Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – How to Start a Story

pin fight way outThey say that beginning is the hardest part, and they aren’t kidding.

Have you ever gotten excited about a story idea only to have your enthusiasm squelched by the blank page? I have. Whether I’m gently cupping the first smoldering cinder of a new tale in my eager hands, or carefully holding the almost-fully realized story in my mind; when I sit down at the keyboard to type those critical first words, I freeze.

The pressure of finding the “just right” way to begin is too much.

We all know how important beginnings are. Those first lines are what will (or won’t) grab your reader. They set the scene and the tone for everything that follows. In short, they can make or break your story.

It’s a lot to ask of a few hundred words.

But here’s the thing – you don’t have to start at the beginning. In fact, most of the time it’s better to start in the middle.

Just because, ultimately, your story will be read in a linear fashion doesn’t mean you have to write it that way. Start where you are inspired. You are the writer. You’re in charge. You can drop into your story anywhere you feel like it. You can write it backwards if you want to. (Some people do.)

Often, even if you think you’re starting at the beginning, you will go back to find that your real beginning is buried somewhere on page three, or page thirty-three. Sometimes you have to write that much to figure out your best beginning. By charging ahead, you can take advantage of the chance to do a little reverse engineering and craft a beginning that launches your story perfectly.

Beginnings are hard, so don’t start there. Just start. You’ll get around to writing the beginning … eventually.

55 thoughts on “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – How to Start a Story

  1. I cannot agree more. I know for me initial inspiration comes in the form of a seed of an idea that is the heart of the story, then I must define the heart of the story and then determine what led up to it and then what will be the outcome on the other side. It is the core of the story that grabs the reader’s attention as they become hooked and connect to it. A good heart of the story allows for other future stories using the same characters and setting…

    • Exactly! I often hold off on crafting my headlines until I’ve got the body copy all put together.

  2. This makes so much sense. I have had probably half a dozen ideas that I was initially confident I could turn into something concrete but when I begin writing, I get discouraged because I just can’t get it right. I guess this gives me a different perspective on it.

    • Excellent! Maybe try starting at a different point and then come around to the beginning from a different direction. You will likely discover an alternate route to your destination. 😉

    • Titles can be either the inspiration or the cherry on top, depending on how things develop. I’ve had the experience both ways. TKS for coming by. 🙂

  3. I fully agree! I have been toying with a story for years now, but the scenes that are so vivid in my mind are typically hundreds of pages in. The end has been written for awhile now, too. I think if you write the middle or end, you realize how your characters got there and going back to the beginning isn’t so difficult anymore.

    • Hmmm … almost seems like at that point it’s just a matter of dropping in the final puzzle pieces. 🙂 Nice!

  4. Resonating post. Also, something I like to do is that if I’m particularly inspired with a piece I’ll write “the first sentence” which will encompass a thematic hook that gives an idea for what tone I want the rest of the story to be at. After that first sentence, I write wherever, like you describe. Sometimes, the first sentence changes dramatically to fit an intro and sometimes the intro clicks neatly into place with the sentence. Either way, it’s a technique that gets me writing! 😉

    • I like that idea. I think the thing to remember is that none of your words are etched in stone. Just because you put them down doesn’t mean they have to stay there. Revision is a wonderful thing. 😉

  5. You make a very good point. Thank you for this post. I’ll remember that I don’t always have to being at the beginning, I just have to start writing.

  6. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Sometimes starting a story, or any writing project in general, can be so scary. Just writing down my thoughts without thinking — free-writing or whatever you might call it — helps me. I always end up changing things a lot, chipping off words here and there. Sometimes I delete entire paragraphs or scenes. But just having something rough to work with makes all the difference. Thanks for your words of wisdom. Really appreciate it.

