Following Your Characters: A Cure for Hesitant Starts

Cathy and I wanted to go out to dinner last night. Surely we aren’t the only couple whose conversation about where to dine goes like this:


Me:  Where do you want to go?

Her:  I don’t care.

Me:  I don’t care either. You pick.

Her: It doesn’t matter to me.

Me:  One of us has to care.


And so it goes, a process of indecision, similar to the one that often paralyzes a writer when trying to get a new piece off the ground. Sometimes the problem is a lack of confidence. Maybe the writer feels all attempts are futile. Maybe in the past starts have fallen apart or failed to lead to anything of consequence, or maybe a draft hasn’t lived up to the expectations the writer had when he or she began, and, therefore, sours with disappointment. Sometimes, though, the problem is a paralysis of freedom. There are just so many options from which to choose, so many ways the piece could go. Such freedom can intimidate the writer so much it becomes easy to just not begin at all. I’d like to offer some remedies for each problem, but first, an example.

I’m reading a story in the most recent issue of The Georgia Review, a story by Kent Nelson called “Purple Tents.” The story opens with this sentence: “I’m sitting in a patch of shade alongside the Kwik Mart in Wall, South Dakota.” I don’t know a thing about Nelson’s composing process, but, if it’s anything like mine, I can imagine that sentence as one that might come out of thin air—the first strokes on the page. Someone is sitting in the shade outside a Kwik Mart in Wall, South Dakota. Write a sentence like that—specific and with a touch of mystery—and you’ve made a good start. You now have questions to answer. Who’s speaking and why? How has the narrator come to be outside the Kwik Mart? Why is the narrator seeking shade? What has brought the narrator to Wall, South Dakota? Creating the first draft is often a matter of making yourself curious.

Here’s the second sentence of the story:  “I’m always too hot now, and the bitch at the cash register kicked us out of the air conditioning.” My curiosity increases. Why is the narrator always too hot? What’s the story of the woman who kicked “them” out of the store? Who’s the other person with our narrator? What kind of situation do they have themselves in? What’s their story?

How simple it is to write an opening that requires you to write more. Write a specific sentence that features a specific person in a specific place. See what questions that sentence suggests. Start writing your way toward answers. Don’t stop until you have a draft.

To counter any doubts or insecurities you might have, become subservient to the story itself. Don’t think about past failures. Don’t give in to the shadows of past disappointments. Immerse yourself in the story with no thoughts of your own ego and no thoughts of how the draft will turn out.  Don’t become paralyzed by the fact that anything can happen. Care about your characters so deeply that you have no choice but to follow them. Little by little, sentence by sentence, let them show you what has to happen next.







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