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What To Write First When Writing Fiction

February 21, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 16, 2013

This is not a discussion of where a story should start but where a writer should start. Start writing, that is.

Are you just beginning a novel or short story and have no idea what you should do first? You’re not alone.

New writers may imagine that there’s some magic starting line, a place every writer begins. Because, after all, every writer must get those first words down somehow. So there must be one best starting place. Instructors or mentors probably share the secret of where real writers begin, pass it through the ranks from one generation to the next to ensure consistency, to ensure that a project is begun correctly.

A note about real writers: No matter where you begin and what you produce, if you write, you’re a writer. You might not be a published author, but to be a writer, all you must do is write.

Now, back to the start . . .

Will it surprise you if I say you can begin writing at any point in your story? That advice shouldn’t surprise you. I’ll always, always, (almost) always counsel a writer to do what works for him or her.

If you want to, need to, can only imagine beginning with the opening of your story and then writing straight through to the end, then do that. Start with your opening line. Opening paragraph. Opening dialogue or description or event.

Start from the beginning and then follow your path.

But what if that’s your problem? What if you don’t know what the opening scene should be?

Well, how about starting with what you do know?

If you’ve got an ending, start there.

Know the characters who feature in the climactic scene and what that scene needs to accomplish? Write it.

Have some juicy bits of dialogue, dialogue that pits characters at one another, floating around in your mind? Get those juicy bits on the page.

Begin wherever you want with whatever story element you want to start with. Whatever gets you moving is what you need to begin with.

If you want to write the meet of hero and heroine, write it. If their first fight is itching to be explored, go there first. If you love dialogue and can already imagine scenes of conflict piled on more conflict, start with one of those scenes.

Write an action scene, even if you have no idea where it falls in the story.

Write your first line. Write the last one. Write a revelation that twists your protagonist into a madman trying to break free from family ties or responsibilities or memories. Write that one simple and profound sentence that turns both the story and your main character in a new direction.

Write the chapter-ending hook that will draw readers into your most emotionally challenging chapter and scene, even if you have no idea what goes into the beginning of the chapter for which you’re writing the hook.

Write what moves you, what interests you, what’s on your mind. When you’re staring at a blank screen and you’re imagining how you’ll fill 350 pages, write whatever comes to you.

Or, plan it all out beforehand. Work your outline and then begin with a scene that won’t stop playing in your mind, the one that keeps you up at night. Write it while it’s energized and emphatic. Write the dialogue of characters who won’t shut up.

Write snippets or paragraphs or scenes or full chapters.

Don’t assume that you need to know a scene in full to begin it. Get down what you can while it’s burning to be written.

Or, save the best for last.

I typically know the most emotional scene, the most crucial, before I begin writing. And I save the actual writing of it for when I get there in my fairly straightforward march through a story. I might note phrases from this special scene—images or description or hot dialogue, phrases that I don’t want to lose. But I save the full writing as a treat to myself. It’s a goal, one that sees me through the search for perfect word after perfect word and pages of detail I’m sure I’ll throw out or repetitive dialogue or action events that aren’t quite right or . . .

I save the best for last.

But I usually begin with the second best. The opening. The hook that will ensnare readers. The hook that gets my juices flowing.

As I write, I may jump around in terms of scene order, but I typically know the ending and typically start at the beginning. But that’s my way of doing it. You get to do it your way.

You don’t need someone else to tell you where to start. You don’t need to do it the way Stephen King does it, the way Nora Roberts does it, or the way Ian McEwan does it.

Find your way to begin. And please note that we’re not necessarily talking about the most efficient way to start writing a story. We’re talking about the way that will work for you. The way you’ll do it. The way that will ensure you’ll actually begin putting words in some kind of order that will see your fictional world and your characters come to life. Or at least help them find a place to live outside of your head.

Keep in mind—

There is no one right place to start.

There is no one right way to start.

You don’t have to begin writing where your favorite author does.

You don’t have to begin one story with the same element you used to begin the last one.

Begin writing any place that suits you.

Begin a second or a third time if you want or need to.

Don’t let anyone tell you there is one best way.

You don’t need me to say it, do you? But I will. Here it is . . .

Just begin.

Get something written.

Get the essence down. Get the mood or the feel or the emotion or the character or the dialogue or the color or the sound or the title.

Corral the it of your story, that thing that makes you want to begin a new project. If you can’t catch hold of the feeling, can’t quite get the snippet of plot or characterization that’s teasing you, at least capture something. And work with that. See if that which is elusive will draw closer as you work your magic. See if it doesn’t come so close that it can’t help but be drawn into every scene and every sentence, into the very heart of your story.

Start anywhere that works for you. But start somewhere.

Start with a story element that stirs your passion.

Start with an area that takes advantage of your skills.

Just start.

And then write until you’re well beyond the beginning. Write until idea has become plot and plot has become story and story has twisted and turned and become meaningful or entertaining or earth-shattering.

If you’re staring at that empty page, ready to begin something new, begin today.

Begin a new story.

And if you’re in the middle of a project, keep writing. Keep at it, knowing others are pulling for you, that readers are waiting to explore your story world.

They won’t care where you began. Only that you did.

So give them what they want.

Write good story today.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Beginning Writers, Writing Tips

10 Responses to “What To Write First When Writing Fiction”

  1. Chihuahua0 says:

    It’s a shame I have nothing useful to say about this article but…I like the content of this blog.

    One of these days, I’ll hit the archives and read through a few posts.

  2. Chihuahua0, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. I hope you find a lot to interest you, encourage you, and challenge you.

  3. Marla says:

    Thank you.

    Your article confirmed what my internal voice has been trying to tell me.

  4. Good advice, Beth!

    It works for nonfiction too. For my upcoming book (being released June 5), I wrote chapter 6 first, then chapter 11, then chapter 2. I finished about half of the manuscript before I wrote the opening chapter.

    The important thing for me was to start out with a clear and detailed outline of how I intended to structure the narrative.

  5. Ron, isn’t it great that we can each do what works for us, each have a different approach, and yet we still produce quality writing? I’m glad there’s no one right way to do it.

    Congratulations on the upcoming release. Here’s hoping you sell far beyond your expectations.

    Thanks for dropping by.

  6. Renee says:

    Hello Beth,
    Thank you, thank you, thank You. I feel like I have been given permission to do things the way my heart and mind work. I’ve got so much swirling around I just didn’t know where to begin. Writing and listening to my creative urges is new to me and your words today helped ease my anxiety over what I am to do with it all.

    • Renee, thanks for letting me know that this was helpful. I hope you start in a place that keeps you excited about writing. And then I hope that what you write after that gets you even more excited.