Starting a story

Good day to everyone. I know that some of you are story writers with your own ideas about what makes a story and how to get started. I’ve published a number of stories, too, for children and adults, and I love writing them. Sometimes on school visits we talk about story writing. What I tell students is much the same as what I tell adults. Today I thought I’d offer some ideas on the subject of getting started. If you disagree or have other suggestions, I hope you’ll join the conversation.

In 2004 I published a Scholastic Guide book for young writers entitled Writing Stories, Fantastic Fiction from Start to Finish. As I prepared to write the book I read what other writers had to say about writing stories. Here are a few.

“A writer’s job is to create characters and give them a place to grow. Start with a situation, introduce the characters, then begin to narrate.”
— Stephen King
Novelist, story writer

“A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.”
— Jon Franklin,
Pulitzer winning journalist

“The three greatest rules of dramatic writing are: Conflict! Conflict! Conflict!”
— James Frey

King is more concerned with narration, description, and dialogue than he is about plot. He believes that plot isn’t important and can even restrain the characters’ abilities to move about and grow. These successful writers tell us to take a situation, introduce characters, and start telling their stories.

In my book, I show students that situations and characters can be thought about together.

• Wooden puppet, sometimes naughty, wants to become a real boy (Pinocchio).
• Pig born runt of the litter fears for his life (Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web).
• Hero from another planet disguises himself as a mild-mannered reporter (Superman).

Start your own list of characters and situations. Here are three to help get started.

• Old dog in animal shelter fears he’s too ugly to be adopted.
• New girl in class says she can do something she can’t.
• Boy hurt in accident must learn to live without walking.

Once you have selected a situation and introduced your characters, you are ready to begin telling the story of what happens. There is more to a story, of course, than getting started. We can talk about other elements later, if you wish.

Stories are about characters and how they solve their problems. If we make the problem too easy, the reader gets bored. If we make it too hard, the reader doesn’t believe the solution.

Stories usually build toward a climax during which the leading character(s) attempts to resolve the conflict (solve the problem). Failure in initial efforts helps build suspense and engage the reader in rooting for the hero to somehow manage to pull off the seemingly impossible.

How all the elements — idea, beginning, character, situation, problem, action, dialogue, solution, ending — come together are the stuff of many how-to books on story writing. But I always remind students or adults that writing begins with a single word on a piece of paper or the screen of a computer. The mind cannot improve on nothing. Carrying around that great idea is our minds is, for many writers, a necessary incubation period, but sooner or later that story has to begin showing itself on paper.


6 comments on “Starting a story

  1. Good post David!
    I’ve got to agree, conflict, conflict, conflict!
    I also enjoyed the Stephen King quote . . .

    My son said to me yesterday, “I help you write because I give you the names for your characters.” And it’s true! So here’s a vote for the importance of naming your characters the appropriate names—could make a cool little blog post for you (-;

    Very best,

  2. Perfect timing, David! I am just getting ready to start my short story unit with my 6th graders – this will be very helpful!
    By the way, for the last few years, I have been giving my students a visual copy of a plot line (including exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). As a part of their prewrite, they use 5 sticky notes to sketch each part of their story. Works very well.

    • Hi Jana,

      It’s always good to hear from you. I’m glad this post works into your schedule and I hope it helps in some way. Your 5-step overview is a good one. I’m sure it helps students keep track of where they are and aids them in maintaining balance in their stories.

      Thanks for adding this.


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