25

I have an idea for the beginning of a story. I have the setting, the protagonist, and the events that set the story in motion, including the inciting incident and the first plot point. I have, in short, what might become act one.

But I don't know how to go on from there. I know how to plot (when I have a storyline), but I don't know how to come up with a storyline when I have its beginning.

I have tried:

  • to "discovery-write", and see where the beginning leads me: the outcome was a tale that meandered randomly and, as the story wasn't about anything, lacking a satisfying resolution at the end
  • the Snowflake Method: this does not work if you don't know the one-sentence-summary of your story
  • writing another story in the meantime

Consider the Hunger Games as an illustrative example: I have the world Panem, the protagonists Katniss and Peeta, and the story up until the two are chosen as tributes and board the train to the Capitol. If that was all the idea I had for a story, how would I go about finding the rest of it? How do Rue, the berries, and President Snow follow from that beginning?

(I understand that the author, Suzanne Collins, very likely did not create the plot of her trilogy from its beginning. I would just like to use an example where we know the whole story as it has been published and successful and consider how the main storyline might be derived from its beginning.)

  • 3
    Jonathan: @Pawana 's answer reminds me of a useful idea for building compelling characters. The idea is to give each character a motivation, a secret, a contradiction, and a vulnerability. writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/… When I developed each of my primary and secondary characters to have each of these four items, finding the story line was easier because of the obvious story conflicts and reveals that would happen. (Writing the ending was still horrible, and I'm still revising the dang thing, 13th revision.) – DPT Feb 8 '18 at 15:24
  • 1
    Wonderful link @DPT, I had never heard of this, bookmarked that link, and will try to implement it in my next story! – Chad Feb 9 '18 at 16:56
  • @Chad Thanks.. The motivation - that's a hard beast for me. I can't get my head around the idea of a single motivation, since life is complex. HP's motivation is what? To escape the Dursleys? Be a wizard? Kill Voldemort? All of the above? Be happy? I'm defining a prime motivation for each character but it feels artificial to hew too closely to just one, so ... take the link for what it may or may not be worth. I do like the thoughts outlined there, the secret in particular is nice because it infuses dialogs with subtext. And gives readers inside knowledge that some characters don't have. – DPT Feb 9 '18 at 18:19
  • 1
    What makes the incident inciting and how do you know who is the protagonist? Usually the inciting incident creates a unbearable desire in one character (who then becomes the protagonist) and also presents an insurmountable obstacle to that character achieving that desire. The rest of the story is the character working to get past the obstacle. The end of the story is the character finally getting past the obstacle. Figure out the intention of the protagonist and the nature of the obstacle and that's your story. – Todd Wilcox Feb 9 '18 at 18:41
  • 1
    My question was rhetorical. The idea of my question is that when you know the answer to it for your story, that will help guide you to the answer to your question. My question was not about Hunger Games. If you have the inciting incident and the protagonist, then you should also have one or more imperative intentions or motivations for the protagonist, and also one or more insurmountable obstacles blocking the protagonist from their goals. From there you just have to figure out how to get past the obstacles and that’s your story. – Todd Wilcox Feb 12 '18 at 13:06

15 Answers 15

11

You have an inciting incident and a protagonist.

I think something is off about one of them. Your protagonist is under-developed, or your inciting incident is under-developed.

In a typical story, this inciting incident forces upon the protagonist their central dilemma / opportunity, and addressing this dilemma / opportunity is what the story is about. The two of those together should explode, and apparently for you they fizzled.

Here is a straightforward example: If my character's single-engine plane crashes at sea, and she is the sole survivor and swims to a deserted island, she has a dilemma if she wishes to return to society. She has an opportunity if she does not. I don't know what the story is about if she doesn't care either way. For me as a writer I cannot write a story about a protagonist that truly doesn't care what happens to them; I am not that skilled!

Now that is pretty straightforward as an inciting incident. If she wants to be rescued like nearly everybody would, it is Castaway or Robinson Crusoe.

To write a story where this wreck is an opportunity, I need to make it plausible. First, she needs a damn good driving reason and a certain kind of personality to consider living alone on an island indefinitely a viable proposition, and then a plausible reason to do it. I need to make sure those traits and that situation is clear in Act I.

Either way, the inciting incident creates a story based on the personality and situation of the protagonist, and by the end of Act I the inciting incident is a done deal and she is faced with a decision of what to do next.

In The Hunger Games, the inciting incident (a lethal threat to somebody our hero loves) is immediately dealt with, but still plausibly throws our hero into her own particularly lethal and morally fraught fight for survival.

