Finding Your Way Into Your Story

april-bradleyI recently avoided a workshop assignment that should have been completed in no more than an hour because I couldn’t find a way into my story. This workshop generates significant, raw material for me. New characters and compelling stories emerge; sentences flow, and everyone contributes imaginative, heart-stuttering stories. It’s a word-feast, and I was strolling along eating it all up, licking my fingers—when it vanished, and I found myself with word-sticky fingers, staring at a blank page.

I had characters, an idea, but they were elusive. When this happens, I like to compose in my head, rearrange structure, let the characters play out different actions, maybe try out different perspectives and settings. But thinking is not writing. If I’m avoiding writing, if I can’t find a way in, it’s typically because I don’t want to write the material. This is when I should be working harder to open up the story. Much in the same way we shouldn’t shepherd our characters away from conflict, we shouldn’t avoid it in the act of writing.

There exist strategies to help writers overcome a sense of feeling blocked, but that’s not my focus today. Instead, I want to offer some approaches that will help writers think of beginnings as a way into story so that we can start drafting with some momentum and unburden ourselves from the temporary distraction and pressure of firsts (line, page, paragraph, chapter, beat, turning point). There’s time later for further development and revision. If you, like me, just want to return to the word-feast, consider finding a way into your story by starting it with one of the following:

Character: Character is a writer’s lodestone, and we enter our stories in various ways through them: what they want, what they’re doing, how they look, what they think, how they feel. We describe their pasts, their desires, and their faults. Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride tells us: “The story of Zenia ought to begin when Zenia began.” Ian Fleming in Thunderball begins: “It was one of those days when it seemed to James Bond that all life, as someone put it, was nothing but a heap of six to four against.” When we open with character, we create empathy and shared experience, which isn’t a bad way to start. Changing the focus on characters from major ones to minor ones or unexpected ones, like animals or inanimate objects, is a way to draw on character to help us enter our stories.

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Courtesy: Pixabay

Perspective: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” begins The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. The main character Dowell narrates, and what we read here isn’t dialogue; it’s a thought. Dowell is one of the most notable unreliable narrators in the modern novel. Changing the perspective or narrative point-of-view can dramatically alter how writers gain access to their stories. Perspective and character are intimately entwined. When we change the point of view, we tilt the entire world of the storyscape. When we decide to alter perspective we constrict or expand our access to the story as well. New questions emerge: Whose perspective is it? How trustworthy is it? How does this work to our advantage as the writer? A narrative point of view may seem to fit better than others, but if you aren’t writing, try entering the story from a different perspective.

Setting: The narrator of Dodi Smith’s I Capture the Castle tells us, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Sylvia Plath opens The Bell Jar with “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Setting creates mood and atmosphere; it evokes emotion, and orients the writer and the reader. It affects characters and their development. Setting, including the cultural and physical environments, is so vital that it can drastically alter plot. You can create as many open doors as you need to gain entry into story with a change of setting, even in small ways.

In Medias Res: This is a familiar and common way to enter a story. It’s dramatic, immediate, and compelling. It raises questions that demand answers. Gabriel García Márquez’s astonishing opening sentence in One Hundred Years of Solitude is a famous example of this method: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Thomas Pynchon drops us in the middle of Gravity’s Rainbow with this line: “A screaming comes across the sky.” And then? we ask. This method generates momentum that ultimately drives a dramatic arc. What might your characters—or readers— need to do or witness? Start there.

Statements: Summations, declarative sentences, ruminations, philosophical observations, or meditations demand a writer’s further engagement because they demand an explanation that leads to another sentence, and yet another. Consider these examples: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” (from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God) or Virginia Woolf’s opening in Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Statements like these are solid starting points because they provoke the writer to respond and to provide what their readers will want to know: what happened.

Dialogue: Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is one of my favorite openings: “When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” Dialogue is challenging because writers discover their stories indirectly through whatever the dialogue reveals about an aspect of characters, setting, mood, conflict, or events. Done well, this way into your story reveals elements in rich, layered ways. This is an excellent choice for subtextual techniques or the desire to explore story on different narrative levels between dialogue and body language. This way in asks the writer to deal with what’s revealed, shrouded, or undisclosed in language.

There are other ways in, and many of these devices can be combined. For more help with this, I’d like to recommend Naming The World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston. How did I eventually get into my story? I went with a short descriptive statement about the setting and dove into character. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments about how you find your way in.

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april_bradley_framedApril has a Master’s in Ethics from Yale University and studied Philosophy and Theology as a post-graduate scholar at Cambridge University. Her fiction has appeared in many literary magazines and has been nominated for the 2015 Best of the Net Anthology as well as the 2017 Pushcart Prize. She is the Associate Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press and the Founder and Editor of Women Who Flash Their Lit. Find out more about April here, visit her website, and catch up with her online.

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About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Openings, Resident Writing Coach, Uncategorized, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Finding Your Way Into Your Story

  1. Hillary Leftwich says:

    “Dialogue is challenging because writers discover their stories indirectly through whatever the dialogue reveals about an aspect of characters, setting, mood, conflict, or events.” April, this is SO true. I had a craft class with Erika Krouse on dialogue once and she echoes the same statement. Dialogue should always push the action forward, and it’s hard having to focus on this reveal that you mention as well as ensuring it is continuing to move the story forward. Great advice!!!

    • Thank you, Hillary–thank you for sharing this about Erika Krouse! It’s affirming! I’m not making things up (kind of…) Dialogue is one of those aspects that either works or fails for me. It’s too easy to fall into a pattern of everyday language that stalls momentum. I love reading effective, great dialogue. When dialogue is pulling its weight or even starring, it’s just so good.

  2. Nan Wigington says:

    Thanks for the wonderful article. I love the ending of the opening paragraph — “I found myself with word-sticky fingers, staring at a blank page.” Though I’m not sure I know what a block is, I do know that I’ve often gone silent. Perhaps I’ve forgotten that word-sticky hunger.

    When I am writing, I think I enter into the work in media res.

    • Thank you for your wonderful comment, Nan! When I read your writing, I get all word-sticky, and just love it. In media res works beautifully for you. And I know that silence, when the words go away. There are no words. That when other people’s words are more the blessing. That’s the only thing I can do and another reason why I read–beyond the compulsion. 🙂 Maybe you can let us know how you find words again.

  3. Gay Degani says:

    “The Good Soldier” is one of my favorite books. And all your examples resonate. You say a lot in a very short essay. Outstanding April and thank you.

  4. Audra says:

    I can’t wait to pull out some stories i’ve given up to try some of your ideas! Thanks!

  5. Jayne Martin says:

    This is fabulous, April. So helpful. I’m going to copy it to a word doc, so I can highlight and underline and read it again and again — whenever I get stuck, which is often. I like starting In Medias Res a lot. Probably from my old TV writing days, but I’ve got no hard and fast rules. I’m grateful for whatever shows up because if I can get that first sentence, I’m usually on my way. Now I’m off to share your abundance of wisdom.

    • Thank you so much, Jayne! Your background in television scriptwriting taught you the “start late, get out early” principle that works so well for you in short fiction. In Medias Res is wonderfully immediate, and it’s appealing. It’s exciting to hear that I’ve managed to offer a way for you to approach your writing in a different way. Yay!

  6. Jan Elman Stout says:

    April, this is a wonderful post with terrific illustrative examples and a potpourri of ways into story. More than not, my way in is through character. Characters come to me who I feel compelled to write. Each comes with vulnerabilities I yearn to explore. I’m sure the fact that I’m a retired psychologist has a lot to do with this.

    • Jan, what a great way to explore character right off and explains how you portray powerfully realized ones by exploring their vulnerabilities first. I love that notion, Jan. Thank you!

  7. Paul Beckman says:

    April-This sentence “Much in the same way we shouldn’t shepherd our characters away from conflict, we shouldn’t avoid it in the act of writing.” speaks to my way of writing if I could darticulate it like you. I like to say my characters have minds of their own and all I do is get them started and they take over. I like that you want to help writers by showing us a way into our stories. For me, that’s the only way. Great job!

