Welcome to a three-part series designed to get your story started or moving again, even (especially) if you have crippling writer’s block.
Throughout this series we’ll be looking at divers groups of problems and issues centering around creating and continuing a story from nothing, and discussing how to solve them.
Essentially, crafting a plot that gets you through from start to finish is little more than having a beginning and an ending point and placing obstacles in between that your characters must overcome. The more obstacles you throw in front of your characters, the longer or more twisty the plot can be.
This series focuses on getting you through the first draft, which doesn’t have to be perfect, doesn’t have to be fully fleshed out – it doesn’t even have to be good! – it just has to get done. Story elements such as theme, metaphor, and characterization hopefully reveal themselves as they go along – if you haven’t already plotted their inclusion – but don’t worry if such elements remain elusive in the beginning stages. Upon revising and redrafting your writing, you’ll be able to expand and add to your story as necessary.
This series mainly focuses on novel writing, but the concepts within also apply to the broader storytelling medium (film, video games, and the like), and many of the examples used throughout will pull from various different sources.
Part 1 – No Thoughts Head Empty
Part one of this series tackles common specific problems that crop up when starting a story and how to resolve them. A lot of these issues feed off each other, so there’s going to be some overlapping content, as is common when working with any type of art. If there’s an issue this article doesn’t mention or that you’d like to know more about, please drop a comment below.
Problem: I Want to Write a Story – No Idea How or Where to Start
This problem is more common with very new writers, whether they’re 12, 21, or 92. You sat down one day and decided you were going to be a writer. Maybe you have one or more of the other elements that will be mentioned below in your mind, but you haven’t the faintest clue of how to make it all come together. More than that, perhaps you don’t even know how to start!
All you know is that you have an empty page, and, somehow, you have to fill it.
First, you should ask yourself, why do I want to write? Is it because a teacher or a friend suggested I should? Is it because I have an idea that needs to be shared with the world? Is it because I want to be rich and famous? Is the person who inspires me the most an author, and I want to follow in their footsteps? Is it because I have these characters knocking around in my head that won’t go away?
Once you’ve identified your initial motivation, if you have absolutely nothing, go and find something to inspire you. Read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies and plays, go for long walks in nature. You might even just put a list of subjects on a board and throw a dart at them. However you do it, pick a theme or an idea and start brainstorming.
For example, when looking outside I see the trees, which makes me think about leaves. So I could write a story about leaves or bark or roots. Once I’ve picked my subject, I’m going to keep it simple to start. I’ll write about the leaves falling in the autumn. By basing my story in reality, it’ll be easier to construct because I have something tangible from which to draw.
But just writing about leaves falling, with no twist to it, is simply writing my observations about nature – nice, but not a story. So I’ll focus on one leaf. I’m going to anthropomorphise this leaf, giving it a name and a personality. Now I have a character – let’s call him Rustle (the sound of the leaves when the wind blows through them, conveniently also a homophone of the name Russell) – and I’m going to give him some character. He’s afraid of autumn, because he’s already seen several other leaves fall, and he doesn’t want to leave his home in the tree.
I could have Rustle reminisce about how he got to this point, remembering all the things that could conceivably happen in a leaf’s life – a bird defecating on him, a caterpillar munching away, providing shelter during a rainstorm for a lady bug, feeling the sun on his face during a warm summer day, being an artist’s study, and so on. And then Rustle could speculate about what is coming next.
Ultimately, when he does fall (and perhaps this is a bit of a sad story) he could observe how, on the ground, he provides covering for the worms, or maybe he’s essential to the building of a leaf tipi, or is gathered up and made part of a leaf pile for young children to jump into. Perhaps, at the end, he is saved and framed on somebody’s wall, or made part of a lovely autumn wreath.
We could end with Rustle realising that perhaps fall isn’t so scary after all, and he’s experienced so much more than he would have if he’d stayed forever in his tree.
It’s a simple story, but it illustrates how you can pick literally anything to write about.
To recap, if you want to write, first identify your reason – it could be as simple as that you want to try it and see what happens – then pick a subject, inject some personality, and go from there.
Problem: Awesome Idea – No Clue How to Turn it Into a Story
Sometimes, you come up with an ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT idea (this is often what is called “high concept” in fiction), something like Inception, that runs on the premise: “what if you could enter into someone’s dreamworld and influence their mind?” and more subtly: “what if you couldn’t get out?” but you have no characters, no plot, no worldbuilding, no nothing besides the idea.
I’m a character focused person, so I like to start there with my idea before adding other elements that will lead me to a coherent plot.
If you do start here, it’s often a good idea to consider whether your character will be mostly good, mostly bad, or somewhere in between. Then consider whether you want them to change or stay static over the course of the story (in which case, the world around them should change). You’re going to be asking a lot of “what if” questions during this process.
Look at The Terminator. It asks: “what if machines ruled the future? What if someone created a vibrant resistance to the machine overlords?” and then, the twist question, “what if one of those machines went back in time to preserve their own existence?” You can see how all these questions led James Cameron from his initial dream idea to the creation of an unfeeling, near-unstoppable, killing machine that we can’t help but watch in fascinated horror.
If starting with world-building, you’ll want to question how a particular idea would affect you, your friends, or the world you live in, if it were reality. You can really get into some exciting stuff with world-building as you re-imagine what society would look like if we never got away from the inventions of the industrial revolution (steampunk) or if science could give people superpowers (Marvel Comics) or if dragons lived at the same time as the vikings (Skyrim).
Once you have some answers to these questions, you can throw in a couple characters, give them a goal, and start placing obstacles in their way.
If starting with theme, try asking: what do I want my audience to come away thinking about? Often this method will lead you to start with the end of the story and build backward and is more often found in stories that tend to lend themselves to tragedy; think Romeo and Juliet or Jurassic Park. The first teaches us the dangers of never-ending feuds, the latter, the danger of playing God with science.
Once you have your world, your theme, and characters, however tightly or loosely you’ve crafted each element, you can now begin to build out your plot – if it hasn’t already started to come to you during these processes. Again, as stated at the beginning, what you want to do is pick a goal, whether internal (coming from the characters) or external (coming from what you want your readers to experience) and work toward that by creating challenges that your characters have to solve and overcome (or fail to overcome as the case may be.)
Problem: Awesome Characters . . . And Nothing Else
Sometimes, especially for the visual artist types (and often those going into writing comic books and video games and such), you come up with a great character or ten. These characters can be as simple as a face and general description, or they might spring into your mind fully formed, with a tonne of backstory. However, you might feel a little bit like a kid who’s just opened a pack full of Lego minifigures. You’ve got all these neat people inhabiting your fictional world – now what to do with them?
This is actually less of a problem than you might think. Amazing characters can make even the thinnest of plots work when written correctly. It’s why we enjoy programmes like Scooby-Doo or Brooklyn 99 or Supernatural, because while the plot can be fun and engaging (or sometimes, really, really silly), often in these types of shows, the story is less about the overarching narrative and more about how the characters relate to each other and the obstacles they face. Combining great characters with decent world-building and a solid narrative is what makes for a very memorable story. (Designing fully fleshed out characters can happen at any time during the writing process, so don’t worry too much if your characters feel somewhat flat or wooden in the first draft.)
Before we fully dive into the solution, it’s worth considering what storytelling medium you’d like to use, as playing with format and setting is going to give you a better idea of what direction to take your story in.
Would your characters be well suited to a full length epic novel? Would they work better in a novella? Should you choose a slice-of-life comic book instead of a 90 minute screenplay? There is also genre to consider, as a character thrust into a sweet romance is going to act and react quite differently than the lead detective in a thriller novel. Explore multiple different options, and see what fits best.
Once you have that, it’s time to formulate your plot. Take what you know about your characters and give them a goal.
Depending on your world building, you may have to create a Disruption Event of some kind.
