Beginnings

Every story has a beginning, that “once upon a time” moment when your reader settles in and prepares for what they hope will be a wonderful story that will keep them interested until the end. But that isn’t the real beginning. The real beginning happens when a germ of an idea hits the author, taking root in his mind and growing until the writer has no choice but to sit down and write the story.

Each writer has a different system for writing. Some are plotters and make outlines of the story or book before they get started. Even here, there are no solid rules. Some plotters operate with a minimal outline that shows the basic story arc and nothing else. Others are so detailed in their outlining that they have an entry for every scene. There are even a few I’ve heard of that have an entry for every paragraph. (Since a detailed outline sends me over the edge, I’d probably run screaming into the night if I had to do an outline that hit on every paragraph.)

Then there are the pantsers, those writers who sit down at the keyboard and simply write. They might have an idea in their head about where the story goes but they simply write as it comes to them. Think of this as more of a stream of consciousness method of writing.

Add to the mix those writers who write scenes as they come to them or who write the end first and then go from there. Some, when writing a story from multiple points of view, write the story from a single point of view and, once done, go back and write from the other point — or points — of view.

In other words, there is no one correct way to start a project. You do what works best for you and for the project. Don’t ever let anyone tell you differently. The key is to simply sit and start writing. If you never start, you will never finish and finishing is the ultimate goal.

Note that — finishing is the ultimate goal. Not editing. Not publishing. Not winning awards. Why? Because if you never finish anything, none of the rest of that will happen.

And, if you never start, none of it will happen.

But where do you start your story? That’s a question every writer has to ask herself and, quite often, the answer is wrong. There are times when a writer will start a book too soon — give the reader too much information they don’t need right up front in an attempt to set the stage. Think about it this way: if you are reading a mystery, you don’t want to read chapter after chapter without ever getting to the mystery. If you are reading a romance, you want to at least have a hint of what the romance might be pretty quickly into the book.

Then there are times when the author starts too late. Sure, in a mystery you want to grab your reader and very often these days that means you start with a murder or some other serious crime. However, unless you are very, very good, you don’t want your protagonist to know who the bad guy is from page one. You don’t particularly want your reader to know either. If they know who did it, you have just made your job all the more difficult because you have to find some other reason to keep them reading.

So, as a writer, finding that right beginning — having the discipline to sit down and write to the finish, finding the right start of the book, finding the right hook for the book — is one of the most important things you will do.

How do you begin your work? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you have problems finishing something you’ve started? Have you seen stories that you think began at the wrong place?

9 responses to “Beginnings

  1. Very helpful advice all the way through, Amanda. For me “plotting” in such detail, too, can leave me running away screaming. As a “pantser,” creating an outline just leaves me bored, with no reason to write the story, since I already know the outcome. Sort of like reading, I much prefer to see how it comes out as I write it, as it is more interesting and a whole lot simpler that way.

    Of course, there those few times where where I get stumped briefly by what comes next in the plot. At that point, it helps to sit back and think it through and, perhaps, discuss it with a friend.

    • David, one of the best pieces of advice I received when I was first facing that problem was to sit down each evening and plot out the next 3 – 5 chapters. It didn’t have to be a detailed plot, but it had to hit the high points of what I wanted to happen. That was usually enough to get me kickstarted the next morning. When that didn’t help, it was time for brainstorming.

  2. Pantser, here, as you know. I go into it with an idea of where I want to go, but most of it is happening as I’m writing. The story, itself, starts to determine what comes next. I’ll decide what I want a character to say or do. And then, because they said or did that, I’ll think, “Well, since that happened, maybe this should happen next.” So my plan begins to change because of that. I stay true to the original concept, though.
    That keeps it interesting, for me. I don’t even know what’s going to happen next, half of the time. If I did a detailed plan of the book ahead of time, I’d probably be completely bored of the book before I even started it.

    • Hate to tell you this, Joe, but because you do try to give your characters at least a little “guidance”, you aren’t a true pantser. 😉

      Actually, that is pretty much what I do. I might have a few notes here and there, but I usually have the general story arc and character arc in mind and go from there. Of course, the characters often have their own say on what happens, whether I like it or not.

  3. I wish I were more of a plotter and perhaps shall try it with my next big project, but so far I always pants it.

    Nice article Amanda, thanks!

    • CJ, what you might try is to write out a single page or two about your project. Just hit the high notes — what plot points have to happen, what has to happen to certain characters, etc. It isn’t really outlining your plot but it does help cement the overall arc of your story in your head.

      And thanks!

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  5. I’m in the “foolscap method” camp–an outline that can fit on a single piece of paper. I’ll outline a novel that way, then create 4-6 line outlines of each scene/chapter as I approach them.

    I’ve tried pantsing. I can’t produce unless I have a map of where I’m going.

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