    • I’m so happy to see a comment from you. Your characters are vibrant, and learning how they spring from your imagination is a peek into your process. Thank you so much for the compliment.

  8. What an inspiring list of great, illustrative examples. Thank you, April!

  9. I almost always get ideas from setting first. I don’t know why. Seems like I build the set first and then try to figure out what characters would be there. Like you, I love composing in my head! But you’re right, sometimes you have to start getting ideas down on paper. Making that leap from head to page is such a struggle for me sometimes. These are such great ideas for getting past that. I’m thinking it would be fun to try all of these ideas in a story and just see what sticks as an opener. Who knows, the rest might find its way into the story as well. I can’t wait to try!

    • I’m so glad, Linda. Composing in my head has been an effective strategy I’ve held over from non-fiction research prose and some essay. In fictive narratives, I too easily use it to dwell too long in my head and avoid writing. I look forward to hearing from you or reading some of your work after your experiment with this. Thank you so much for stopping by and reading.

  10. Love this post, April, and all of your excellent examples. Setting is hugely influential in my stories, so I typically start there to get into the story. Though I should note that in the fine-tuning stage, I usually end up going back and changing the opening lines.

    • Hi Becca! Thanks for stopping in and commenting. I love to hear about people’s process. I used to cling to opening lines, wanting to arrange them *just so* before writing further. Setting also is one of my habitual ways to enter or change a story, and I’d like to push myself to try some of my own suggestions, like dialogue.

  11. Great post, April. 🙂 I find for me, the spark that triggers everything is usually sensory. I will see an image in my mind, like a rock in the palm of a child’s hand, and I just know there’s something special, supernatural, about this rock. Or I will hear the flutter of a grocery store bag caught in a tree branch and know something very bad is about to happen.

    So depending on the route, I might go to the character next (who is it holding the rock? Why? What do they feel? What do they want?) or I might delve into the setting (the skeletal limbs of the tree, the grayness of the sky, an abandoned house at the edge of a clearing with broken windows and a boarded-up door) to find the story. I nudge at the corners, move around the perimeter of the image in my mind, because I know the story is there and I just have to wait for the pieces of it to collect.

    For me, this part of the discovery is such an exciting time, and I love how it’s never the same. Once I have enough pieces, I start to structure to drill into the true story and give me the right starting point.

  12. Sara L. says:

    This is an awesome first RWC post! Great job, April. 🙂

    I actually found my way into my WIP with the plot, which wasn’t mentioned above… but that’s the first thing that came to me. I knew what would happen in the story and the general sequence of events before anything else. Then the setting and the characters, and so on. And I already know the “way in” for my next story will be different. I already have a good feel on the characters, but some aspects of the plot are still a mystery. So I wonder if other readers will have similar answers – that the “way in” to their story will differ depending on the story itself.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Sara and for mentioning plot. You write that you “knew what would happen in the story…before anything else” and did you start writing with this scaffolding? How did things go in revision: did things change? Sometimes the planning gets in the way of writing—the first drafting when we lose ourselves in the writing. I tend to be an instinctive plotter/planner so that if I don’t write, try to tap into that sense of story in my head and realize it on a page, I end up with nothing. I think you are on to something, Sara, about the story itself provoking particular ways in. Pushing up against the grain of that intuitive way, like perspective or setting, could reveal something about our characters or a situation we don’t know. It’s all kind of a an experimental lab of sorts. 🙂

      • Sara L. says:

        I did start writing with that scaffolding (and once I’d taken the time to develop the setting, characters, world-building, etc., too). But I was also open to revising the plot as needed, either by adding necessary scenes, deleting unnecessary ones, or moving plot points around. So I didn’t force the plot to stay as-is. Instead, as I spent more time with the story, I saw ways to improve the plot and went with my gut feeling on how to fix it. So I’m glad I started with that initial outline, but I’m even more grateful that I wasn’t too stubborn about plot changes. 😉

        • Sara, it sounds like you enjoyed what you wrote (your novel?) as you were writing and revising. I like it when we allow characters and plot surprise us. I hope your next emerging story goes just as well if not better.

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