As part of our Beginnings series, we answer a frequently-screamed-question (FSQ) from our writing community – where the heck do you even begin?
So. You have an idea for a story, but where to start? How do you conquer the fear of the blank page and turn the idea in your head into something tangible on paper?
To begin any piece of writing, whether it’s a 200-word piece of flash fiction or a 100,000-word novel, requires two important ingredients:
- Some sort of catalyst. The best ideas are the ones that just won’t leave you alone. Your story might appear in a blaze of inspiration or it might be a slow burner that gradually insinuates itself into your brain over a period of months or years. Either way, at some point, you have to actually sit down and start writing, or that idea will continue to sit in your head forever and never manifest itself as a literary THING.
- A wee bit of preparation. Stories don’t just appear from nowhere. Even the most free-writing, seat-of-their-pants author has to do some sort of planning (and later, editing) before they have a finished piece. Diving into a new piece of work unprepared may be exciting to start with, but sure enough, somewhere along the way, you’ll find yourself stuck. And for those of you who balk in terror at the sight of a virgin-fresh document, a little prep will make the whole process a lot less daunting.
So. First things first. Your idea. Take a mo and write down a two or three sentence summary of your story. Something like: It’s about a bombardier in WWII who is terrified of flying any more missions and wants to be sent home. The only way he can get discharged is if he’s declared insane, but if he’s insane then he wouldn’t be afraid of flying more missions, and by saying that he doesn’t want to fly any more missions he’s proved himself to be sane. It’s a Catch-22 situation.
It’s a great idea, but how on earth do you begin to break that down into scenes and structure and all the other layers that are needed to flesh out a story?
Panic not. The next step is to ask yourself a few soul-searching questions to make sure you’re armed with everything you need to do battle with your new literary nemesis.
See if you can answer the following questions, and once you have some answers, you should be able to identify a likely looking jumping off point and build up a solid foundation for your story:
Are you prepared for your first draft to be shit?
Many writers fall down before they even start because of the age-old nagging doubt that what they write will never be as good as what they’ve imagined. Well, here’s an uncomfortable truth: it probably won’t be. At least not at first. Not until you’ve got to know your story a whole lot better and worked and worked and worked and tweaked and edited and fiddled and sought some objective advice and then worked some more. First drafts are meant to be shit. That’s why they’re first drafts. Get the words down. Make them better later. Worrying about the quality of you writing at the early stages is a surefire way of preventing yourself from ever writing a thing.
Do you know who your protagonist is?
Seems like a bit of a no brainer, perhaps, but knowing your main character – who they are, where they’ve come from, what they want – is the first step to fleshing out your plot. Plot is nothing without a strong protagonist driving it forward. Have a watch of Costa Prize-winning author Emma Healey’s advice about story starting points to see what we mean:
As Emma says: you need to know your character’s QUEST if you’re going to build a story around them.
Does your story ask a question?
We talk a lot about the idea of stories having a ‘fundamental human truth’ here at Writers’ HQ. What that means is: what’s the question your story is asking (and, hopefully, answering)? For example, Catch-22 asks all sorts of difficult questions about the ethics of war. Macbeth asks whether we’re tethered to fate or make our own destiny. The Power asks what’s more destructive: gender inequality or the corruption of power? Find your fundamental truth and you’ll have a perpetual reminder of what the heck you’re writing about.
Does it have that ‘magic’ ingredient?
The X-factor, the plum in the pudding, the diamond in the rough. All the best stories have something about them that makes them stand out. You have to be utterly in love you’re your story to want to keep writing it – and, indeed, to even begin. Catriona Ward, author of Rawblood, reckons that to be able to commit to any story idea, it has to have that special ‘something’:
Recognising a good story idea is half the battle – once you’re sure a concept has ‘legs’, you can properly commit to it and get started.
What do you already KNOW?
‘Write what you know’ is a somewhat hackneyed and misinterpreted piece of advice, but it has its merits. When you think about your story idea, are there any moments or scenes or exchanges that already feel fully-formed and ‘real’? Can you visualise them vividly? Could you write them down right now, even without knowing all the other details of the story? Well, why not do that. Write down what you know – whether it’s in note form, a bullet list, or prose – and start with that. You can always change it later, but it might just kick you off in the right direction to get the rest of the story out.
Have you done any research?
Research isn’t just for historical novels and non-fiction. There’s always something you could be researching to bring extra depth and realism to your story. Writing a contemporary novel set in your home town? Go on a reccie and note down details you’ve never noticed before – the inscription on the memorial in the graveyard, the alleyway behind the pub, the old lady who runs the bakery that seems to have always been an old lady, even when you were little, and must be around 200 years old by now… Writing a detective novel where the protagonist gets shot in the arm? Find out about gunshot wounds and police procedure. Writing about an epic space battle in the year 3500 that’s actually a futuristic version of Agincourt? You know what to do…
Have you set the scene?
Establishing the world of your story, your central character, and your premise, are all vital starting points. You might not know all of them yet, but that’s fine. Just start thinking about how they might interact with each other. Identify a setting. Plonk your protagonist into it. Then give them that quest that Emma Healey mentioned before. Boom, you’re off. Here’s Sean Preston, editor of Open Pen magazine, on killer opening lines in fiction and how these elements make for excellent beginnings:
Do you have a plan?
You don’t need to have a detailed, foolproof (HA!) masterplan to begin your story, but having a general idea of where you’re starting, where you’re ending up, and the stuff that happens in the middle is a good place to begin. Doing some outlining before you start can head off all sorts of common writing problems, and even the vaguest plan will help to stave off fear of the blank page and give you some direction. If you’re a plotting novice, fear not – we have a bunch of free guides right here.
So. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin…