I 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.
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.
April 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.
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.