Where do we get our stories? How do we start with the first flicker of an image, or a string of words, or a “What if?,” and turn those ephemera into a fully realized universe that we, and our readers, can enter?
This article will explore five ways “into” a story—character, voice, situation, image and message—and the advantages and challenges of each approach, from chasing those initial and often elusive thoughts, to understanding their role in the developing story, and then using what seems to be working well to find a natural end. The steps are numbered, but I recommend starting with the section that interests you most.
1. Find the character. All roads lead to character. No matter how plot-driven and action- packed you envision your story to be, readers won’t stick around without a sense of connection to at least one of your characters.
The advantage: When you start with a character, you can find inspiration everywhere, in the never-ending parade of passing faces and bodies and movements, the way strangers reveal themselves just standing in line at the grocery store. Characters may also be inspired by people you actually know. But I think some of the best potential for a new character comes from observing people you don’t know—more room for the imagination to take over.
The fact that a character can speak, or at least think, means you can ask her anything: What is your past? What are your circumstances now? Who was the first person to break your heart? What is your deepest secret? I’m not advocating for knowing the entire history of a character before you write one line, but if you’re fascinated by a character and yet struggling to find the story, these kinds of questions can lead you there.
The challenge: Sometimes you get so engaged with writing about a character—behavior, physical traits, memories, etc.—that you end up with a character study, not a story.
When this happens, take heart. Very likely the material you’ve written so far has helped reveal to you what this character’s current concerns are, and these will drive the story. But don’t try to shoehorn a bunch of background into a story just because you can’t bear to part with it.
Instead, consider turning to a fresh page, or a new document on your screen, and writing (or rewriting) the most significant moment of the story in a scene. Don’t worry about where this moment needs to go in the story, or how you’ll get to it—the act of writing it will show you the possibilities. If there are several significant moments, write them as well, and don’t worry about how they’ll fit together. E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This approach probably works for short stories, too.
2. Listen to voice. It may seem strange to talk about a character’s voice independently of the character itself, but I’m just going on my own experience as to what can trigger a story for me. Often it may be just a few words overheard (yes, I’m a champion eavesdropper—you’ve been warned). Or maybe a story someone told me, or a memory that has not crossed my mind in years, or a news item, and then a phrase threads into my mind and I can’t let it go. I don’t know anything beyond the words, so I have to ask: Who is saying (or thinking) this? And why? These first words, and the desire to understand their significance, will drive me to write my way to an answer.
The advantage: As with potential characters, voice is everywhere—all you have to do is listen. I have never actually “stolen” an overheard conversation (or one I’ve actually participated in) for a story, but I have gotten a lot of mileage out of listening closely to the natural rhythms of conversation. Listening to how people talk—not just what they say—is the best way to discover a character’s voice.
Voice has to do with the finessing of language—the choice and order of words, the way they are pronounced. Voice can take you a long way into a story. And that is where the potential difficulty lies.
The challenge: Just because you’ve nailed the low-country cadence of your character doesn’t mean she has something interesting to say. You might think if you just focus on how she talks and thinks, the story will follow. But voice is just one way to access character—action has to do the hard work of revealing it. The living, breathing character shows herself through what she does, not just how she talks. If you feel you’re losing momentum because your character is all talk and no walk, put your character in a situation.
3. Get into a situation. Think of situation as a precursor to plot. In writing workshops, students often get confused when they talk about plot. They think of plot as a freestanding structure into which characters can be inserted. What they’re really talking about is a situation, not plot, as plot develops out of the particular motivations of characters who find themselves in a situation.
A situation is about what can happen, while a plot is about why it happens. This idea is presented very well in On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey, a book I love to teach from. He references E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel in his essay “Character, Plot, Setting and Time”: “Forster writes that ‘The king died and the queen died’ is a story, whereas ‘the king died and the queen died of grief [is] a plot.’ The difference is … that in a story we say ‘and then?’ and in a plot we ask ‘why?’”
Students initially also find this distinction confusing, because we’ve come to think of “story” as the product of our efforts. So I ask them to substitute “situation” for “story” and then it makes more sense. A situation is about events happening in a certain time and place. A plot is what links those events beyond their chronology, developing out of the motivations of the characters involved.
The advantage: Questions like “What if some kids go into a wardrobe and find another world?” or “How do I get readers to sympathize with a man who is unfaithful to his wife and shirks the consequences?” will lead you to a situation. You might feel as if you’re setting up a problem or an equation to solve—you start with considering the central concerns of your story rather than trying to find them. The solution to the problem leads you to an ending.
Think of Chekhov’s gun on the wall: If you’ve put it there in Act One, it has to fire by Act Three. The unfaithful husband I just mentioned was my main character in “The Music You Never Hear,” and in that story, he makes love with his dying wife’s 19-year-old caretaker as his wife lies in the next room. The young woman is poor and black; he is white and older and respected in the 1950s Southern community where they live—on opposite sides of town, of course. The encounter produces a son—a secret he will successfully keep, but not without unexpected costs.