On to your story: A less straightforward inciting incident may feel to the writer momentous and exciting, but if their protagonist, her emotions and her situation are under-developed, then she (the protagonist) has no clear reaction to the incident, or just typical reactions everybody else has. She doesn't stand out, the incident creates for her only the typical dilemma (or opportunity) it presents everybody else, she is not unique in her response and she is interchangeable with other characters. We call that 'cardboard'. The reader needs a reason to understand her as a unique person, and you need to give her traits or a past so she plausibly has a strong desire spring forth from the inciting incident.

In stories where the strong desire is typical --- protect a loved one, return to normality, take vengeance on the guilty --- I would have to give the character some unusual character elements, mental or personality or ability, or isolate them (as in Castaway) so the audience has no choice but to follow them. In many stories the hero is unusually skilled, astute, perceptive or gifted in some way.

My first thought is that, if your discovery writing experiment meanders, then your protagonist is not motivated by the inciting incident to accomplish anything. That is an underdevelopment in Act I of your protagonist, the inciting incident should incite them.

Of course your protagonist might be somebody you like, and you don't want to change them: But then you must change your inciting incident to incite that personality to do something. Either hurt the crap out of the protagonist, or make them choose to risk their life out of love, or give them an opportunity that makes them abandon everything to pursue.

Then your missing story comes to light so you can plot it, because I see roughly three core plots: Your protagonists succeeds, fails, or learns and changes her mind about what constitutes success and failure.

Once she wants something (or someone) so much she devotes her immediate future to nothing but that, you can plot a story. If you can't figure out the story, you need to change something so the inciting incident incites your protagonist and creates a terrible dilemma (or fantastic opportunity).

ADDED: If this still doesn't answer your question, I would look at your inciting incident and consider the ramifications of it, both for some individuals and the world of your protagonist. What is the worst thing this incident does to people? Or to people that continue to live; e.g. if the worst thing is killing them, then consider the emotions of the living that cared about the killed, or survivors with lives ruined or facing hardship or a bleak future. The consequences of your inciting incident must be awful or great for somebody, and you need your protagonist to be one of them.

  • 1
    I won't change my answer since it is accepted; but to address Jonathan Karl's concern: I am a discovery writer that plots as they go, basically just keeping an ending in mind. (If my writing makes that ending no longer viable, I must come up with a different ending.) This same advice applies: If my writing meanders, my MC has not been motivated enough, she must be pressured / forced by emotions and/or circumstances to make something happen to relieve that pressure, right a wrong, end a misery, find security, find love, recover her loss, in some way deal with her inciting event. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Feb 12 '18 at 14:25
16

If you don't have a middle and an end, you don't have a beginning. I don't mean that you have to work out all the details of the middle and the end before you begin, because you can work those out as you go if that is how you work. What I mean is that the beginning sets up the middle and the end so if your don't have a middle and an end in mind, you don't know what the beginning is supposed to set up.

At the heart of every story there is a choice about values. The protagonist will be brought to a point where they have to make a fundamental moral choice. In order to grasp something new, they will have to open their hand and let something old drop. At this moment of crisis they will go one way or the other: drop the old and grasp for the new, or hold onto the old and lose their chance at the new. The choice may end in triumph or tragedy, grief or joy, but there is always the choice.

The function of the beginning to lead the protagonist towards that moment of choice and to prove to the reader that the protagonist truly loves what they have in their hand and truly desires the thing that is just beyond their reach, that they are actively pursuing through the middle of the book. Until you know what that choice is, you don't have a beginning. Once you know what that choice is, you have a beginning and a middle and two choices for the end. (Though, actually, the nature of the end is usually inherent in the nature of the choice.)

The world you have created and the events you have devised may be workable as they are, but to move on, you need to identify the fundamental moral choice that lies at the heart of your story. (In Hunger Games, Katniss must decide if she is willing to kill to win.) And once you have identified that choice, you will need to go back to your opening and make sure that every word and scene is establishing what your character loves and wants so that you can bring them to that moment of choice that will be the heart of your story.

BTW, if the function of the beginning is to establish values, and the function of the middle is to lead the character to the choice of values, the function of the end is to prove, thought the subsequent action, that the choice has been made.

Clarification

It becomes clear from the comments that I have not succeeded in getting my point across to all readers. Some took my answer as a refutation of discovery writing, as a statement that you have to work out the entire plot in detail before you being. Nothing could be further from my intent.

