How to Write a Great Story in 5 Steps

Storytelling comes naturally to human beings. That’s why stories are all around us. When you talk to your friends, you tell stories. When you watch movies and read books, you’re watching and reading stories. When you study history and current events, you’re understanding the world through stories. 

Why write a story? 

We think a better way to phrase that question is: Why not write a story?

You have stories to tell. And whether you consider yourself a storyteller or not, you already tell them. By learning how to write a story, you can become a stronger communicator and even a better writer in other areas, like academic and professional writing. 

What is a story?

A story is, essentially, an account of connected events. These events can be mentioned explicitly or implied. Take a look at this famous six-word story that’s often attributed (incorrectly) to Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

There’s a lot you might infer from this sentence. From the story’s scant clues, you might form ideas about who’s offering the shoes, why they were never worn, and why the seller is seeking payment for them rather than passing them along for free. As you make these inferences, you’re putting together a story. 

An account of events isn’t always a story, though. To be a story, the following five elements must be present:

  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Character
  • Theme

In our six-word example above, the reader is tasked with inferring most of these elements from the few words provided, like who the characters are and the conflict that led to the baby shoes being placed for sale. Here’s another example of a piece of flash fiction (that’s only one letter long!):

“Cosmic Report Card: Earth,” by Forrest J. Ackerman: F.

Who’s the character? The group issuing the cosmic report card. What’s the setting? The cosmos. The plot? Planets receive grades based on their cosmic performance. The conflict? Earth’s failing grade. The theme? Humanity’s unsatisfactory performance. 

While the story itself is only one letter long, the title is what really sets up the story and makes it possible for its single letter to communicate the story’s conflict and theme. 

The only rule for writing a story is that it contain these five elements. Otherwise, a story can be just about anything you want it to be. It can be as short as just a few words or so long that it spans multiple novels. 

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Different types of stories

Every story is unique, isn’t it? 

Every story might have a unique combination of characters, setting, plot, conflict, and theme, but every story can also fit into one of the seven plot types identified by journalist and author Christopher Booker. These plot types are:

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Rebirth
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy

These plot types are general outlines—two rags to riches stories can be dramatically different from each other, as can two stories in any other category. For example, Groundhog Day and Pride and Prejudice might have little in common on the surface, but they are both rebirth stories, meaning their plots recount how a flawed character faced an obstacle that forced them to become a better person. Grouping stories into these categories provides a framework for discussing, categorizing, and understanding stories. 

As we discussed above, there’s no minimum length for a story. There also isn’t a maximum length. Stories are often categorized by their lengths, though. These are the most commonly used designations:

  • Novel: More than 40,000 words
  • Novella: 17,500–40,000 words
  • Short story: 7,500 words or fewer

You might also be familiar with terms like novelette and flash fiction. These are subcategories that refer to stories of specific lengths within these larger categories. A novelette is longer than a short story but shorter than a novella, while flash fiction is a story told in typically fewer than 1,500 words. 

Is an anecdote the same as a story?

A short account of events that doesn’t have the five elements that make a story is known as an anecdote. A quick recap of an interaction you had at work and a rundown of your experience at an amusement park are anecdotes. 

narrative, on the other hand, is a story. Just as the word composition can refer to a specific piece of writing or the art of writing, the term narrative can refer to a story itself or how a story is told. A story’s narrative is the way its plot elements are presented. 

You probably know the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” The version you’re familiar with is a narrative told in the third person. Now imagine reading the story told from Mama Bear’s perspective—the narrative might include a passage like the following: 

“I followed the small, dirty footprints from the front door to the kitchen, where I found somebody had ransacked the pantry and left crumbs all over. 

‘Mama, come quick! Somebody’s in your bed!’ Papa Bear called from the bedroom. My heart pounding, I told Baby Bear to stay in the kitchen. I didn’t know what to expect . . . was this intruder dangerous?”

See how the storyteller’s perspective shapes the narrative? A narrative uses the point of view of the first or third person (and in some cases, second person.) 

How to write a story in 5 steps

The story writing process is similar but not identical to the writing process you use for other kinds of writing. With a story, you need to make sure the five elements we listed above are present. 

