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How do I start a story?
I’ve seen this question thrown out by want-to-become writers. They yearn to start but don’t know how. My first thought is: just start. And then I go back in my mind to before I’d started a novel, and to how I started and I suppose it’s not that easy when you’re trying to do it “right.”

Doing it right never ocurred to me when I started. I just did it as it came.

I had characters in my head that had been forming for some time. And so, when they played a scene that was so vivid I couldn’t ignore it, full dialogue and all, I decided to write it down. That was my start. Never mind after writing that scene I let it sit for years – and I mean YEARS – before I went back to it. But when I started again, I again started with that scene.

I also had an idea: a what if. In this case, it was, “What if a well established start-up band adds someone completely different to their style only because his skill is too great to turn away?” And then came another what if: “What if this new guy tries to come between the guy who brought him into the band and the girl of his heart who helps with the band?”

An idea and a character or two or three.

That equals a beginning.

How do you put it down once you have that idea? Some will say always outline the story, plot it out, and once you have it plotted, start at the beginning.

That can work. For some writers. Not for all of us. Not for every story.

I started writing scenes as they came to me. The only plotting was in my head in bits and pieces with a general feel about where I wanted to go with it, but with more questions than answers, more generalities than specifics. I was fine with that. It was about the characters and I let them guide me.

Before I knew it, I had fifty, or thereabout, different scenes written on notebook paper in binders (so I could move them around and put them in order eventually) with a brief sentence at the beginning of each scene in the wide top margin of the first page to tell me what was in the scene. Those scenes have now turned into a very large epic tale spanning what will become six long books (it started as 4 books, then had to expand to 5, and now 6, which should do it) in which they tell their complete story.

That method worked well for that story, but it could work, in some part, for any story. If you know your characters, even briefly, but you don’t know where you want them to go, put them somewhere doing something and see what they do.

Of course you can always outline your plot first. If you’re writing a mystery, that might be your best bet. If the “what happens” is the main point of the book instead of the “who are they and how will they react to what happens,” then plotting before you get very far may be a good idea. Still, if you’re stuck, writing scenes here and there can clarify where you’re going. You don’t have to use them in the finished book. They can be character sketches just for you. (Or you can use them in promo later!)

But, how do you Begin a story?

Begin where the main crux of the story begins. Do not start with backstory. Do not start by describing where your characters are, unless that is the main crux of the story. Start with a pull. You have to yank your readers into wanting to continue. Many of us buy books, or not, based on the first couple of paragraphs or the first page or two. Grab them. Start with conflict, action, dialogue that defines a character immediately, a hook of some kind.

In my band novel, I have three main characters with deep backgrounds that are largely important to the story. However, I started with a short prologue of how the two male musicians met each other, an action scene in a run-down bar where they nearly get into a fight, and then start the main story two years later when they next see each other, when the highly talented but wary guitarist comes to possibly join his laid-back friend’s start up band. And he meets the girl within the hour of arriving. Action. Conflict. The story crux. All at the beginning.

Go ahead and write the important background information out first if that’s what you need to do, but then set it aside and work it into the story as you go. But first, grab your reader. They don’t care about background info until they care about your character(s).

These days, I do my drafts straight on the computer instead of with paper and pencil, and I often write straight from the beginning and outline as I write just to keep my facts straight. I’ve yet to write from a pre-written outline, but I have heard some authors will do nothing else. Maybe I’ll try that some day. Fourteen novels in, and so far, I don’t feel the need. To be honest, I miss my here and there on-paper scene writing and may have to return to that method at times. Maybe I’ll even use it on my current WIP since I’m slightly stuck at the moment.

However you feel the urge to do it, if you feel the urge, just do it. And don’t toss your drafts or unused scenes. Save them. You may or may not use them later, but you will, in a few years, see how far you’ve come from those first scenes. It’s important to remember your start and your growth. Two big rules of good fiction: Begin and Grow. Good fiction does, after all, imitate real life.


Note: My books are very much character based, and so the slant of this article. The same ideas apply to plot-driven novels. Grab attention. Write from the beginning if you choose, or write scenes that will help your beginning and end emerge. There is no “right” method for every writer.

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