Beginning a New Story or Nuancing an Old One
We’ve all had those moments when pure inspiration strikes. An amazing new idea for a story crystallizes in your mind. You know you’re a genius, maybe even the best writer who’s ever lived. You prepare your writing tools and sit down ready to write the world’s next mega-bestselling novel. And you’ve got nothing. The empty page mocks you with its emptiness, and you have no idea where to start.
Whether you’re someone who uses an outline or one who prefers to fly by the seat of your pants—a plotter or a pantser—we all approach a new story with a few ideas already in mind, usually those concepts that drive us to start writing it in the first place. However, it’s not always immediately apparent how to organize those ideas into a valid concept that will engage readers from beginning to end. And sometimes, this lack of vision brings about less-than-favorable results.
When I was struggling to transform the horrifying rough draft of my first novel into something resembling a polished manuscript, I turned to three books that completely changed how I conceptualize storytelling: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress, and Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. They detail story structure from a bird’s eye perspective, and I recommend everyone give them a read, but I’ll go over the highlights here.
The obvious place to start is the premise, otherwise known as your through line. If you were describing the book to a friend or family member, how would you describe the story? You’ll want to include the main character(s), the main story problem they’re dealing with, and who or what is standing in their way to prevent them from resolving that problem. This establishes the basic plot and foundational character motivations. If you’re not sure how to answer those questions, then that’s a good sign you need to go back to the drawing board until you can.
It’s important to know who’s going to be involved in your tale, though it doesn’t matter at this point how much detail you’ve figured out. You can have ten pages or one word. You can add, remove, or modify characters now or later. You don’t even need names, just give yourself a place to start by getting a basic idea of who the story’s going to be about, what motivates them, and why these particular people need to be involved for you to tell this particular story.
The next step is to consider the ultimate goal of the book. Given the main story problem, what are your character(s) trying to accomplish? What’s driving the plot and what sources of conflict are you going to be dealing with before that goal can be accomplished? This is where you really dig into the problems and oppositions you expect to include in your story. Often, but not always, these stem from conflicting character motivations that clash when they come into direct contact with each other. Use that friction to create sparks of interest.
Outside of short stories, I don’t think you can write a complete story without using subplots to enrich the flavor and add enticing complexity. You may not have all your subplots figured out at this point, and that’s okay, but if you know you want to include some mystery or romance or any other kind of side stories, make a note of what those are and how they tie into and enhance the main plot. If you’re reconsidering a previously written story, double check that your subplots are benefiting the overall story and aren’t actually an unnecessary distraction from the main event.
Title and Theme
You need to call your story something, so pick out a working title for it even if it’s just “Random Book Idea” or “(insert main character’s name)’s Story” to keep from confusing yourself later if you’re working on more than one project at a time. It sounds silly, but being able to put a name to your work is an important step.
There are also writers who like to pin down the theme beforehand or who’ve based their story around conveying a particular theme. If that’s you, check that what you’ve conceptualized falls in line with the theme you want to focus on. If not, don’t worry about it. It will become apparent what theme you’re wanting to express as you progress through the writing process.
By this point, I usually have a solid idea of how the beginning of the book needs to play out in order to establish the premise, also known as the exposition. Here’s a few tips about beginnings:
- Give your lead character(s) an immediate purpose, even if it’s as insignificant as wanting a glass of water. Starting with them in motion will hook your readers from the second they open the book.
- Present tantalizing questions to peak curiosity. Use specific details that add to the plot, and only give the bare minimum necessary to understand what’s happening. You can then sprinkle in the rest as you press forward. One of the best ways to reveal information is to rip it out of your characters through conflict. Those details become interesting and memorable so readers don’t end up skimming those important opening paragraphs just to get through the gates of your story.
- Introduce character(s) through meaningful details, thoughts, and actions. Keep their introductions short and relevant, and expound on characterization only when and where it’s necessary.
Crosstalk by Connie Willis is a great example of how to implement all these concepts into a solid opening. The first line says it all: “By the time Briddey pulled into the parking garage at Commspan, there were forty-two text messages on her phone.” The entire opening scene is centered around the main character trying to avoid the problem related to those forty-two text messages, and the author does a beautiful job of naturally incorporating necessary information and introducing readers to this character and her life without it feeling orchestrated or clunky.
I usually have a basic idea of how I want the story to end before I’ve worked out everything in the middle, or I at least know what the climax and resolution need to be. How are the main story problems and subplots going to be resolved? What climactic event needs to happen in order for that resolution to happen? What makes the climax inevitable?
I’ve personally taken to heart the advice James Scott Bell gives on endings in Plot & Structure: “You get the ‘Ah’ once the main action of the story is wrapped up. With the knockout blow administered, you need to give the reader a final scene in which something from the hero’s personal life is resolved.”
With everything else laid out, now it’s just a matter of figuring out how your characters’ goals and motivations lead them to the end. Like a row of dominoes that have to fall in the proper order to knock over the final piece, what sequence of events needs to happen to get your characters from point A to point B? This is where the really fun part comes into play. With so many possibilities to pursue, it becomes an imaginative wonderland for sandboxing. In the initial stages, I jot down whatever ideas I might have for different scenes to explore and then try to order them in a way that makes sense to how I want the plot to progress. When I’m reworking an old manuscript, I go through scene by scene and determine which ones are a necessary part of that essential row of dominoes and which need to be reworked or removed altogether. Just be careful not to resolve anything too soon. Raising questions and delaying answers is what keeps readers interested.
You should now have the makings of a basic overview that reveals the developing patterns, budding strengths, and potential weaknesses of your brilliant story concept. Whether you decide to move on to making a full synopsis, crafting an outline, or writing a draft depends on you, but in any case, having these fundamentals in place will keep you grounded as you take the next steps forward. And the best part is that, with this as your guidepost, you’ll never feel the frustration that comes from the inability to express your great ideas in words. Your blank page becomes a confidant rather than an adversary, and your ideas will flow smoothly between your starting and ending points.
So if you’re in the throes of a fresh start or struggling to resurrect an old draft, take those few minutes to consider each of these points. It’s never too late to begin a project with clear direction or give yourself the clarity to redirect from a bad one.