The Year When: An Exercise for Starting a Narrative

Richard Ford’s story, “Optimists,” begins like this:

All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back.

Notice how Ford maps out a narrative—beginning, middle, and end. Now all he has to do is connect the parts. Sometimes storytelling is that clear. Here’s what happened, the writer says. Now let’s see how it all happened, and, furthermore, let’s see what it meant to those involved.

So here’s a really quick exercise for writing the opening of a story, whether a piece of fiction or a piece of personal narrative.

1. Begin by establishing a narrator (first person works well for our purposes, but third person, or second person, even, could also work). How old was that narrator at the time the story he or she is about to tell took place? In what year did it occur?

2. Come up with three facts that happened at some point during the year that you’ve identified. You’re free to use facts from your own life, but you’re also free to invent characters and events, or to have a combination of actual facts and ones from your imagination.

3. Think about the causal relationship between the three facts. To return to the opening of the Ford story: the narrator’s parents get a divorce, the father kills a man and goes to prison, the narrator leaves home and school, lies about his age, and goes to the Army, never to return to his home. It’s pretty clear to see the cause and effect, yes? Test your facts to see if there’s a causal sequence. We can come up with all sorts of interesting facts if we’re using our imaginations, but to make them worthy of a story, there has to be some organizing principle, and it’s usually this causal relationship.

4. Consider how your main character’s life changes because of this sequence of events. In the Ford opening, we know that the narrator is forever estranged from his family. Actions have consequences. Worlds tilt. Lives change. Our main character will never be precisely who he was before the story began.

5. Now write an opening. Feel free to imitate Ford’s.

6. Begin the next paragraph with the words, “One day (or one night, or one winter, etc.). . . .” This is an invitation to now start crafting distinct scenes of action to show us how what you say happened actually did.

I hope this brief exercise brings you to a story you didn’t know you had to tell, or maybe even gives you a structure for one that you’ve been trying to, or hoping to, tell for a long time. Stories are made from trouble, and action, and choices, and consequences. This is an exercise designed to get you on that track.


  1. Robert Dean Johnson on April 17, 2017 at 11:04 am

    I may borrow from this come July, first day of summer res, or before, in my own office. Thanks for sharing it, Lee.

    • Lee Martin on April 18, 2017 at 12:08 pm

      You bet, Bob! Hope it proves useful.

  2. Autumn on May 13, 2017 at 7:11 am

    This will be a fun exercise!

    • Lee Martin on May 13, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      I hope it works out well for you, Autumn!

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