From Idea To Page In Four Simple Steps

11:28 AM

I like to keep things as simple as possible. I also think it's usually easiest to start at the beginning. So that's what I'm going to do here over the next couple of weeks. Start at the beginning. As in, the beginning of your story. 

But first, we always start with an idea. The hardest part, in my opinion, is getting that idea from your brain to the page. 

Like I said, I like to keep things simple. So, a few days ago, when I had a new idea for a story, I turned to my books and to a list by writer N. M. Kelby. She's the author of a book called The Constant Art of Being a Writer: The Life, Art & Business of Fiction. In one of my favorite books on writing, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, N.M. Kelby provides us with a simple list to help us get our ideas from brain to page. It's a list I've turned to multiple times when I have a new idea and have to start somewhere. 

Ms. Kelby says it "helps build the frame that you hang your story on."

Step 1: Always begin with your protagonist. The readers need to discover who the hero is and why they should root for him. Introduce your protagonist, either directly or indirectly, within the first 300 words. 

Step 2: Establish time and place. Your readers should know exactly where they are. If they are wondering, they lose focus and may stop reading. They have to trust that you are in control of the story. Nobody likes to be left alone in the dark. 

Step 3: Announce the stakes. Great prose will go a long way, about 2,500 words, more or less. After that, even the most literary readers want to know why they are reading. Just a simple sentence can do the trick. At the end of the first section of The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brian writes of the letters that Jimmy Cross received from a girl back home named Martha. He mentions that they're signed "Love, Martha," but acknowledges that using the word "love" is a custom and not anything more. At the end of this section, O'Brien writes, "Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder is Martha was a virgin."

Right there, the author lets us know what's really on the mind, and at the heart of the story, of this young man who is so very far from home. 

Step 4: Organize. Once you have your story structured around the beginning you've set in place, look at all the bits of writing you've done and all the notes you've taken and ask yourself one simple question: "Where the heck was I going with this?" If you don't know, or if where you're going now doesn't match where you were going when you set out, focus on better defining those areas before you go any further. 

Next week, we will be taking a close look at what goes into writing a great first chapter. Until then, Have a great week! 


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