Thoughts on Writing: Beginning with the Basics

Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story is getting started. You might have an inkling of an idea, but no clue where to go from there. I have this problem a lot, so I’ve put together a sort of template to help get us moving through the writing process. This is probably the most helpful for someone trying to write literary fiction, but I believe this can also easily apply to any sort of fiction writing. Of course, what works for me might not work for you, but everyone’s gotta start somewhere. So let’s begin with…

Step 1: The Premise

A premise is simply a sentence to describe the main idea of your story. The premise of Star Trek is “crew of a space ship explore the universe” and the premise of the Phineas and Ferb is “two brothers invent cool science things during summer break.” Both of these stories are a lot more complicated than that one sentence, but your premise is just a summary. So let’s use an example:

“Mr. A wants to bake a cake for Mr. B”

That’s straightforward enough without being overly detailed. We’ll fill in the details later. Once you have a basic idea, it’s time for…

Step 2: Figuring Out Your Character

To be honest, you can switch step two and three, but I believe this order is probably easier to work with. Characters are the heart of any story, and the most important part in my opinion. Without a character, there is nothing for the reader to connect to or identify with. I’ll take a story with a crappy plot and excellent character development any day over something with dull, static, and boring characters.

So in my example, our main character is Mr. A, our baker of the cake. In order for Mr. A to be interesting, he needs a character flaw. Nobody is perfect, especially not in fiction. A flawed character is more realistic and more fascinating. Take superheroes for example. We love to see the hero save the day, but if there’s no struggle then it becomes boring. Why tune in to watch if you know how the story will end with no hope of variation each week? But give them a problem to overcome and things work so much better. Isn’t Iron Man/Tony Stark fun because he starts off as an asshole who only cares about himself but then becomes slightly less of an asshole who wants to help make things right? And Iron Man’s journey didn’t end with just learning that lesson. After the events of The Avengers and Iron Man 3, Tony Stark struggles with PTSD and that affects his actions in Age of Ultron, ultimately setting the plot of that film into motion. If Tony Stark was the same person he was at the beginning of Iron Man, we would have stopped watching long ago.

So let’s get back to Mr. A, our example character. Like the premise, his flaw doesn’t have to be overly complicated. So let’s say Mr. A is… just really bad at following directions, perhaps because he’s a rather stubborn person. And now that we’ve decided that, it’s time for…

Step 3: The Plot

This is when you really get to flesh out your premise into a full-fledged story. You can break this step up into three subpoints to make it easier. These are interchangeable depending on which ideas come easier to you.

Step 3.1: Start and Finish

It’s not always easy to figure out the beginning of your story or where it will end. If you’re having trouble, start off with simplicity once again. Let’s return to our example. The beginning would be “Mr. A doesn’t have a cake” and the end is “Mr. A does have a cake.” Or you could choose to have him not complete the task at all. You have so many possibilities, and you can change them as often as you want. But even a vague idea of a starting and ending point will help you get a clearer picture in your head. So then you can be ready to move on to…

Step 3.2: The Conflict

Just like it’s important to have a character with a problem, it’s also important to have a plot with conflict. Again, it’s just more interesting this way. I could write you a story about the time my family and I went canoeing and kayaking down the river and the weather was lovely and we had a pleasant time. It’s nice but it’s also hella boring. Instead, I could tell you a story where we all went canoeing and kayaking down the river and the water was very choppy and we lost a raft paddle and some of us almost drowned. (*This is actually a true story) Much more exciting, yeah?

So no one’s going to read and enjoy our story if a cake just magically falls from the sky and Mr. A doesn’t have to do anything. Let’s cause a problem and see how he deals with it. How about… Mr. A discovers that he doesn’t have the necessary ingredients for a cake, so he sets out for the grocery store only to discover that road construction has sent him on an unfamiliar detour and he gets horribly lost.

Conflicts can work on many levels. The surface, or external, level here is the detour that Mr. A has to contend with. The internal conflict is that Mr. A can’t follow directions. It if says “turn left,” he thinks “turning right looks better” and so on. The two conflicts interact with each other to create an interesting experience for Mr. A. If he was better at following directions, he probably wouldn’t have gotten lost. And now that we’ve nailed down the problem, you’re ready for…

Step 3.3: The Outline

The outline part is optional really. But for someone like me who needs to see a visual layout, an outline can be very helpful to keep up with all the things you want to include in the story. All you have to do is list what you want to include. It’s an opportunity to add more details to your original premise. Maybe Mr. A always forgets Mr. B’s birthday so he’s determined to make a cake this time. Maybe Mr. A has never baked a cake before in his entire life. Maybe Mr. A’s car can get a flat tire while driving.

And the fun thing about making an outline is that you can change it as you go. Maybe the flat tire slows down the momentum of the story too much, so you decide that Mr. A will just stop for gas at a service station instead. Play around with it! Have fun! Writing a story shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth (unless, of course, the story is about pulling teeth.) And once you settle on how to get Mr. A from no cake to delicious cake, it’s time for…

Step 4: Write it!

Simple huh? You’re practically already halfway there. Take Mr. A on a crazy journey for cake ingredients, let him run into a few problems, and along the way, let him learn how to follow directions better. And once he overcomes that problem, then baking his cake will be… well, a piece of cake! (I’m not sorry for this pun)

I had a professor once who said that we should always ask ourselves this one specific question when we write. She told us to imagine that there was an inner goth girl in our heads reading our stories while smoking a cigarette. And when she’s done, she asks you “so what?” Essentially she means “why am I supposed to care about this story?” If you can give her a good answer, you’ve got a good story. My professor was talking specifically about literary writing, but I think this can apply to any kind of writing. It’s a more enriching experience if you can draw some meaning out of what you read and write along with being entertained. (But that’s just my opinion, and that’s worth about as much as a three-leaf clover!)

This is my inner goth girl and she's not impressed with my MS Paint skills

This is my inner goth girl and she’s not impressed with my MS Paint skills

So the next time you want to write a story, maybe start by answering these questions:

  1. Do I have a premise? Can I boil my idea down to one sentence?
  2. Do I have an interesting character? One that has potential for growth and change?
  3. Do I have a potential starting and ending point for the story?
  4. Do I have conflict or a source for tension? Do I have levels of conflict?
  5. Can I put this into an outline?
  6. So what? Do I care about what’s happening in the story?

Like I said before, what works for me might not work for you, but having a jumping off point might be helpful for some. If you have any tips for getting started on a story, please feel free to share in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Writing: Beginning with the Basics

  1. Inner goth girl approves. And secretly likes your MS Paint skills. But don’t tell anyone, or she’ll lose mad street cred. Which is a thing that goth kids all actively seek. *cough*

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on Writing: Point of View | Notorious Rambler

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