Weekly Writing Memo: How to Start WritingPosted: May 18, 2016
It’s easy to say what should be in the beginning of a story and pretend like that is the answer to start writing, but knowing what’s in a beginning is not the same thing as knowing where to begin. If you’ve my old blog post on Author the World: What’s in a Beginning? then you know I believe there should be three things established in the first few pages of a story: character, tone, and something of substance that represents the heart of the story. That is the first step, but what else is needed to get started writing?
Know the Basics.
You have to build your story from something. A character, a setting, a conflict…something. So the first step is to establish the three keys to a beginning. Who is your character? What is the heart of the story about? What tone do you want the story to be told in?
Now, the “heart of the story” may not come right away, but you should have something in mind to start with, and if it changes as the story develops that’s fine. You just have to remember to go back and revise with the new “heart of the story” in mind.
If you’re having trouble establishing these things, then…
Follow the Protagonist.
Personally, I usually start by finding my protagonist. Then I mentally (or sometimes in freewriting) put them in various situations to figure out how they’d react and what kind of person they really are. I follow them around until I have a solid mental picture of who this character is, and then I use that to figure out what kind of trouble they’re most likely to get into.
For example, I have a mystery novel with an anxiety riddled, insecure protagonist. Her name is Cassie. The moment I wrote her I knew the trouble she was most likely to get into was letting her anxiety get carried away and imagining something simple was much worse than it was. In my story, she finds her brother’s apartment in a mess and decides he’s been kidnapped or murdered. Then I asked myself, what if she was right but because of her anxiety and tendency to over-exaggerate no one believed her? Imagine the trouble she’d get into if she had to try to investigate this missing person all on her own.
If you follow your protagonist, and really understand them, then you should be able to see what kind of trouble that protagonist would naturally fall into and find your plot. Finding the plot, or the challenge your character has to overcome, will help you find not only the heart of your story, but the tone as well. For my mystery, the heart of the story is that everyone has multiple sides to them, and sometimes crazy people aren’t as crazy as they seem. The tone for my mystery is humorous, and involves an unreliable narrator.
But where to Begin?
Once I followed my character to discover the conflict, I had to decide where to start her story. I could’ve started off with Cassie going to work and then going to visit her brother, but I didn’t need all that build up to the discovery because the discovery wasn’t the surprising thing in the story, the surprising thing is that no one believes Cassie at first.
I chose to start the story the moment AFTER Cassie discovers her brother’s disheveled apartment. I don’t show her initial panicked reaction because it would have made her immediately seem overly dramatic and unreliable. Instead we see her moments later when she has slight control over her anxiety and is fighting it, which makes her seem like she knows she’s overreacting. She presents the evidence, and tries to rationalize it in various ways but always ends up back at the worst case scenario.
By the time she’s done, the audience is almost convinced that maybe something bad has happened because we’ve seen her thought process and we want to believe her. Then, Cassie’s other brother arrives to the scene and Cassie’s ideas start to seem a bit less believable with a more rational head present. By the time the duo goes to the police station to appease Cassie’s concerns, the audience is all but convinced she’s probably overreacting while Cassie is more convinced than ever that she’s right. This chain of events put her on track for the rest of her story to go off and investigate on her own, and bit-by-bit to prove herself reliable again.
For me, following the protagonist and knowing what I needed to establish early on helped me find where to start my story. That being said, following your protagonist may not always work so there are several other methods for finding where to begin your story.
- Work Backwards.
An alternate method to finding your beginning is to start from the scene you do know and work your way backwards in an outline or mental form. Ask yourself what has to happen in order to get your characters to that one particular moment you do know? Okay, now what part of those events does the audience absolutely need to see in order to enjoy and understand the story? If you only can find big key moments, then chart those.
Try to find the big moments of the story: The Inciting Incident (where things first go wrong), the Catalyst (the thing that forces your protagonist to actively try to solve the problem), The False Win (where it seems like the protagonist has it all figured out and then things go SUPER wrong), and the Resolution (where the problem is finally solved). There are others, of course, depending on which story guide you look at. So choose your favorite story arc spread, decide where the moment you know fits into it, and then plot out the moments that have to happen.
Just remember, you don’t need to write every moment between every key point. You only need the ones that the story, or the character, wouldn’t make sense without.
- Find Normal.
This method doesn’t work for all story types, but for stories that are about a main protagonist being thrown out of their “normal” zone this method can work. Most stories involve this in some way, shape or form, but sometimes it’s not as obvious as others.
For example, if you look at a movie like the action flick “The Losers” with Jeffrey Dean Morgan. The team’s “normal” is being military guys doing missions. When they’re thrown out of their “normal” it’s not that they’re sent back to civilian life or something completely opposite, but rather that they’re forced to work outside the military on their own, outside the law.
To find your story’s beginning using this method start by discovering what your protagonist’s “normal” is. Find a moment as close to when that “normal” is about to be upturned in the story to begin at so you can show the readers what normal is before you throw your protagonist’s life into chaos (so to speak) with the events of the story. You want to do this so your reader can see how the events of the story change your protagonist.
In my mystery, Cassie’s normal is being unsure of herself and filled with anxiety, but the moment her beliefs are rejected by her other brother as well as the police she gains some confidence and determination to act, even if she’s still somewhat unsure of herself. Through investigating her brother’s disappearance, she forces herself to overcome her anxiety and insecurity in order to save her brother. Which completely throws her out of her “normal” zone.
- Start Where You Know.
If you can’t backtrack, and you can’t find “normal”, one of your other options is to simply start where you know. Start at the moment you know is part of the story and write forward until you reach the end, or until you get stuck, or until you figure out more of what comes before. Once you stop writing forward, look back at the story and figure out what else your reader needs to know in order to understand the events you’ve written. Then backtrack if necessary and add those events into the beginning.
Also look at what you’ve written and at the character and plot and see how their arcs look. Does the character change and grow because of the events of the story? Does the plot have a solid beginning, middle, and end? If yes, then maybe the moment you knew and started at was the beginning, you just didn’t know it. If no, then again, backtrack as much as necessary until you have completed the arcs as needed.
No matter how you find your start, or where you start, always remember that once you finish the first draft you absolutely should go back to your beginning and see if the character, tone, and story core you established in the beginning fits the story now that it is over. Many, many times while writing I’ll find that as I’ve written, the character grows, or the tone shifts, or the heart of the story becomes something else. If this happens and you don’t revise your beginning to fit the future text, then the beginning will feel false and disconnected from the rest of the story.
The last thing I’ll say is a piece of advice I got from one of my mentors at the MFA program I graduated from and something to keep in mind whenever you’re writing. I don’t remember if he made it up himself or if he heard it somewhere else, but he always told me to: “start every scene as late as possible, and end every scene as soon as possible.” If you do that, it’ll minimize the excess words and keep your story focused on what’s important.