Here’s how to write a short story:

1 Find inspiration

The first step in writing a story is coming up with an idea. If the story is an assignment, you might already have a theme, a conflict, and/or other elements to work with. If not, look for  inspiration. You can find inspiration anywhere—your own experiences, news stories, historical events, even just letting your mind wander down a “what if?” rabbit hole

Watch. Listen. Observe. Take notes. Make a habit of doing all these things, and like writers throughout history, you will find inspiration all around you. 

2 Brainstorm

Once you have an idea for a story, brainstorm. Jot down all the ideas you have, including a rough outline of how the plot will progress. Let yourself play with ideas for characters, settings, plot points, and how the characters will resolve the main conflict (or not!).

With the basic points down, decide on the point of view you’ll use. This is where the idea of narrative comes into play—who is telling the story, and how does that character’s experience and perspective direct the narrative? 

3 Outline

Next, create an outline for your story. A story outline is similar to outlines used for other kinds of writing, like academic papers. Your outline is a basic framework for your story that lists its key plot points and relevant details. For a lot of writers, a story’s outline is helpful in mapping out the scenes that make up the story.

4 Write the first draft

It’s time to write. Sit down and resist the urge to edit your story as you go along—just get all that story writing out of your system. You’ll have plenty of time to edit later. 

5 Revise and edit your story

At this stage, it can be helpful to have others read your work. If you belong to a writing group, bring your story to them for constructive feedback. Readers are often better at catching plot holes, mischaracterizations, passages that can be strengthened, and other aspects that just aren’t working than the story’s author because they’re approaching it with fresh eyes. 

If you don’t belong to a writing group, ask a few close friends or loved ones to read your work. We know it’s an intimidating ask . . . but if you want to write stories for anybody other than yourself to read, getting reader feedback is crucial!

With reader feedback, you can revise your story. This revised version is your second draft. At this stage, it might be ready to publish, but don’t forget that proofreading and checking your spelling and punctuation are important parts of the editing process. It can also be helpful to ask your readers to give it another read-through and provide any additional feedback they have on the second draft. 

3 examples of stories

The Tortoise and the Hare, an allegory attributed to Greek storyteller Aesop, is one of many stories from the ancient world that have stood the test of time. Its theme is steady progress beats speed when one is pursuing a goal. 

Another famous story is The Thousand and One Nights. This is a collection of stories within a larger story, similar to The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron. The main plot of The Thousand and One Nights is the story of Scheherazade, a young woman who marries the king, delaying her execution by telling him a new story every night. Eager to hear the story’s end, he delays the execution over and over, for a total of 1,001 evenings. This kind of story is called a frame story, as multiple shorter stories fit into a larger framework.

Frankenstein (its official title is Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus) is a well-known story by Mary Shelley published in 1818. The story, which has been republished and reimagined countless times since its initial release, explores themes of life and death and the conflict of humans vs. nature. 

Writing a story FAQs 

What is a story?

A story is an account of events that includes a setting, theme, plot, conflict, and at least one character. 

How does a story work?

A story communicates a theme by telling the reader about a series of events, also known as a narrative. Within the narrative, a character faces at least one conflict, which often (but doesn’t always) change the character. 

What are the different types of stories?

There are many different kinds of stories. The seven basic plot types are: 

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Rebirth
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy

You want to learn how to start a story because you’re smart. You know the introduction of the book is the most important part.

After all, most readers skim those first few pages before deciding to read or not.

The key to writing a story that intrigues readers from the first page is ensuring you have all the elements of a strong opening—and you don’t want to skimp on it.

So what if you had a process that intrigued readers from the first page?

What if anyone who read your first few pages immediately wanted to buy your book?

It’s possible, and we have a proven system to make it happen.

Here are the steps for how to start a story:

  1. Write a strong opening sentence
  2. Connect the readers and character
  3. Produce intrigue
  4. Elicit an emotion in your story
  5. Start your story with a strong visual snapshot
  6. Write a compelling first paragraph
  7. Leave a hint
  8. End the first chapter on a cliffhanger
  9. End the first chapter with a bookend
  10. What to AVOID in the start of a story

How to Start a Story: Bestselling Author’s Blueprint

By default, nobody wants to read your book. Not even your mother. Not really. She’ll humor you, she’ll hope for you, but she doesn’t want to.

Since nobody is instilled with an innate commitment to read your book, you must craft that desire personally. Your opening paragraph, hell, your opening sentence is as much largess most people will be offered.

