How to get started on a story

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At work this week, following a busy summer that’s left me feeling like I didn’t really have a holiday at all, we’ve been looking at their creative writing. Their task is to build towards a short story using a poem as a springboard for ideas. Towards the end of the week, we came across an interesting stumbling block that made me think a bit more about stories in particular, and what they are intending to write. We were writing the opening of a story
using techniques gathered from other writers, having looked at examples and what we liked in an opening to get us interested. But often, instead of writing a story opening with setting, plotting and characterisation starting to come through a little bit, they were getting frustrated because what they ended up with, when they put pen to paper, was more like a diary. A stream-of-consciousness from the narrator. It takes work to transform that into what they wanted.

(I love this Calvin & Hobbes cartoon!)

What is a story?

One of the first things I did with them was what a story actually is – how do you know, when reading a piece of text, that it is one? The usual answers come up: beginning, middle, end. Character. Something interesting happens or changes. Description not factual. Where it’s published. But we didn’t really touch on narrative voice, not at first anyway. That’s really where this problem came from, I think.

Writing your way in

I do it all the time – which I say, although I’m not sure my students believe me! The first page is clearing my throat. It’s getting to know the way the character thinks, and talk, and their background. But then, you need to get rid of that and step back to find what Emma Darwin calls the psychic distance – that process of being able to narrate instead of simply recounting thoughts. It’s a big change – we as readers move away from the character, but there’s still enough of them present to be interesting and emotionally involved. As a writer you need to decide how far back you’re going – but I think you almost always will move back. Even if your writing remains in the first person, there’s a sense of detachment that comes with narrating your own story that moves beyond pure stream of consciousness. Even SoC novels don’t usually simply recount thoughts – it’s too juggled, too disconnected to follow and makes for a very unsettling and, quite frankly, often boring novel. Reading someone’s thoughts lacks the structure and conflict that story plots need to be successful.

Start at the end

At the beginning of the academic year I was looking for tips from writers and came across one which just seemed perfect:

Start as close to the end as possible – Kurt Vonnegut

The first section of any story is usually background. Usually it’s more subtle than  “I came from poverty and my father was a blacksmith, my grandfather an ironmonger, but I rose above it all to have a glorious career as well as a happy family and gorgeous wife, but now I’m about to risk it all because I made one stupid mistake.” But no matter how subtle, it’s usually unnecessary.

Maybe avid plotters don’t have this problem – they know where they’re starting before they put fingers to keyboard, and they have got to know their characters already. For me, the first section is always about getting to know the character. Who are they? What do they want? How do they talk? Who are they connected to? Those things are important. They give me the sense of person so I know what they will do in the situations in which I place them. You, the reader, doesn’t need to know why they behave that way. You just need to know which, when faced with a choice between kill or flee, lie or tell the truth, they will choose. So that first section, where I spend hours getting to know them? It needs to be cut. In reality, you don’t need to know what my home life was like as a child or why I like pizza. You need to know that I have trust issues and that I hate pizza, so it means something when I agree to go on a date to an Italian restaurant.

That was what they were writing in my lesson. The diaries or thought process was a way of getting to know the characters. You can rephrase it, make it more useful to the plot and keep a lot of the emotional knowledge you gain from those sections but ultimately, it needs creating into more of a story.

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