WRITING WORKSHOP #1: Strong Story Beginnings

Would you like to write a story, but don’t know where to start? I firmly believe that each of us has stories to share that only we can write. So here are four quick ideas to help you get underway–and keep going!

1) Start with an Emotional Connection

My “ah-ha? moment in turning personal experience into fiction came years ago when I sold a horse named Lady. After six months of boarding this mare, I realized that the timing wasn’t right in my life to keep her. I put an ad in the paper, and the buyers showed up with their horse trailer and a check. My horse clomp-clomped into the trailer and the new owners drove away.

I went home and cried. Then I wrote a story about a boy named Elliott who, like me, has just sold his horse. He feels terrible about his decision and wonders if there’s any way to get her back again. When I finished the draft and my husband read it, he asked, “Mary, does this mean you’re going to buy your horse back again??

“No!? I laughed. “It means that as a writer I can write a different ending from what happens in real life.?

I was delighted to see my short story, “Horse for Sale? in Cricket magazine, and more excited to discover how to use personal experience as a bridge to story writing. Now I know that I can write historical fiction, contemporary fiction, or fantasy; stories about characters of a different gender or age than my own—as long as I first find an emotional connection.

2) Begin With Conflict

Start your story at a point of conflict—the moment when everything begins to change. No writer has done this better than E.B. White in his classic, “Charlotte’s Web.” It starts:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother…

White grabs our attention and holds it to the very last page. How? By introducing us to conflict and making us care. Is it any surprise that White lived on a farm for a period of his life? He drew on his own experiences around livestock, his own emotional reactions, and started his story with conflict.

Take a look at “Horse for Sale.” Where do I start the story? Is it two weeks before the sale of the horse? No, it’s moments before the new owners arrive. Start as close as possible to when things begin to go wrong for your character.

3) Make Things Get Worse before They Get Better

Life is about learning through our short-comings and mistakes. Yet when it comes to writing, we too often treat our main characters as if they are perfect. This leads to characters, of course, that are too-good-to-be-true. Allow your character to be flawed, to have regrets, to struggle with imperfections. By doing so you’ll create a more believable character—and one your readers will care about.

Once you have a character who faces conflict, then it’s time to complicate their situation. Think of any good book that kept your turning the pages. It’s true, isn’t it, that things got worse before they got better? As the writer, resist the urge to wrap up your character’s problem(s) too quickly. I like to brainstorm by asking myself, “What must happen next??

4) Let Your Character Resolve His or Her problem

As the writer, if you sweep into your story like a fairy godmother, wave your magic wand and make everything better for your character—well—your story is over. And unfortunately, your character has missed the opportunity to struggle, grow, learn, and change. From the beginning of the story to the end, your character must come to a new place either in circumstances and/or within himself or herself.

In “Horse for Sale,” Elliott finds it hard to admit he’s made a mistake. He thought he had wanted a four-wheeler like other boys his age, but he discovers that what he really wants is the horse he just sold. In order to get his horse back he must overcome his parents’ objections, make a difficult phone call to the new owners of his horse, and undo what he’s set in motion. It’s not easy. Yet it’s through his struggle that Elliott learns that it’s okay to change your mind. Sometimes you have to do what you know is right, even if others don’t understand.

In closing, I hope you found a few of these tips useful. Writing is a continual learning process.  But if you want to write, the most important tip is this: start.