As any good salesperson knows, a crack is an opportunity and anything that opens a little can be forced to open a lot. All you need is confidence, technique, and the guts to push forward.

To this end, when starting a story, you must:

  1. Hook the reader
  2. Offer promises to sustain interest
  3. Cultivate a connection
  4. Sell the book!

Yes, that is a lot to ask from the first page, which is why so many writers stop before they get started.

Remember, the first page isn’t the first page you write, it is the first page someone reads. Of all the darlings you must get used to killing, your original first page should always be ripe for the axe.

If you want to learn more about creating a story readers keep coming back for, watch the interview with me below, where I break down the whole process, not just the start of a story:

#1 – Writing a strong opening sentence

Your opening sentence shouldn’t be a warning shot. No haphazard hail Mary you hope lands. It needs to be well-aimed and land solid. It sets a tone, introducing the reader to you and your world.

Like any first impression, it has as many don’ts attached as it has do’s. Let’s hit the do’s first.

You want to achieve a minimum of one and a maximum of three of these in your first sentence. Three is pushing it, you might want to try for that all-in approach, but you will just end up coming across disorganized.

A page long sentence can be an interesting, impressive feat, but as a first sentence, it reeks of smarter-than-the-room and will alienate most readers.

So try to bring in at least these three elements to your first sentence:

  • Connect the Reader to a Character
  • Produce Intrigue
  • Elicit an Emotion
  • Snapshot a Vivid Image

Diving off a cliff puts the reader immediately into the action. In film school, you will see this referred to as “in media res.” It works by forcing the reader to accept everything that is currently happening while also inviting them to see what happens next or hear what brought the character to this moment.

To execute this action-packed introduction, you need to have a firm idea of what is happening and deliver the setting with confidence, don’t over-explain and don’t linger.

#2 – Connect the character to the reader

One of the best things you can do at the start of a story is emotionally connect your character with your reader. If a reader is bought into the character and wants to learn more about them, they will buy your book and read the rest.

Connecting a reader to a character is done in several ways. You can show off a strength, reveal a weakness, or share an in-character insight. Each of these gives the reader a hook into the character, helping them to understand why they should follow along to see the character’s arc.

Brandon Sanderson, famous fantasy author, often gives the advice in his college writing class lectures that you want to do two of these three things to your character at the start of your story:

  1. Make them sympathetic
  2. Make them likeable
  3. Make them competent

You never want to do all three, because you run the risk of creating a “Mary Sue” or a character that’s so perfect readers don’t believe they’re real.

And this is why we also recommend fully developing your characters before starting the writing process.

Start of a story – character example:

“Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever.”

#3 – Produce intrigue

Producing intrigue works a lot the same as the Dive. The difference is you want to leave more questions than generate answers.

Again, the more you know about the story when you drop this first hint, the more clearly it will communicate.

Avoid vague prophecy, hit them with something that will echo when the reader arrives at the resolution.

Start of a story – producing intrigue example:

 

“Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”

#4 – Elicit an emotion

Eliciting an emotion is about getting the reader to feel something, not just displaying emotive language. You don’t want the reader to feel for the character or the world, as those fall into other categories. One of the main ways to do this is by adding literary devices to your story.

With this opening, you need to place the reader in a specific emotional headspace to engage with the rest of the page.

You accomplish this by using trigger phrases and touchstones.

Usually, these are words or phrases that elicit an emotional response in a person, including words that paint a vivid picture at the same time. If it feels real to a reader, they’ll be hooked.

In the example below, we have “dead” and “sky” that forms a sort of juxtaposition, pulling readers in.

Start of a story – emotion example:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

#5 – Create a strong visual snapshot

Finally, a snapshot is exactly that, a picture painted in words. You don’t want to make a whole landscape. Take a look at a random post card for five seconds.

What stood out to you? How would you describe that scene to someone else?

That’s the essence of a snapshot, the highlights, and standouts, not the overview.

Typically, the best tips for creating a strong visual will be to use these three writing hacks:

  1. Show, don’t tell
  2. Use strong verbs
  3. Use imagery whenever you write descriptions

In the example below in Little Birds by Hannah Lee Kidder, you really see the environment right from the first sentence. It pulls you in because the visual in your mind feels familiar, in a way. You can truly see it.

