This review summarizes the combined insights from recent structural and functional studies of viral RNA-dependent RNA polymerases (RdRPs) with the primary focus on the mechanisms of initiation of RNA synthesis. Replication of RNA viruses has traditionally been approached using a combination of biochemical and genetic methods. Recently, high-resolution structures of six viral RdRPs have been determined. For three RdRPs, enzyme complexes with metal ions, single-stranded RNA and/or nucleoside triphosphates have also been solved. These advances have expanded our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of viral RNA synthesis and facilitated further RdRP studies by informed site-directed mutagenesis. What transpires is that the basic polymerase right hand shape provides the correct geometrical arrangement of substrate molecules and metal ions at the active site for the nucleotidyl transfer catalysis, while distinct structural elements have evolved in the different systems to ensure efficient initiation of RNA synthesis. These elements feed the template, NTPs and ions into the catalytic cavity, correctly position the template 3' terminus, transfer the products out of the catalytic site and orchestrate the transition from initiation to elongation.