by Ellen Buikema
How do I start to write a story? Does it have start at the beginning? Should I have a separate writing space? If I stare at the cursor blinking at the screen long enough, will ideas magically pop into my mind?
There is no one best way to start your story because there are too many variables to consider. But there are many ways to begin.
If you can’t think of a beginning, start deeper into the story. Author, James Scott Bell’s book Write Your Novel From the Middle suggests that the middle is where the protagonist tries to reach their story goal, where they transform. These changes cause conflict between the protagonist and the other characters, particularly the antagonist.2
Write what you “see” in your mind and then put the pieces together. This is the method used by author Diana Gabaldon, who said, “I write just about everything piecemeal, including nonfiction articles, book reviews and essays. It’s effective because it works; I’m never held up stewing about What Comes Next— I don’t care what comes next, I just care about something I can see happening. The order of the happening has a logic to it (often, more than one), and that will become clear to me as I work.”
John Irving writes backwards. He starts writing a book with the last sentence and then works back to where the story starts. This process can take a year or more. He’s written the majority of his novels this way.
In A Prayer For Owen Meany, Irving’s last line is, “O God-please give him back! I shall keep asking You.”
The first line. “I AM DOOMED to remember a boy with a wrecked voice-not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
Beginning and ending, beautifully tied together.
Starting your story by introducing your main character is a great way to hook your readers emotionally—especially when written in first person, showing their worldview.
Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, uses this type of beginning. “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.”
When readers care about a character, they want to know what’s happening to them next and will keep reading.
Start with something that immediately grabs the reader, like an action scene that lets your readers know right away what kind of story this is.
Here is an example from the opening scene of the dystopian fantasy Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:
“It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black.”
Some writers prefer to make a detailed outline, which helps keep them organized. This is a plotting technique. Jim Butcher, who writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk, gives a detailed description of his method for setting up a story in his live journal. titled, Putting It All Together: How to Get Your Story Started or Organizing This Frickin' Mess
Jim Butcher is a big believer in the BIC (butt in chair) method. If you decide to enter NaNoWriMo, this is the method you will use.
Begin with a mystery on the first page that keeps your readers intrigued until it’s solved. Mystery can be within any genre. Start with a question, problem, or strange event, and they’ll need to know what happens next.
“People’s lives—their real lives, as opposed to their simple physical existences—begin at different times. The real life of Thad Beaumont, a young boy who was born and raised in the Ridgeway section of Bergenfield, New Jersey, began in 1960. Two things happened to him that year. The first shaped his life; the second almost ended it.” The Dark Half, Stephen King
For me, this is not easy to do. I write a page and want to go back and “fix” any errors I’ve made. There are always errors.
One of the suggestions from NaNoWriMo was to sit and write without going back to change anything. Don’t rethink. Go with the flow. I didn’t believe that I could do this, but I tried anyway. It worked! I was a lot more productive. Granted, much was edited after the 50,000 words, but not stopping to edit after every paragraph or page allowed for better flow and more content.
Sometimes you have a basic idea of where the story starts, where it ends, a vague idea of what might happen in between but details are lacking. Write whatever pops into your head and make sense of it later. You never know what gems you’ll mine amongst the winding words.
Spending the time and effort to create a fantastic opening for your story is a great goal. However, worrying over it can stop your progress cold. The stress from worry will stifle your creative mind, so use your favorite method of relaxation, and then keep on with your writing journey.
Here are more ideas for ways to start a story.
How do you like to start your stories? What methods have you tried?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.
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