Here we are on the cusp of a new year, a time for resolutions and new beginnings. If you’re a writer, it’s time to set your sights on the projects ahead of you. With that in mind, I offer up these ten starters for anyone who likes to tell stories, whether you call yourself a fiction writer, a memoirist, or an essayist.
- A stranger arrives. Stories are about the days unlike any others, and one way to get characters involved in something interesting is to have them take notice of a stranger. What is it about that stranger that fascinates them? What will they do to pursue that fascination? What will be the consequences of that fascination? How will their first action lead to a moment of crisis? How will it change them forever?
- A person pays a visit. Now instead of an arrival, we have a visitation, the first step of a journey. Have your characters go somewhere they don’t want to go. Let the person, or people, they meet there have some sort of effect on them. Let that effect provoke an action, the first of a sequence of actions in a causal chain. Remember there are two narrative arcs in any story: the one made up of actions, and the one made up of the changes the main character experiences on her journey.
- A surprise happens. Give your characters the opportunity to surprise themselves. Open a narrative with an action they never could have imagined taking. Find out where that surprising action will take them.
- Open in the midst of a mystery. Maybe your character finds something in a place it isn’t supposed to be. Or maybe she receives an anonymous note in the mail—the content is up to you—or maybe a co-worker, whom she’s known for years, starts calling her another name. There are a number of ways to think about this one. The key is to start with something awry, something that calls your character to attention, something that will provide the narrative spine for the story as it investigates the mystery.
- Open with a miscommunication. Your character says something that gets misunderstood, and suddenly she’s in the midst of a story that someone else is controlling. How long will she let that story go on? Why isn’t she able to immediately correct it? Will she finally tell the truth? What will it cost her if she does or if she doesn’t? What might it gain her as well?
- Don’t be afraid to be afraid. Let your character be afraid that she might act to fulfill a desire, preferably one that she finds shameful. What will she do to avoid her desire? Why will it be impossible to avoid it? What will happen when she finally acts?
- Begin with a title. Choose a noun, a preposition, and another noun. Sprinkle in an adjective if you’d like. There’s your title, something like “Cat on a Bad Couch,” or “Drunk Girl in Stilettos.” What story does the title suggest?
- Imagine the impossible. Construct a story from what your characters can never have: an old love rekindled, a lost object found, a loved one brought back to life, eternal youth, extrasensory perception, etc. Make the impossible possible and see where it leads.
- Start at the end. Write a line that could very well be the last line of the story, something like, “I went home.” What happened to lead to that line? Tell the story.
- Begin with regret. What do your characters have to be sorry about? What have they done or said that they wish they could take back? Open with that moment. Let the story proceed from this feeling of guilt. What will your character do because of it? Where will it lead?
Good stories depend on making a reader wonder what will happen next. I’ve found that before I can do that I have to make myself curious. Each of these ten prompts should make you want to write in order to satisfy your own curiosity. In the process, you’ll be taking your characters through causally connected chains of events that will take them to places that will forever change them. Stories start with a first step, and often that first step is something other than the commonplace, something that will, given a writer’s attention and skill with the cause and effect of plot, lead to the extraordinary. I wish you all a very happy new year. Keep doing the good work.