For instance, say you have a humdrum character living in a boring little town. Nothing bad has ever happened to them, and they’re enjoying their life. Then a sudden summer freeze kills off the town’s crops. People fall on hard times. Your main character (or someone close to them) loses their job. Now their main ambition is to return things to the status quo – or simply to survive. That’s their goal. How they accomplish or fail to achieve that goal is your story.
If we take a more complex character – say they’re existing in a world where they’ve lost a lot already, and they’re just trying to survive – they have friends (or have lost them and are living with the memories), and are constantly dealing with pressure from all sides. They make a decision to help a lost child and find themselves drawn into a brewing civil war. How your already well fleshed-out character reacts to these events, and how they change (or don’t, but how the world around them changes as a result of their actions) is your story.
Not every story needs a Disruption Event if your character has a clear goal – revenge, money, love, fame, success – (although adding one – or several! – can certainly spice things up, especially if the Disruption Event is actively preventing your character from accomplishing their dreams) and characters are often more interesting in these types of stories, proactively pursing their ambitions instead of reacting to the story around them.
Once you have your character’s goal pinned down (and this can certainly change throughout the story as they grow and become a different person), it’s imperative to place obstacles in the way of them achieving this goal. These can be internal or external.
For example: a young woman who wants to find love but is stymied by her crippling shyness, a mouse who wants to become a warrior but has never even left the nest, or a young man who wants to become a starfighter pilot, but is stopped by having his home destroyed and is forced to go on the run after receiving a message that holds the key to undermining a totalitarian government. (Yes, this is the plot of Star Wars.)
As mentioned before, how your character reacts to these obstacles and eventually reaches – or fails to reach – their goals is your story. Either type of ending can be a tragedy or a happily ever after, based on what happens along the way.
Problem: Awesome World-Building – No Characters or Plot
This section is related to the high concept idea, but focuses more on everything both tangible and intangible that our heroes might come into contact with. To use Star Wars as an example again, from blasters to ewoks, to ‘freshers and spice, all the details that make a fictional universe feel lived-in and believable form the world-building aspect of your story. You might find that you are absolutely brilliant at creating the nitty gritty details that make up your fantasy world, but you have no clue how to populate your world with people or take your aesthetic and turn it into a coherent narrative.
Similarly to the Awesome Characters solution, it’s very helpful to consider what genre you want your story to inhabit. Sometimes the world-building on its own lends itself to the genre, but just because a world is, say, set in space, doesn’t mean it can’t also be a western (The Mandalorian) or a romance (Sirantha Jax series). Perhaps you’ve been playing with a high fantasy setting, but the narrative revolves around a series of murder mysteries, making it a detective story or a thriller. What kinds of characters would inhabit these subgenres? What would their stories look like?
Pick underutilised professions to highlight. What does a plumber or other type of handy man look like in this fantasy world? What problems would they encounter? What about doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals? How is information disseminated, and what types of characters are at the centre of that?
Challenge your world-building to extend beyond aesthetics to structures of religion or government. Look to real life to derive inspiration for the types of conflicts that arise from these structures, and keep drilling down until you reach the characters making the decisions that will drive the machine of your story.
Once you’ve applied your world-building to characters, ideas, or themes, sprinkle in some Disruption Events that shake up your carefully constructed world. Consider how the world-building can both solve and create problems. One good example of this is the Warriors series, which seriously examines the concept of cats having nine lives. On the one hand, our heroes have multiple chances to cheat death. On the other hand, this knowledge both makes them a target of enemy clans and gives them a false sense of confidence, leading them to act more recklessly than they might otherwise.
You can also use world-building to explore what happens when well meaning ideas are taken to an extreme, as is the case with The Giver, which presents a beautiful utopia on its surface but hides a dark truth, or Farenheit 451, which contemplates a reality where ideas running against the norm are literally destroyed.
(As an aside, if you are struggling to come up with characters to begin with, there are all sorts of character-building exercises you can find on the web, and if that fails, it’s a tried, tested, and true method of authors to base characters on people they know in real life.)
That concludes Part 1, and hopefully you now have a grasp on how to start your storytelling journey. Next up, we move from looking at beginning the story into how to develop and finish it. Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss Part 2!