good opening are:

·                    Getting the reader hooked
·                    Establishing a bond between the reader and protagonist
·                    Establishing setting
·                    Establishing the tone, style and nature of the novel
·                    Introducing the antagonist
·                    Compelling the reader to continue

What are our options for the opening scene?

1: The Big Bang: In this opening, there is major conflict for the hero from the first page. The hero is in full flight, saving someone, or in deep trouble and has to get out.

This is how I began my debut novel No Remorse:

“Lee McCloud ached to kill the five men in the valley below. But he couldn’t. Not yet.”

In this case, McCloud is a soldier on a personal mission to save two kidnapped girls.

The advantage of this type of opening is in the use of high stakes conflict to hook the reader. Some readers, however, prefer to get a feel for the key characters of the story before they are plunged into a crisis. So the second option is to portray the main characters in their everyday lives just prior to the inciting event that triggers the story. I call this the Grenade opening.

2: The Grenade: Here the reader is introduced to the hero, or possibly the antagonist, in their normal routine and the second or third scene moves to the inciting event. This style of opening occurs less often in thrillers and suspense, and more often where setting is important, and in literary fiction.

3. Indirect Impact: One of the more popular methods of opening is to use an event without the protagonist, which nevertheless impacts on the main characters in some way. A great example is John Grisham’s The Client, which sees two boys trying to stop an attorney committing suicide by repeatedly pulling the hose from his car’s exhaust.

This technique is frequently used for the beginning of a mystery, where a body is discovered or someone is murdered, although such openings have become a little worn and predictable.

4. The Prologue: The prologue is designed to hook the reader by showing an event or stakes character that becomes significant later in the story, or by relating an event that has happened in the past that has brought us to the point where the story begins. It is used less frequently these days, as writers try to avoid delaying the start of the story or use other techniques in place of the prologue.

5. The Foreshadowing Hook: This involves a character recalling how an event was to have traumatic impact later on, implying that the reader has to read on to see what happens. Stephen King is an author who uses this technique.

6. The Narrator Setup: This type of beginning usually has a character as narrator, who explains the genesis of the story. Such openings frequently use a device such as a diary, discovery of a document, photograph or item with significant value or importance, which becomes the focal point of the story.

Whatever technique you use to start your story, it doesn’t alter the importance of hooking the reader in the first few paragraphs so they’ll want to keep reading.

[1] Bell, James Scott. Plot and Structure, 2004. Writers Digest Books.

Guest post by Ian Walkley,

Ian Walkley has had a career in social and market research, and has been writing novels, short stories, travel articles and copywriting since 2008. He has co-authored two publications on small business and his first novel, No Remorse, was published in 2012. Ian's screenplay "Deniable Justice" placed fourth in the Writer’s Digest 2011 Competition for best screenplay. Ian has travelled extensively and researched his subject, and brings a knowledge of location and technical detail to the exotic settings and big screen thrills. Ian lives in Brisbane with his wife and three children.

Ian will award a $50 Amazon GC to one randomly drawn commenter during the tour. I encourage you to follow the tour and comment; the more you comment, the better your chances of winning. The tour dates can be found here:


  1. Once you get the reader hooked you have it made.

  2. You're talking about something that really interests me. So many authors have said, and I agree, that the first line needs to be so powerful that it draws the reader right in. Needs to be strong enough to make the reader want to buy the book.

    So, tell me, is that all important first line the actual first line your write or do you go back when the story is done to figure out what the hook will be?

    kareninnc at gmail dot com

  3. Very interesting and instructive guide--I never realized there were so many specific openings!


  4. I love to read the last page, but the first page has to be good too. I remember when I first read a Ludlum book. Each chapter started with a heart stopper. I loved it.

  5. Hi Jo, thanks for inviting me along to your great blog site. Thanks everyone for your comments today. Karen, I think it's fair to say that most authors would have worked on their first line many times. I would have probably written the first line 100 times or more, and the first page dozens of times. Certainly you have a better idea of the hook after the book has finished, but I think many writers probably have a "starting point" for a story, around the inciting event, and write that first. So the hook for the reader is also the hook to motivate the writer to continue writing the story. We want to see what happens too!

  6. Interesting post, Ian, and well laid-out. Thanks for the breakdown of different kinds of openings. I like it best when a novel starts out in the head of the protagonist, so I know right away whose story it is.

    I also am a big fan of James Scott Bell. I love his book Revision & Self-Editing, and recommend it to my novelist clients all the time. His Conflict & Suspense is excellent, too.

  7. Ian, great wrap up and love the opening of No Remorse. I just got Bell's Plot & Structure and have been wearing out his Conflict & Suspense writing my new novel.

  8. After I have looked at the cover & read the blurb I always read the first page. I know from this if the book is for me or not.


  9. Rebecca Hipworth7 August 2012 at 21:49

    Sounds good and I like the cover.



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