#199: How to Start a Story
Story ideas come from weird places that most writers don’t fully understand. That’s why we’re so afraid of talking about it. Do you create new ideas or uncover what was already there in the collective psyche of humanity?
Orson Scott Card has a great quote about story ideas:
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”
This is the most controllable aspect of the process — learning to recognise a story idea when you see one. In this post, we’ll take a look at five different ways how you can start a story.
A Vivid Image
A story can start from as little as an image in your mind that makes you feel something. It may be something you saw or experienced, something that came to you in a dream or just randomly.
Maybe you’re on your way to the train station in the morning. It’s foggy outside, and when you’re passing through the park, you get an eerie feeling that something or someone is lurking in the mist. Is that a ghost, a thief, a spy, a bear, a murderer? And why is he there? All sorts of ideas can come out of that single image.
Here’s another example: a helicopter wakes you up as it flies low over your house. You’re annoyed but not enough to get out of bed. Then you hear another one. And another one. What’s going on here? The image doesn’t have to be the first scene in the story or even appear in the story at all. But it sets you on a path of discovery.
Here’s a third one: a group of friends are watching the sunset from a rooftop in New York City. Then a creeping shadow from a huge alien spaceship obscures their view. Why is the ship there? And why is Jay the only one not panicking? Is he one of them?
A Unique Character
Another way to start a story is to develop a unique character. Characters can make or break a story. Sometimes, it makes sense to figure out who the protagonist is first. Then you’ll build the plot around them.
A good example of this is House, M.D. The entire series revolves around the personality of the protagonist. The writers very likely developed the character of Gregory House and then wrote the episodes to tell his story. Dexter is another good one.
You may have a specific personality trait in mind, a certain look or lifestyle that you want to write about. That’s when it makes sense to start with a character.
Neil Gaiman is a big advocate of this approach. To create a brand new idea, combine two unlikely ideas together. It can work within a genre and across genres as well.
This is where stuff like sci-fi romance or military sci-fi comes from. It works very well for speculative fiction.
Bringing two disparate ideas together is a great way to create something unique. Let’s go back to the first story example — the fog in the park with something lurking in it. That’s literally the most obvious thing you can do. Thousands of stories have been told about innocent people getting ambushed.
What if the fog isn’t pollution? It’s some sort of agent that aliens inject into our atmosphere to learn about us. The aliens were particularly active in Victorian times — hence why London always was so polluted. That’s a very different story…
The what-if question is the holy grail of story development. You can use it to start a story as well as build on an existing idea.
When you think about it, asking the what-if question means discovering various parts of your story. You start from a tiny seed and keep adding plausible branches to it. When you’re done, the whole thing seems obvious, almost as if it was always there.
It’s a strange feeling, but the what-if question works.
Let’s say your protagonist is walking down the street. What if a scruffy looking man approached her and handed her an ancient spellbook? What if the man then turned around and got hit by a bus? What if the protagonist took the book home, but when she wanted to read it a few days later, she couldn’t find it? And what if someone later came to her place asking for it?
Prompts / Fanfic
Prompts are also a fantastic way to kickstart your writing. A prompt is basically a way to inject an image into your mind. And then it’s up to you what you do with it. Contrary to what people might say, starting from prompts is a completely valid way to work as a writer.
Fan fiction can work as an original story starter too. You might write about your favourite characters at first, but later on, you can edit the copyrighted parts out. Nobody has to know that your story started as fanfic.
There are a million ways to start a story. Whichever you use, it’s only the beginning. You will have to fully develop the narrative from there. Asking many what-if questions is a great way to do that.
It’s hard work, but very few things are as rewarding as seeing your idea come to life.
About the Author
Hi, I’m Radek 👋. I’m a writer, software engineer and the founder of Writing Analytics — an editor and writing tracker designed to help you beat writer’s block and create a sustainable writing routine.
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#198: Can You Write a Story Right Now?, June 2021
#197: Whatever You’re Doing Can Be Fixed, May 2021
#196: The Shiny Object Syndrome, May 2021
#195: Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?, May 2021
#194: Your Inner Critic is Wrong, May 2021
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