How to start to tell a tale.
There was once a guy…or a girl…I can’t really remember, whichever, they wanted to tell stories. They had spent long hours wrapped up in the worlds of Tolkien and Rowling; they had slogged around in the muck and the mire of R.R. Martin and they wouldn’t allow themselves to be alone with Lovecraft or King. Their imagination begged…no that’s not the right word…their imagination demanded freedom; and so they obliged. They were inspired, all fired up! They sat before a type writer…no that’s too old school…they sat at their computer, ideas swimming like…something that swims… a lot… and they began…to…panic.
The cursor blinked like the blank expectant stare of a class expecting another boring presentation. They began to type something out and with every key struck, a horrible realization gripped them: “how the fuck do I even begin?!”
So much about writing is about technique and emulation or at least that’s what people go on and on about. But what about starting? how do you start? If you have a story you already know where you wanna go, so I’ve provided a 4 part checklist to help figure out how to get there.
“It’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish!” Have you ever heard that saying before? Fuck that saying, at least when it comes to writing. How you start to write a story, how you give form to your ideas so that you may actually tell the story; it means everything.
A tale of two worlds.
Writers, when defining their story, hate definition; especially when it comes down to a dichotomy. That said, get over it.
There are two different types of stories and they are defined by what is ultimately held in crisis, the character or the world.
How you define the world and/or the character (or setting) is up to you; and, yes, it is possible for both to be in jeopardy. However, for the most part, one or the other is going to be threatened more; and dealing with that threat is what will drive your story.
So, what’s at stake? the world or the individual.
If it’s an individual you need to slow down, take your time, do your research, and most importantly, craft deep, defined characters.
If it’s the world you can fast track everything. Characters need to be defined but not as deeply as in a character driven story. Use cliches and archetypes to quickly acclimate the audience and do this fast but with deft. Don’t do anything that will allow your audience time to study your characters or story.
how do you know what’s at stake?
When you’re thinking about the story you should be able to, in general terms, see how it all ends. Concentrate on the event that causes the ending. What happens? In the final confrontation, what would happen if your hero or protagonist lost? Would the world be destroyed or would the character themselves suffer a loss they may never recover from? If you think strictly in terms of the main character and what drives them the answer should be fairly clear.
When beginning to write a story this is where you should start. You should understand what story you’re going to tell before you tell it so that you may avoid tangents and unintended or unnecessary themes that prevent your story from being presented clearly.
And speaking of theme…
Theme/THēm/(noun): the subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person’s thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic.“the theme of the sermon was reverence”
What is a theme? A lot of people mistake theme with genre “I’ve got some horror themes in my story, some themes of romance, noir themes”. A theme is a central idea around which your story is based. Think of theme as gravity, no matter where your story goes, your theme should pull you back and keep you grounded.
While there are infinite ways to express a theme the are only seven themes by which to express:
- Coming of age (e.g. any Judd Apatow film.)
- Revenge (e.g. The sting, The crow. )
- Man to beast (e.g. The fly, Wolf, Taxi Driver)
- Cynic to participant (e.g. Up, Shawshank Redemption.)
- participant to leader (e.g. The replacements, Rocky.)
- Leader to visionary (e.g. X, Ghandi, Ten Commandments.)
- Visionary to tyrant ( e.g. Scarface, Noriega: God’s favorite )
If you’re paying attention you might notice something about each theme: they are all observations of change. That is what your audience shows up for, to see change, whether they realize it or not.
(Also, each theme can be reversed to tell a tale of the opposite form of change.)
If you have an idea chances are you have a theme. Figuring it out early could help but some people prefer to discover their theme as they write. Here’s how to decide: if you’re writing a story where the world is at stake it’s best to know ahead of time but if you’re writing a more character driven story, it might be best to discover what your theme is as you go.
It’s also worth pointing out that every character that has an arc, should have a theme. The more supporting characters’ themes relate to the central theme of your story the better. That in mind, not all characters need have an arc or a theme. However, it’s important to discover your theme because your audience will be unconsciously searching for it. If you’ve ever got to the end of a story and said “what the hell was the point in all that?” it’s probably because the writer lacked theme
It is very possible and damning to write a complete story that has no theme whatsoever. These stories are often extremely shallow and leave audiences unfulfilled. No matter if you find your theme at the beginning, middle, or end of writing your story, just make sure that you find it. And if one cannot be found there is something fundamentally wrong with your story.
The answer to the question “why do I want to tell this story?” has to be more than just “because I want to.”
Let’s Talk About Character…
This is where everyone falls in love. This is where everyone will hate your story. This is what you will go on and on about to people who couldn’t care less about the run-on sentence that your story sounds like.