I cared about Ned, Dobi, and the son they produced. The question I started with was whether other readers would sympathize with Ned, in spite of his cowardice. And I knew I had to answer it: Any sympathy would come not from his redemption, but from his realization that in trying to be “good within the confines of his life,” he had failed himself and his son. The question, or problem, showed me what was required of the ending.
The challenge: For those of you who always start with character or voice, a situational entry point might feel awkward or inauthentic. You might feel that you’re moving puppets around rather than people. If that’s the case, go back to those interview questions that help you gain a better understanding of your characters. You might find that the material you generate will also bring greater depth to the situation you started with.
For those who tend to be more readily engaged by situations, the challenge is in giving your characters the room to move around on their own, even surprise you, rather than trying to shoehorn them into a predetermined path.
4. Follow the image. A few years ago, I had a nightmare: I was a child swimming with my father in a lake, and he was a few feet away from me, paddling along on his back. Then it seemed I was seeing him from above, and I saw that a huge snake had wrapped itself around him. I woke up with a scream fighting its way out of my throat.
At the time, I was concerned about my father’s health, and the dream was a natural extension of that. But those images wouldn’t leave me—the idyllic moment followed by horror. I began to write from the point of view of a character who had had this dream. I didn’t know anything except that she was female, and younger than I was. I focused first on letting her describe the images. In the process, questions presented themselves to me: Does she have siblings? What is her relationship with her father? What about her mother? And what ultimately happens to the father? I discovered that she was an only child, a devoted daughter, and she was grieving—and from these realizations, eventually came a published story I called “Lowell’s Lines.”
The advantage: Image doesn’t constrain you to a character immediately, and yet, image is powerful. Kodak has about the most perceptive tagline in the history of the world on this matter: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The way image is observed and described can carry huge significance in a story. If a character is away from home and standing outside one night, looking up at the stars, and the sky looks different—the stars are brighter, or barely visible, or a favorite constellation can’t be found—these details carry meaning, and lead us to greater understanding of the central concerns of the story.
The challenge: Image isn’t the story. Vivid and even resonant description, just as with perfectly rendered voice, can’t stand alone. For those with visual minds, the desire to convey what is seen in the writer’s mind can crowd out the action that readers care about. There may be an impulse to describe everything, whether it has significance to the main character or not. It might be hard to simply say “a lamp on a small table,” because you want the reader to see the Queen Anne table that you see. But it has to matter to the character for you to go further—he or she should reasonably be able to identify the table as a Queen Anne. If not, you’ve let your desire for detail overwhelm that character’s knowledge and priorities.
5. Send a message. People have gotten the idea over time that art shouldn’t serve the base aims of sending a message. There is that famous Samuel Goldwyn quote, “If you have a message, send a telegram”—or these days, maybe an e-mail.
But Orwell did message pretty well with 1984. In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott talks about the “moral point of view,” suggesting we should allow, and perhaps even encourage, our deepest beliefs to inform those of our characters. Francine Prose takes the opposite position in Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them. She quotes Chekhov: “To a chemist, nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist.” Written like a true doctor.
So what to do? Try starting with message anyway. Any way into a story is fair game.
The advantage: When you start with a purpose, you have a built-in guide for picking and choosing what is necessary to include. Once, a good friend told me about the pregnant daughter of a woman she knew. The girl was 13. I have two young daughters, and I exploded on the phone. “Who allowed this to happen to her?” I yelled. “She has been raped! Are they pressing charges?” My friend was shocked by the ferocity of my reaction, as was I. And I knew that I had to write about how I felt—that our society sexualizes girls from their earliest years, and that even with laws against sex with minors, many people still think that if the sex is “consensual” it isn’t exactly rape.
I went through many revisions before my story, which had initially been fueled by rage, was finally finished. I don’t know if the purpose that originally drove me to write comes through in the story at all, but it did its most important work simply by getting me to write.
The challenge: There is greater risk in starting with message, because in trying to serve your purpose you might end up with a soapbox, rather than a story. When Lamott and Prose talk about the role of message in story, I agree with them both simultaneously. It may be that Lamott has more power over me in my first frenzied drafts. And Prose takes over when it’s time to revise, to make cool-headed decisions about what is working and what isn’t. Your primary aim should be to make a good story. But a message can get you started.
I hope these different steps have given you a broader range of entry points into stories than you’ve previously considered. They may not be the only ways story ideas might present themselves to you, but they are the main triggers for me. All of them will have done their work by the time a story feels finished. But you’ll start with a single thing that opens a door into a room that you have to both invent and discover.
Quinn Dalton is the author of a novel, High Strung, and two story collections, Stories From the Afterlife and Bulletproof Girl . Her stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines and in anthologies. Web: www.quinndalton.com.