Start of a story – strong visuals example:

 

“Waking up every day to that goddamn shrilling tea kettle shooting steam into our kitchen, adding to the ever-growing smear on the ceiling.”

 

How To Start A Story - Imagery Example

#6 – Construct a compelling first paragraph

If everything has gone to plan you have gotten a foot in the door, wedged the sucker open, stepped into the vestibule, and presented your wary, but accepting, mark… er reader, with your wares.

You haven’t made the sale yet, but you have an opportunity to deliver a spiel before they work a clever excuse to get you out.

Seize that advantage by showing that your opening sentence leads into an opening paragraph that isn’t just more of the same but a makes some promises that most of the rest of the pages are also going to offer something worth sticking around for.

Having gained some headway, you have more to lose than gain. That is, there are more wrong things to do with the first paragraph than there are right things.

The right course of action has three options for your starting paragraphs:

  1. Stay the Course
  2. Ramp Up Gradually
  3. Double Down

1. Staying the course

Staying the course means keeping the same tone and attention you presented in the first sentence. This works best for mystery stories or when you have started with a Dive.

In both of these cases, the idea is often to put the reader immediately into the world and you need to be careful not to shake the hook loose with too much pull.

Example: Back to Stephen King and The Gunslinger, the paragraph after the opening line is a delicious snapshot of the desert mentioned. It holds the reader, drawing them further into the enormity of the task presented by the preceding sentence. He already has us ready to find out more, so he sets the hook gently, rather than pulling us right into the boat.

 

Start Of A Story - Chapter Example

Note also how he goes from one strong type of opening, the Dive (mixed with a character connection), into a snapshot. Right there he’s established three strong openings without breaking a sweat.

2. Ramping up gradually

Ramping up gradually is seen more often in character connections and snapshots. With each detail you add through the paragraph, you build interest. The character gets slowly separated from other characters of their type.

If you start with a high school student, you see how they break the mold. If you start with a city, you reveal what makes that city unique.

Example: Consider the wide panoramic opening of EM Forester’s Passage to India, how he shows the country in an almost dreamlike shot you can immediately visualize. The book was written before film was invented and yet it used a standard technique employed in nearly all aerial establishing shots.

3. Double down

The hardest technique to use is the double down. Here you pull hard and fast, hoping to take the opportunity gained by your first sentence to really wow the reader.

While this can be done with several techniques, you see it least commonly with the Dive. If your action is strong enough, more action blows the reader away. However, a complication to the action works.

By slipping in some Emotion or Intrigue you deepen the scene without pushing the reader out.

Example: In The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, a mysterious circus appears in the first sentence. Complicating this matter is the first paragraph which suggests the sudden appearance wasn’t the kind where it was simply not advertised in advance but hints it may well have materialized out of nowhere.

Regardless of the approach, remember that the first paragraph serves to grow your lead and hold the reader through the chapter.

While pulling is the goal, the main aim, as mentioned several times, is to avoid pushing the reader out.

We call these the Goldilocks Paradox:

  • Too Obvious
  • Too Obscure

In the Too Obvious scenario the reader develops a certain “Simpson’s Did It!” mentality. If they feel like they know exactly where the story is going, that this is just one more reprise of the hero’s journey, the fetch quest, the star-crossed lovers, they will put it down.

Conversely, if you go Too Obscure, they won’t have any investment. Sure, nobody has ever really read a book quite like those composed by Thomas Pynchon, but then again, ask anyone what Gravity’s Rainbow is about and be prepared to get a ‘the what and who?’ in response.

You want to land in familiar territory with some new spins. Don’t reinvent story structure or character, not in the first chapter. You need to gain trust before you start pulling the rug out from a reader

#7 – Leave a hint in the last paragraph

While the first sentence gets the reader hooked and the first paragraph makes promises, the last paragraph needs to introduce more concepts while limiting resolution.

That sounds like a heavy order because it is. It isn’t all that bad once you break down the components.

Aim for one of the following:

  • Hint at the End
  • Roadmap to a Plan
  • Cliffhanger
  • Bookend

Each of these chapter endings provides the reader a reason to keep going. Many television pilots fail at this, they either wrap up the first story and have nowhere to go, or they toss in a last-minute villain preview to suggest a larger threat somewhere.