    • Yes – “having something rough to work with” is MUCH easier than staring at the blank page. 🙂 I need to practice that more than I do now. Sometimes I try to avoid the “shitty first draft” by editing and polishing as I go, but the more I learn, the more I realize that it’s actually more efficient to just get SOMETHING down and then go back and start reworking it. You can keep the good stuff, change the so-so stuff, and nix the awful stuff. The whole process is much faster when you have a rough draft to work from. 🙂

  7. Sometimes painters cover an entire white canvas with a light glaze. That not only provides surface to glide paint over, but also takes away the fear of the first mark that might be wrong.
    Just writing does the same. Gets the brain to shift into story telling mode – lets thoughts wander a bit until the direction gels. You can always come back and chop off the preliminary warmup dance

    • “warmup dance” <— I love that. 🙂
      Yes – sometimes it takes us a while to get into the groove and we should just accept that and know that we CAN go back and carve off all that nonsense in a later draft. That's a great way to think about it. Thanks!

  8. I don’t write stories. I write memoir. But I often face the same sense of stuck-ness as you describe. I grab on to the first striking thing – the look, the color, the dialogue – that made the memory stick with me in the first place. That gets me started and oddly, it rarely changes when I get through the piece. If I think about it in those terms, it seems like I’m able to start in the right place. Thanks for helping me think about this in a new way.

    • That’s so interesting, Jan. I love that you start with a single element rather than a full scene and build from there. And how interesting that your starting point usually remains steady and true. Thanks for sharing your process.

  9. Hi Jamie. I know what you are saying. I face that with every one of my scenes. So far, I’ve faced it 72 times, and I have just 10 to go (I hope).

    But, since I’m a plotter, I can do things to get myself started. First of all, I have my outline, my story arc, and about a dozen character arcs.

    In Scrivener, I pull up my character arcs and my story arc, and I copy – paste stuff that applies to my scene onto a new page I call NOTES AND QUOTES. Then I edit it, taking out what I don’t want, and making sure what I do want is still there. So, that’s how I fill that page.

    Then I open another page and write in beats to my scene, copying over stuff from NOTES AND QUOTES, starting with POV goal, antagonist goal, and scene outcome. Then I fill in the POV’s internal struggle and her external struggle. And, I build up my scene spine. And that page is filled up.

    Then I open another page and copy my scene spine over. And I start filling in what I call my ping – pong math between my POV and whoever opposes her (sometimes just one, sometimes several). When I get done, I have my basic script in note form. So, I filled that sheet up.

    Then I open a new page, the real one. It’s blank. But, I copy in my setting and goal notes. Then I start writing.

    Sorry I was so long winded.

    Silent

    • Hello, Silent!

      No need to apologize for being “long-winded.” Thanks for sharing this peek into your process – love all the detail. Reading it makes me itch to start experimenting with my own process.
      😉

  10. I actually had this exact feeling earlier today – I wanted so badly to participate in the Blogging / Writing 101 assignments, but with a new job – I’ve already fallen behind. I really wanted to write about one of the listed topics tonight..but my mind seems blank – because I’m trying to start my story at the beginning – but, I’m going to try and start it with the beginning .. or like you said, it’s my story, I can jump in wherever I want! Thanks for the advice, I think I’ll try it out!

    • You’re welcome & good luck with your assignments. It never seems to be the “right” time (translation: “easy” time) to commit to your writing practice, but – in truth – Now is always the Right Time. It’s the Only Time.

      Good luck!

  11. That’s why I always write a description (something short, like what you would find on the back of a book) and I go through this plotting worksheet that I got from another blog. By that time, I’m normally so hyped about a book idea, nothing can stop me for a good month after I start. It lets me get a general feel for how I want the book to go.

    • That sounds like a great way to get a foothold, so to speak. Thanks for sharing your process. 🙂

    • Couldn’t agree more. When you finally get the right combination of words, it’s both an elation and a relief. Feels great. 🙂

  12. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Start in the Middle (In Medias Res) | Live to Write – Write to Live

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s