Where to begin when you want to begin a story? I can’t tell you. I won’t. Everybody’s process is different. For me, it’s a lot like getting all the ingredients out to make a dish and putting them all out on the counter, and then assembling from there. Only you get out all the ingredients you might need to make a thousand different meals and you don’t have a recipe and you don’t even know what it is you want to make. To toss more confusion in, you also have to choose pots, pans, serving dishes, and then you have to figure out if it’s going to be a meal, and how many courses it might be . . . (am I stretching this metaphor way too far yet?) Anyhow, that’s a beginning.
As a writer, you have an infinite choice of ingredients, cooking tools, and meal plans, and you have to choose everything. Easy peasy. Pick some and get to cooking! There you go. End of post.
Yeah, I didn’t think you’d go for that really.
The truth is, I can’t tell you how to choose. What I can tell you is how it tends to come together for me. A lot of it is by touch, by what feels good.
Usually I start with one thing or two that sounds good. Going back to the food metaphor, have you ever had that moment where you wanted to eat something. Just that thing and nothing else? Let me give you an example. I want bacon. That one initial choice is usually the spark of your idea. Something popped into your head and that’s the bacon that starts it all. So wanting bacon, I look over my ingredients and pull that out. By choosing the one thing, I’ve limited the rest of my choices. I’m not going to mix fish in with it (sorry, I hate fish). I’m also not likely to add Lucky Charms, though I suppose it’s possible.
Additionally, I’ve also in some ways made a decision on how hungry I am. In this case, let that metaphor go toward the scope and complexity of your story. Is it going to be a relatively straightforward story–a main plot, possibly some secondary plots, a relatively limited cast of characters? Or is it going to be an epic style story a la Song of Ice and Fire or Feist’s Riftwar mega series? (Is it a banquet or is it supper or is it a snack?)
Each kind of story limits itself in various ways and makes demands in other ways. Every single choice you make closes opportunities. That’s a good thing. Too many choices is stunning, and not in a good way. As in, whack you over the head stunned. The terror is that you’re making the wrong choices. And frankly, you might be. You might find you forgot to add something in. Or maybe you picked something that isn’t going to work. What will you do? Did you over salt the pot? You can’t take salt out of a pot–you have to throw it all away and begin again.
Luckily a story is not a pot of food. You can take out what doesn’t work. Sometimes you have to shred to do it, but if that’s what it takes, do it. The problem is that fear often stops someone from starting, from trying. It can be paralyzing. One of my favorite quotes is from Samuel Becket: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. You can’t fear to fail. If you do, writing is not a good job for you. Neither is cooking.
So you have picked your bacon. Now you choose some things that seem to pair well with it. Maybe you get experimental. Maybe you go for comfort. In the realm of story lines, supposed your bacon is a female character with a penchant for gambling. For experimental, maybe she gets involved with an inter stellar kidnapping ring and has to save the child of a Martian leader before there’s a galaxy-wide war. For comfort, maybe your same female character with a penchant for gambling is forced to adopt the kids of her dead cousin. In doing so, she falls in love with a handsome restaurant owner and wins enough money to not only save his business, but send the kids to college, and all of it happens right at Christmas (Hey, I said comfort–that’s a warm fuzzy right there).
How do you choose the ingredients? Go back to the basics of what’s your character’s conflict? (I don’t think bacon has conflict, but our gambling woman might). You can pick the obvious–she owes money to a loan shark–or you can go less obvious: her mother went on vacation and disappeared in the desert and gambling woman has to go find her. Questions arise that lead to more decisions–what’s her relationship with her mother? What was her childhood like? What skills does she have going into the desert? Is she afraid? Will she cause problems with her work or life or relationships if she goes looking for her mom? Once she’s in the desert, you can count on the fact that she’ll make gambles and some won’t pay off. Maybe she’ll end up in serious trouble.
The questions are endless until you start answering them. Once you do, you start cutting out ingredients and narrowing your story.
This is how I begin. I often have to come back to check out more ingredients, and as I go along, I get a sense that the story isn’t robust enough–that something’s missing and I need to add something else. Other times I’ll be working and discover that the story isn’t working. I’ve put in something that won’t work. It’s important not to play it safe, and to push yourself outside your comfort zone. Take risks, try out new combinations and unexpected choices. See what happens and don’t be afraid to fail.
And before I go, for all who were lost, we have not forgotten. 9/11/2001
From Tennyson’s Ulysses: