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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The Semi-Colon

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ImageI was reading James Scott Bell’s Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth: Strategies and Techniques for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level on my holiday (excellent – the only sunny week of the summer and we were in Kent!) and came across these comments:

“Do not use semi-colons. They are tranvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“For non-fiction, essays and scholarly writing, the semi-colon does serve a purpose; I’ve used them myself. In such writing you’re often stringing lots of thoughts together for a larger purpose and the semi-colon allows you to clue the reader in on this move. But in fiction, you want each sentence to stand on its own, boldly. The semi-colon is an invitation to pause, to think twice, to look around in different directions and wonder where the heck you’e going. Do you want that? Or do you want your story to move?”

Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth (James Scott Bell)

They struck me as strange. I understand Bell’s point to some extent – the semi-colon is an invitation to pause. I teach it to students as being a connection between two related sentences; a sort of glue that indicates to the reader to pause a moment and then have some linked point or explanation given to them. And I have to teach it because it’s a key piece of punctuation and it’s specifically mentioned on the GCSE English Language syllabus – students get marks for using it, and colons, effectively. So they have to use it. Why the semi-colon in particular, I’m not sure – and not sure that it should be required so specifically rather than the vaguer ‘accurate and imaginative use of ambitious punctuation’ which would require a bit more ingenuity, and a bit more inventiveness to use. Like Michael Rosen says – Semi-colons, semi-colonists, anti-semi-colonists – you can quite happily get by in life without it, but there’s no reasons to either elevate it or reject it entirely.

But the idea that you shouldn’t use it because it invites a pause made me, well, pause! I guess the point really is that you should use it when it’s needed or adds to the tone you want to get across. It’s not, as Vonnegut (above) and an Independent article suggested, a way to show yourself to be educated:

In English, there are not such tightly formed rules about the use of punctuation as there are in most European languages. A writer who uses the semi-colon well and expressively singles himself out as a skilful and accomplished craftsman.

Or at least, it shouldn’t be, GCSE exams aside. A semi-colon adds colour, adds information and detail. Sure, you can write these as simple, separate sentences. But that doesn’t automatically speed up the writing. Short sentences can speed or slow as you wish, depending on the words you’ve chosen to include. A series of short sentences with sibilance (a repeated ‘s’ sound) would likely sound faster than one with an alliterative ‘pr’ – the former is easier to say, and because it lacks the percussive nature of the ‘pr’ would feel quicker. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. When you want a lengthy, languid description, a semi-colon here and there would be useful:

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” Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.”

Bleak House (Penguin Classics)
Charles Dickens (1852-53)

Dickens has a real variety – the short sentence ‘fog everywhere’ could be enough in a thriller or action novel. But here, we want the description so that you really feel what it’s like to be inside that fog – and so he explores it further. If there weren’t semi-colons, you’d likely end up with something far more separated – it wouldn’t have that rolling quality that echoes the very movement of the fog itself. Of course, that’s a completely different tone to that which Bell is going for.

Looking online, the first use of a semi-colon in printing seems to have been around 1494, according to Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. More recently, news articles are questioning whether the use of emoticons has killed the semi-colon. It seems to be something which riles people up – prescriptivists arguing that you should keep the semi-colon as being twice the pause of a comma, and those who say it should be banned entirely because it’s useless and people can’t use it well.

Oatmeal comic on how to use a semi-colon

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