There is more than one way to start a story. In fact, there is no "right way"--every author does it differently. Sometimes, an author even changes her methods around to keep it fresh. There are two things you can do to figure out your own method: 1) read how others do it, and 2) try each method for yourself. It's a lot of hard work to figure it all out on our own, but I guess that's why "the experts" say a writer needs to writer for 10,000 hours, 10 years or hack out a million bad words before they master the craft. And even then, a writer never stops learning!
The good news is that there are lots of blog posts and craft books and author interviews that discuss writing methodology. With that in mind, I have a method to show you which I have recently fallen in love with. It may not be the right method for you, but until you try, you won't know, right? (You can always test it out on a short story before dragging it into NaNoWriMo with you this November :) I call it "The Premise Method."
It makes sense to be sure the base of our story is very solid, because everything else we write will build on top of it. If we have to drastically change the base of the story...well, the story will drastically change.
In his book The Anatomy of Structure, John Truby talks a lot about this. He starts with a thing called a "premise," which is also known as a "log line" or an "elevator pitch" (because it should be compact enough to enable a recitation during the course of an elevator ride with an editor or agent).
A premise is a one or two sentence version of your story: a sense of your main character, the first action she takes, and a general notion of the ending.
The premise can be your story base. Here's an example of a premise of the book Holes by Louis Sachar: "A kid with legendary bad luck must survive a juvenile detention camp's secret agenda and unearth the truth about his family curse" (Kole 33). For more about writing a premise, you can either read The Anatomy of Structure's first chapter, Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole, or this great blog post byDonald Maass.
To write your premise, explain in one line what your main character does when faced with your story's inciting incident. Also give a vague notion of the ending. That's about it! Try to make it interesting.
Truby says it's important to form the right premise because every other decision we make will be based on this premise.
Freeeeeeze! The right premise? Who has the right to tell me what premise is right for my story? Well, I do. And you do for your story. But how can we tell? By doing lots of brainstorming and exploring. Usually when I write anything, the first ideas aren't what I end up polishing and submitting. I've usually narrowed and focused the original flash of inspiration to something slightly or completely different. It's very rare that I write something that stays essentially the same.
So. Brainstorming to find your perfect premise takes a long time--Truby recommends weeks. Literally, weeks of brainstorming. This was a very freeing idea, for me, because I've always felt like I needed to get writing, bash out that word count, etc. But brainstorming is important for writing a truly unique, organic story. It may even save a writer time by brainstorming up a premise before writing because she will discover plot problems to solve before they are solidified in a manuscript. If a writer just grabs her first idea and starts writing away with it, she may have to change everything about it later.
If you are worried about taking so long to brainstorm a story, remember that you can also be working on another story in order to keep your skills razor sharp and stories out on submission. We writers multi-task!
Premise is not that way everyone begins their story, but it seems to be a fairly common method. It helps focus an idea if we can get those main elements--character, plot arc, general idea of ending--into one or two lines. It gives you guidance as you write.
If writers plan during the "premise" phase, they may be able to avoid some redo-business. Everything changes drastically when a writer explores her premise over the course of a few weeks. She can solve the problems in her premise with a bit of brainstorming, and change it if need be. That sounds like a good deal to me.
Christy Dares You
To write a premise. Right now. You can write a brand-spankin' new one out of thin air, or you can write one to a favorite book, or to your own WIP novel. Go for it! To do is to learn.
Kole, Mary. Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2012. Print.Maass, Donald. “The Good Seed.” Writersunboxed.com. 4 April 2012. 2 Feb. 2013. Web.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. New York, NY: Faber and Faber, Inc. 2007. Print.
By Amusafija (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons