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Starting with a Bang
A great idea needs a great beginning. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a ton of self-proclaimed “great ideas” for stories, for novels, for short stories, for articles, you name it. But, where to start? Nervous about the prospect of diving into a story, I hack out a few thick paragraphs of setting. They are languid and overlong, delving too passionately into the ominous rain on a stormy night, the house’s decrepit state, the rivulets of storm water careening down the thatched roof tops.
It’s our jobs to cut the poetic fat and get right to the meat of our stories, especially on the first few pages, as that’s where we writers are usually nervous about taking a bite out of the narrative. Call it poetic throat-clearing, call it well-written stalling, but the fact is that stuffing your story with expository details can bog it down, no matter how beautifully crafted it is. As William Faulkner said, “Kill all your darlings.”
Get right into the meaty action. Have you characters with their guns out, busting down front doors, confessing their love, losing their virginity. Right where things get good is right where you should start from.
What does this approach to opening scenes accomplish?
- It hooks your reader. This is important if you want your reader to stick around and see what else you’ve got in store. Action is immediate; it involves a reader more than setting and requires them to pay attention. Long chunks of elegant scene-setting are fun to write, but they’re not going to grab your reader. Give them something to latch onto.
- It doesn’t overwhelm your reader with information. When you frontload your story with a ton of descriptions, your reader won’t know what’s important or what she should remember. This is especially important in fantasy or Science Fiction, where you’re building a world’s mechanics from the ground up. Throw your reader into the fray, then help them swim out. Toss them a buoy of exposition, setting, character description after they get a feel for what’s going on. Sprinkling in concrete details that describe the setting or the characters throughout the action makes it easier for a reader to digest.
- People are hardwired to want characters. It’s a reader’s natural inclination to search for characters, people they can attach themselves to help guide them. People get antsy without characters or solid action to help them through. Your story is going to happen to characters, so you might as well start there. We are all programmed to recognize faces. It’s the reason you can draw two dots and a curved line and everyone recognizes a smiling face. People crave other people. Give the people what they want.
There aren’t hard and fast rules in writing and it’s important to recognize the exceptions. There are cases when the landscape is so compelling it can snag a reader’s attention (usually in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres). But don’t think you can sustain a story on the weight of your punchy, vivid descriptions of your alien landscape. People better start doing things. And quick. Imagine your story as a movie. How long can a landscape sustain an audience member’s attention span? Probably not that long. How long can a really compelling car chase keep an audience captive?
The focus of the story isn’t landscapes or the doom-y weather plaguing them, but your characters. Characters are the driving force in any story, so don’t short-change them on screen time. Have them grab us by the throat and not let go. Get right to the good stuff and don’t let up.
Thank you for your question! If you have anything to add to this article or a question of your own, please visit our ask box!
- Wolf and O
Creating a Process: Getting Your Ideas onto Paper (And into a Story)
Anonymous asked: I feel very frustrated because I feel that I have forgotten how to write a story. My mind is full of ideas but I don’t know how to put them on paper and this makes me feel very angry with myself. Sometimes, I think that I have read so much advice that I am confused. Right now, I’m just writing character profiles. But I want to write stories, but I can’t. What do you guys recommend that I should do?
I don’t think we’ve addressed your particular predicament yet, so I’m going to do that now.
Listen, this is normal. What you are feeling, this confusion and sense of being overwhelmed, it’s completely normal.
- Walk around with a notebook or a few scraps of paper tomorrow and jot down ideas in your free time. Try to keep your ideas small, like a sentence or even just a phrase. “Johnny finds a secret door.” “Sanga won’t do her chores.”
- Mind map. Write down those little fragments of ideas and, if one strikes your fancy, circle it and mind map it while the idea is still fresh in your head. Again, try to keep your ideas in phrase-to-single-sentence format.
- Take your ideas and your mind maps and write little scenes. Maybe they are just clips of dialogue back and forth. Whatever you like. Write out fragments of the story now instead of fragments of the idea. Keep it short (or not).
- Expand. What happens between those little fragmented scenes? Maybe more little fragmented scenes, maybe chapters of story. Don’t think about it too much, just let the words flow. You don’t have to edit at this point. Don’t overthink your style or plot or character development. Just write.
- Fill in. Everything that you haven’t written to complete the story? Yeah, write that in. You probably think it’s boring or else it might be really hard for you to write since you saved it for last. Write it anyway. No one said writing was easy.
- Edit. Go through and streamline your story. Throw out stuff that didn’t work. Break up your action with exposition and vice versa (unless you don’t want to). Insert scenes or characters or plot points for clarity.
- Proceed to next story. I don’t know what you want to do with the one you’ve just finished, but you do whatever you’re going to do with that one then move on to planning the next idea.
That’s a basic writing process. If that doesn’t work, let me know where you got stuck and we’ll go from there.
Some other tricks that I think might help:
- Instead of trying to come up with some awesome beginning, just write “Once upon a time” and start somewhere. Literally anywhere will do.
- “Once upon a time there was a coffee cup named China who was lactose intolerant.”
- “Once upon a time they were fighting and he punched her in the face.”
- “Once upon a time no one liked Garson Homily because his parents were weird.”
- In our article This Is a Towel: Beginning and Developing Plot, we talk about three ideas (the first three under the link list) to expand plot. You mentioned that you write character profiles, so you’ve probably got characters in mind. Use these quick and dirty tips to come up with plot for those characters.
- Writing well means writing often. In Lift Yourself from a Writing Depression, we list some methods for just developing the habit of writing every day. For you, it may be to try to write something in a narrative format every day. Writing is not like riding a bike. Once you learn what works for you, you can still fall out of practice, so it’s important to write often. Very few writers can get away with long periods of time away from pen and paper. Write a story or a piece of a story every single day whether you feel like it or not. Make yourself contribute or complete a narrative. Write drabbles. Work on your saga of Fred the Unicorn. Whatever. Just write.
Thank you for your question! Please don’t hesitate to shoot us another message. I hope some of this helped!
Do you have a writing process? What is your method for writing stories?
One, Two, Three, GO!
queenofhistory asked: I have an idea for a story for quite a while, I just can’t seem to write it. I have the characters, the theme, even the title. It just won’t come out. I can write unrelated poems or prose, but not pieces that would actually contribute to this work. Any ideas on how I can fix this?
That being said, it is difficult address your situation specifically because when people create barriers for themselves, those barriers tend to be unique to the individual. Here are some articles that tackle common issues of this type:
- If you feel like the problem could be procrastination, check out Breaking Down the Wall: Overcoming Procrastination.
- Maybe it’s a “wall”? Read Boycott the “Wall”: A New Way of Thinking about Writer’s Block.
- It could be that you feel overwhelmed. Take a look at Creating a Process: Getting Your Ideas onto Paper (And into a Story).
None of those things? Try this:
- Go to our submit box. Answer these questions as completely as you can:
- Who is the main character of your story? Why should I care about this person?
- Where does the story start? Why there and then? How does it start?
- What is the first goal the main character works toward in the story? What are the steps the main character must take to accomplish that goal? How do they accomplish it, if they accomplish it?
- How does the main character talk to their supporting cast? Give an example of the main character having a brief chat with their favorite person and then another one with their least favorite person.
- How does the main character change between the first scene of the book and the last? How do they grow? How is their life different?
- What happens in your favorite scene? If you have many favorite scenes planned, pick one.
- Message us and let us know when you’ve submitted. Sometimes there are issues with our submit box, so make sure to save your reply to us somewhere else in case Tumblr eats it.
If anyone else is having this problem, I hope you’ll try this out as well!
Thank you for your question!