Depending on the kind of story you intend to tell, character is defined in very different ways:
- In a character driven story characters are defined by their choices we judge them by their actions when forced to decide.
2. In a plot driven story characters are defined by their opposites and more or less their reaction to certain situations.
character driven: woman is released from prison is presented with the option of returning to the lifestyle that landed her in prison (with higher risks as well as rewards) or being a mother to the teenage daughter she’s never met. No matter what decision is made here the woman will be defined in our mind as a delinquent parent or woman searching for redemption. (in either case these choices should be tied to your theme.)
Plot driven: man parks his car in front of a liquor store in a bad neighborhood, he enters the store but when he comes out his car is gone. The man’s reaction to this situation will define him in the eyes of the audience. Does he panic? Does he sigh and walk to the nearest bus stop? Does he scream and go on a homicidal rampage? (what happens next is tied to your plot.)
We can also define the character by creating a supporting cast or main antagonist that is/are the juxtaposition of the main character. Overbearing mother/ rebellious teen. Alcoholic husband/ strictly sober wife. a jock in a school of nerds. a black person in a white neighborhood.
Introduce and define your characters with your theme and the knowledge of the kind of story you’re telling. That is to say, explain what kind of person your character is through their decisions (if telling a character driven story) or their reactions (plot driven) or/and by surrounding them by their opposites.
Understanding how to go about defining your character(s) before you begin writing will save you tons of time when you begin outlining and eventually writing your story. Referring back to your theme, you will know what choices to provide or situations to create to better shape your characters.
Lastly, yet equally important is, setting.
There are many ways to approach setting. The world of your story can be a character itself, it can exist in symbiosis with the plot or theme, or it can be an independent element in your story.
When the setting is an independent element it often mirrors the real world in time and space even if the time is in the past. The world is created by the necessity of plot or perspective of the main character i.e. street gang lifestyle or the streets of New York during a government imposed martial law. When the world is independent, the characters within it are either subject to it’s rules or have the ability to destroy it in order to achieve their goals or in some cases both; but for the most part it remains unchanged.
When the world itself is a character it stands in contrast to the hero and it reacts to any action taken by the main character. This is a constant element in horror films and sci-fi/fantasy. The hero enters a cave, removes artifacts, the cave begins to crumble around him in protest. It’s important to understand that when you make your setting a character it must also have an arc that has a rising drive that reaches its apex in regard to the plot. This also means that the setting has a desire (expelling intruders, killing curious teens, keeping the status quo etc.). You risk taking your audience out of the story by being inconsistent if you ignore the arc of your setting.
When you approach a setting as a symbiosis, the world is largely changing and symbolic of where the main character is in their own personal journey. A woman begins the story in a hot summer where she is barely holding her life together. Tragedy strikes and and suddenly it’s fall. Unable to cope with her problems she reaches her darkest point and contemplates suicide during a very cold winter. The woman bounces back from this, finds a new outlook on life just as spring begins. It needn’t be so linear or simple either but it must mirror or contrast the state of the main character to work correctly.
Certain approaches to settings only work with certain types of stories and your approach will often override the way you want to tell a story if it doesn’t jibe well with it’s type.
Independent settings work best with plot driven stories where the focus is put on the epic battles. Character-like settings work with either character driven stories or plot driven stories but must interact with the characters in order to work. Symbiotic settings work only in character driven stories because these are the only stories that facilitate actual change and the destruction of set pieces only have an effect in a static world.
No matter your choice or how you wish to play with the concepts, setting must be given proper thought before you begin writing. Otherwise your story will feel disjointed and possibly inauthentic.
I get it.
You’re a writer…you write. Can’t nobody tell you how to write because we’re all special little snowflakes.
I won’t argue, (though double negatives can be…never mind) but I’m not trying to tell you how to write. I’m giving advice about the way you may want to look at your story before you begin.
1st, figure out the type of story you wish to tell by determining what’s at stake. i.e. what happens when or if the hero loses?
2nd, figure out your theme. Do this by observing exactly what type of change your story will be chronicling. Are we watching the fall of a hero (Visionary to tyrant) or are we watching a mother accept the choices her daughter makes as a growing adult (coming of age) ?
3rd, think about how you will define your characters. What situations can you put your characters in to prove who they are or who they will be? Or what choices will he or she make that will change them or affect their life forever?
4th, How should you craft your setting? Is your setting a stage for your characters to act out their lives upon or are you trying to transport characters to world of wonder? Or maybe your setting is symbolic and it reflects or contrasts the journey your characters are on.
No matter how you cut it, thinking of these 4 things before you begin actually writing will carve out a path for your story to follow, ground your story in the beliefs you wish to breathe into the world, craft compelling characters and worlds to be enjoyed.
It’s not about how you start or finish, it’s about cartography, mapping out the trail before you even set foot on it.