Just where do you begin when you want to tell a story?
Every writer seems to have their own unique method, developed over countless hours in front of a computer (or a typewriter for those old enough to remember what they are). If you don’t know where to begin your story, you could waste hours of time, while your deadline creeps forward.
Many writers are terrified of the blank page, as if it were some kind of horrible literary monster. Writers block can be especially painful when your mind is as empty as the page where the story is supposed to appear.
Fortunately, there is an answer.
Where To Begin Your Story
One way to approach a new project is to look at the different elements involved with writing: Premise, plot, character, setting, theme, genre, dialogue. Use one of these as the starting point for your story.
Premise – Probably the most common way to begin a story is with the idea. Many times an idea will simply pop into the mind, and when it does, you need to write it down before it fades away. Ideas are everywhere, just waiting to be picked up by someone that notices them.
One of the best ways to come up with an idea is to ask lots of questions. One of the best questions to ask is, “What if . . . ?” What if an alien spaceship landed in your backyard? What if the Iranians detonated a nuclear bomb over the United States? What if a woman discovers that her one true love is a murderer?
Plot – You might have an interesting idea for how a story unfolds. A good hook, such as the story opening onto the scene of a man dying from a gunshot wound, could be the genesis of an entire story. Other plot ideas could get your imagination going too. Do you have a great action scene in your mind? Can you imagine a great source of conflict for a story? There are as many plot ideas as there are stories.
Character – Quite often a writer will have a fascinating character in mind. Coming up with an interesting character is one of the best ways to begin a story. Remember to make your characters interesting by giving them a weakness, which is a character flaw that causes trouble in their life.
Setting – Unique places can also be great inspiration for a story. Have you ever been to a desert island? A hidden monastery? An old garden? What kinds of people visit these places? Another way to look at setting is to choose a time period. Victorian England, ancient Egypt during the wars against the Hittites, a haunted house, or a place in the future could all be great places to hold a story.
Theme – The idea for your story could also come from the theme, which can best be expressed as the writer’s view of the proper way to live in the world. A good way to think about thematic writing is to ask, “How will this story change my life?” When you approach a story from a thematic point of view, it may develop into some of your best writing. What makes you angry? What are you afraid of? What do you love more than anything else? Whatever gets your blood boiling, whatever makes you sad, whatever fills your heart with emotion can be the seed of a fantastic idea.
Genre – These are different story forms which have become so popular that they are all placed in their own unique category. Some genres are: Romance, Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller, Western, Horror, Action, Crime, and Comedy. Many writers begin with the genre they want to write in, but sometimes it can be interesting to begin with one genre, and then add another kind of genre and see where it takes you. For instance, if you want to write a fantasy tale, try adding a bit of romance, or a bit of mystery and see what happens.
Dialogue – Occasionally, a line of dialogue will stick in your mind, and it could even lead to an entire story. Be careful not to use a line from a popular movie, book or TV show. One technique is to search through quotations from famous people for an interesting saying, and then developing it into a story.
Action Steps When Facing A Blank Page
Now that you have an idea of where different story ideas come from, here’s what to do when you are facing a blank page:
1. Feed your muse. Read a book. Watch a movie. Read poetry every day. If you want your muse to be happy, you need to feed it with a steady dose of stories, music and poetry. I learned this technique from Ray Bradbury and it works like a charm!
2. Pick an approach (premise, plot, character, setting, or theme).
3. Ask questions to get ideas. Here are some useful things to ask:
Premise – What if?
Plot – What happens? What is revealed?
Character – Who is the story about?
Setting – Where does the story take place? What time period is it?
Theme – What do you hate? What do you love? What are you afraid of?
Genre – What genre do you love?
Dialogue – Listen to people. What are they talking about? Look at quotes from famous people and write them down. Listen to music. What is the song about?
4. Write down the answers. You may want to use more than one approach.
5. Now, write down whatever comes into your mind. Take a look at your list and see if you get any ideas. Can you combine some of them?
6. Choose a genre. After coming up with an idea for your story, choosing a genre is the most important choice you will make. The reason for this is that each genre is a unique story form, with its own story goal and plot points. Match the type of story you want to tell with the genre. For instance, if you want to explore the question of “What is human and what is not human?” then a horror story is the best form.
7. Structure your story. Figure out the seven steps of classical story structure:
7. New Equilibrium.
For more information on story structure, read the best book on writing:
“The Anatomy of Story,” by John Truby.
8. Outline the chapters of your book. Give each chapter a name. Don’t just pick any title. Choose a title that will stimulate your imagination. You can evoke an entire story from a good title. This is another great technique from Ray Bradbury.
9. Write a list of scenes. Every scene has action, emotion, a goal, an opponent, conflict, a setting and a revelation (discovery).
10. Start writing! Now you’re ready to begin your story.
Get Started Now
Now that we’ve explored the various ways to come up with a story, it’s time to get started. Take out a sheet of paper. You may notice that it is currently blank. That’s fine. Don’t let it scare you. Now go through the action steps above and write down your ideas. Pick a genre, write down the basic structure of your story. Pick titles for some of the chapters of your book. Outline your first scene and start writing!
Hopefully, you’ll never need to worry about facing a blank page ever again!
– Mark O’Bannon