Sure, it worked out for Avengers to tease Thanos but they also had the advantage of a sixty-year comics history to assure viewers they know how to build a multi-part story.

When you give a hint, you want it to be broad enough to be interesting but narrow enough that your resolution (within the next chapter or two) satisfies it completely.

If you toss an owl through a window to get Harry Hunter or Harry Potter to explore a magical world, you better make good on the magical world sooner than later.

If you are building up a large world and need to set several things in motion before you get to the major plot, which is a risky move in itself, you need to show the reader a roadmap. The hobbits need to get out of the Shire before they can get to Rivendell on their way to the ultimate goal.

#8 – Opt to end the chapter on a cliffhanger

Ending on a cliffhanger is usually a good call. The pulp stories of the 30s were sometimes christened Cliffhangers because they used this technique extensively. When releasing serial stories, it is the default way to go, how will our heroes get out of this sudden predicament!?

It makes the ending exciting and demands the reader pick up the next installment, or, in your case, turn the page and keep going just a bit further.

Cliffhanger Generation Tricks and Tips:

  • Someone Appears!
  • A Lingering Question
  • A Sudden Insight
  • The Depths Appear

Dropping a new character into the scene, especially one that shows up with the same aplomb as a first sentence Character Connection, gets the reader going. They want to know who this is, and why they will have importance to the next section.

The end of the first chapter of Stardust by Neil Gaiman does this perfectly, introducing us to a baby delivered via faery door. You have to turn the page to find out more.

In a Lingering Question scenario, you invite the reader to ponder something about the event that just transpired.

Why was it so hard, so easy, what was the significance of the turns? Any question that goes unanswered makes the reader wonder. In a serial, they would have to wonder for weeks, or months. In a book, they can always find out by turning a few pages.

Sudden insight works somewhat the opposite of the Lingering Question.

Here, a character understands something that just happened, something the reader may have been in the dark about, this often goes hand in hand with the next tip. Knowing what is at stake drives tension and the character and reader both being ‘in on it’ delivers.

The Depths Appear works well in science fiction, horror, and fantasy stories.

Any place where the world isn’t just what is known, where other dimensional forces can act, where a universe of possibilities can exist, it is possible for something else to be out there.

Alluding to the larger forces at the end of a first chapter puts the story into a context against these larger, more meaningful threats. This is especially a good idea when your first chapter reads like a self-contained story.

#9 – Try a bookend for the first chapter

I lied about the mother thing, turns out she really does want to read your book. She always did, she can’t not, mostly because she loves you.

This type of ending paragraph reflects the Bookend.

Here, you offer a mirror version of the first sentence to show that what has been set up and was so gripping originally has turned around. This works especially well for stories that start in a known world.

Dorothy isn’t in Kansas anymore, Alice ends up down the rabbit hole, and the once bright sky is now overcast with the

#10 – What to AVOID at the start of a story

While you toil to create these openings, you want to avoid a few key elements. Each of these can destroy your efforts and drive the reader into dismissal mode.

Avoid these elements when starting a story:

  • Mundane
  • Clichés
  • “He woke up”

World building is about establishing what your world is, not what it isn’t. Describing how the regular world works and then adding ‘but mine doesn’t do that’ wastes a lot of time.

Expect your reader to know mundane information and don’t bother repeating it. It bores you to write and the reader to read.

Cliché’s have their place in an established book genre. Don’t confuse a genre trope with a cliché. What you want to avoid is saying the same thing in the same way.

Your fantasy world may well have a dungeon and a dragon, but you don’t want to put those facts too close to each other.

Cliché will kill emotion in its cradle. Readers want to feel something genuine and cliché is the opposite of that.

Far too many science fiction stories start with someone coming out of some kind of sleep. There is a temptation to start the story from the very first conscious moment of the character but remember that you don’t even really remember the first few minutes of your day.

Start the story where you remember starting your day, usually after breakfast and post stimulant.

Not convinced? Alien 3 started with Ripley waking up in a tube. Nobody likes Alien 3, ergo, no starting by waking up.

How to Start a Story Example:

“The thing was big and white and hairy, and it was eating all the ice cream in the walk-in freezer.” — Monster by A. Lee Martinez

Start Of A Story Example

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