On May 9, 2012, Kelly wrote, I was curious to see if you had any ideas on what to do when you don’t know where to start when you begin writing. I have a great plot, and do-able characters–but I can’t decide where I should start. Anybody have any ideas?
I usually find my beginning in notes. As I’m jotting down ideas for how my story might go, a first scene drops into my head, so I start writing. This first scene may not ultimately be the first scene by the time I reach the end, and it may change again as I revise, but it’s enough to get me going…
which is all we need. The beginning we begin with is no more precious than any words that come later. It needs only to move us further into the story. If we give it too much importance we’re likely to freeze up and never get beyond a few paragraphs written and rewritten until we want to snap our pens in two or pour molasses on our keyboards.
The famous advice, to begin in medias res, in the middle of things, is one way to go. Suppose your plot involves Julie’s quest to establish her independence, a need she doesn’t recognize at the outset. She tends to rely on other people and rarely asserts herself. We can start with action: Julie is doing something foolish on a dare that a more self-possessed character would have refused to take on.
But that’s only one option. We can begin with setting. Say Julie lives in a model housing development for a repressed minority group in the totalitarian kingdom of Ambur. We might start with a guided tour for the free press of the nation’s democratic neighbor, the republic of Guma. If we see Julie at all, she’s merely one in a chorus of teenagers brought out to sing a paean to tyrannical King Stanil. This beginning focuses on setting. We show the small, neat houses where the grass is always kept three inches long; the box-like school with its tiny, barred windows; the community vegetable garden, where space is not allowed for flowers. And because we want to introduce a little blip of tension, we have a rock-and-roll song (considered degenerate by the king) waft out of an upstairs window, which causes the tour guide to take out her notebook and jot down the address of the offending house. (Later we can learn that the house belongs to Julie’s family.)
Or we can take on an explication of the era with a page or several pages from a history book about the reign of King Stanil the Terrible. The excerpt may include the housing complex,.
Or we can start with character. Julie is in the bedroom of her friend, who’s showing off her new leggings in a pattern of tiny mice and rats. Julie’s real reaction is Yuck!, but she expresses only admiration.
Of course there are many ways to begin with character. When we started with action before, with the dare, we were also revealing character. Thoughts are another option for a character start. Julie is trying to fall asleep, but she’s worrying about a dispute between two of her friends and planning how she can position herself so that each one feels her support and both continue to like her.
If we don’t want to go the thoughts route, we can put this rumination in her diary and open with that. In this case, Julie doesn’t have to be the POV character. The next chapter can show our POV character, Mel, reading the diary. Or the next chapter can be Mel’s diary.
If beginnings make you choke up, you can jump right into a scene further along and write the beginning later. When you’ve gotten going you’re likely to discover scenes that come before the one you’ve written. At that point you may know exactly what’s needed, and your beginning may sail right out.
Let’s imagine that Julie discovers that her neighbor Mel is an informant for King Stanil. We write the scene, imagining the circumstances, but we realize the emotional impact on the reader is blunted because the relationship between Julie and Mel hasn’t been shown. So we write an earlier scene between Julie and Mel. Maybe we show Mel being kind to Julie and Julie being a little afraid of him. Now we’re wondering what Julie’s going to do later about the informing and we decide we need a scene that will shed light on her thought process. In this scene, which also takes place before the informing has been revealed, Julie asks her older sister if she ever finds Mel scary. Her sister says, “Mel has been nothing but good to this family. If he could hear you he’d be so disappointed. We’d be shamed, all of us.” When Julie discovers Mel’s perfidy she’s going to have to take her family’s obligation to him into account. Maybe she’ll even decide she should spy along with him.
Taking another tack, it’s possible that the problem in entering a story that has a fine plot may be blurriness about the characters who will put it into action. Suppose we know there’s a despotic monarch and a network of domestic spies and a downtrodden population who will rebel led by a young girl, but we don’t know who the girl will be. We haven’t imagined Julie yet or given her her personal struggle to act independently. We’re certain we need a leader of the spies but we haven’t imagined him either. And every despot is despot in a different way, but we haven’t fleshed out King Stanil.
Once we figure out our cast of characters we can think about how they might rub against each other. We can imagine King Stanil in his royal chamber with his chief counselor while his barber cuts his hair. How does he behave? We can show Mel walking through the housing complex, taking mental notes. We can have Julie’s mother set her a task and watch the way she carries it out. From this, from thinking about who else we may need, we can start writing.
These prompts come from Julie and the kingdom of Ambur:
∙ Write the scene between King Stanil, his barber, and his counselor. Consider not only Stanil but the others too, and how they may figure in the coming drama.
∙ Put Julie in the middle of the quarrel between her two friends. Write the scene and make both of them get mad at her. Use this as the beginning of a story.
∙ Write Julie carrying out the foolish dare. Get her into trouble. Write the story that follows.
∙ Write the scene in the model housing development. Have King Stanil come along in his armored vehicle and motorcade of security guards.
Have fun, and save what you write!