If you’re a writer, it’s probably happened to you before: You get a great idea for a story. After contemplating your sheer genius for a little while and letting the story boil, you make a mad dash for your computer or notebook, sit down—and freeze. The empty page and blank screen taunt you.
And you realize that you have no idea how to start.
Sound familiar? I know the feeling myself. Here are my top 5 favorite ways to get past that first sentence.
1. Start with the problem.
Don’t bother setting the stage. Just jump straight into the conflict. Suppose your story is about a girl whose life changes when she finds a wounded and half-drowned stranger on the beach near her village.
Rather than starting the story with a scene in which the girl milks the cow and gathers eggs, get to the problem. Start your very first sentence with the discovery of the stranger on the beach. You can fill in all the background details in subtle bits and pieces (for example, she might drop her egg basket in shock).
Chances are, if the problem intrigues you, you will keep writing—and your reader will keep reading.
2. Start with dialogue.
I once started a novel with this shocking bit of dialogue: “Please don’t cut out my heart!”
This detonates all kinds of questions in the reader’s mind. Who is saying this? Why is she saying this? Of whom is she afraid?
From a writing perspective, conversations are easy to jump into. There must be a response, and then a counter-response… and before you know it, you’ve written a whole page and have all the momentum you need to continue your story.
3. Start with an observation that catches attention.
One of my favorite stories, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, starts with a quirky observation that sets the tone of the story:
The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that) but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange! Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers.
Ms. Raskin starts off well because she introduces something known and familiar, then turns the reader’s expectations upside-down—all in one, smart opening sentence. This sort of sentence delivers a lot of momentum to the writer, who becomes just as eager to write the story as the reader is in reading it.
4. Start in the middle of the story.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner was my first introduction to this concept. The reader is introduced to Eugenides the thief, and his commission to steal a valuable treasure. Adventures follow. What the reader does not know is that a plot had been set in motion long before the point at which the story started. The author weaves in back story that subtly alludes to this "prequel" plot, without giving it away, and then tears away the veil at the last moment.
This method leaves the backstory in shadow, which creates a mystery that pushes the story forward. Mystery drives the writer, because the writer himself often wants to know what will happen next. (That’s half the fun of writing!) Basically, you can sum up this concept in one sentence: Give yourself questions to answer.
5. Start from a different point of view.
If a story just isn’t working for you, try switching your perspective.
For example, if you are working in third person (“He sensed that he was being followed”), then switch to first person (“I sensed that I was being followed”).
If you’re writing from the point of view of one character, switch to the point of view of a different character, maybe even a side character who is observing the main character (as Watson observes Sherlock Holmes).
If the fantasy world with talking trees doesn’t work for you, change your setting to a space ship orbiting a hostile planet. If you get stuck in your own rut, all you may need is a good shock to your preconceptions in order to get back on track.
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