Jonathan Karl cites Stephen King's analogy of storytelling to unearthing a fossil in which King describes plotting as a jackhammer that will likely destroy what you are trying to unearth. This idea that the storyteller is discovering rather than inventing their story is very common in what storytellers write about their craft. To me it makes sense given the commonly accepted notion that stories are something very fundamental to the human psyche. (Personally, I go one step further, believing that stories are fundamental to language itself.)

But if a story is a fossil you are uncovering, it follows that the first thing that you find sticking out of the ground that looks like a bone may or may not be part of a whole story. It might just be an incident or a vignette. You may have to dig a little to figure out if you have found a dinosaur or a dead stick.

When I say that if you don't have a middle and an end, you don't have a beginning, I mean that until you unearth enough of the fossil you don't know if you have a dinosaur or a dead stick. What you think may be a beginning may turn out to just be an incident or a vignette. Beginnings, by nature, begin something, and if there is no middle and no end, then what you have is not a beginning.

The question is, how do you tell, once you have dug up what you think might be a beginning, if it is actually a beginning or not? King talks about starting a story by putting characters in a predicament. Does the incident you have uncovered put your characters in a predicament? If it does, then your characters will naturally try to get out of their predicament and you can write the story (as King describes) by watching them try. Alternatively, if you are a plotter, you can work out a way for them to get out of the predicament and then write it down. Whichever method you use, though, there has to be a predicament, and if there is no predicament, there is no story and thus your incident is just and incident and not a beginning.

What is the nature of a predicament that is capable of driving a story? My contention is that all story predicaments are at their heart moral. They are a choice between values. A problem that can be solved by mere mechanical ingenuity is not a sufficient predicament to drive a story. There has to be a moral element, a choice between values, a sacrifice required to gain a greater good.

If your beginning has not established that moral predicament, or at very least established a set of values in which an eventual predicament can clearly be seen, then it is not a beginning.

Inherent in the discovery writing process is that sometimes the thing you think you are discovering will turn out not to be a story. If you are a discovery writer, you have to learn to recognize when this happens and move on to try to discover a story somewhere else.

If you are a plotter, on the other hand, you have to realize that a plot is more than a sequence of incidents. It is a device for bringing a moral predicament to a head, to a moment of decision. If you are going to plan, this is what you have to plan for.

  • Another great answer – Chris Sunami Feb 8 '18 at 20:14
  • You're just throwing story theory at me. What I asked for was hands-on, practicable advice on what to do? – Also, this is just nitpicking about terminology. If what I have is not a "beginning" in your sense of the word, it is still what I have, and my question remains: How do I derive a storyline from {whatever you want to call what I have}. You didn't even attempt to answer that question. – user29420 Feb 9 '18 at 7:29
  • 6
    @JonathanKarl So your question is, "I have made a big pile of rocks. How do I derive the Taj Mahal from it?" Good luck with that. – user16226 Feb 9 '18 at 13:49
  • 5
    @JonathanKarl There's actually plenty of good practical actionable advice here, even if you have to read carefully to perceive it. Mark is advising you to figure out a core moral conflict for your main character, and then write the story to build towards that conflict, as dramatized in a moment of consequential moral choice. It's an excellent way to ensure your story feels substantial and meaningful rather than random and pointless. – Chris Sunami Feb 9 '18 at 18:45
  • I'm also finding MBs answer helpful - though the last paragraph is best for me. The inciting incident ending Act I defines the choice? (I've always had trouble understanding 'inciting incident' in stories with escalating action.) But the middle is leading to the choice? These ideas confuse me, Nonetheless, in my struggle to define a desire for male MC and choosing it to be a moral value and reshaping his story around that, the other parts may well be falling into better place. Some readers have two versions now - We shall see. The last paragraph in answer above fits my current efforts. – DPT Feb 11 '18 at 21:01
12

Every writer has their own way. In a very general sense you either write as a discovery or write with a plan. It seems like you have a good idea. Write it. Since you haven't discovered your next step as you wrote the idea, you're now stuck.


If you still want to try and discover your story but you're stuck at the end of Chapter 1 with no idea where to go next or later, try reading it again.

Put yourself in the mind of your reader and ask yourself:

  • What do I want to happen next?
  • What do I want to happen in the end?
  • What do I expect to happen next?
  • Why would I continue reading this?
  • Why was this written?

Since discovery has stopped working you may want to try planning.

Take Hunger Games, since you made that an example: The characters are heading off in a dystopian country to be killed and you know why. As a reader, you want the goodguys to survive and badguys to lose. How to make that happen? The characters need allies, they need rules to help them win, rules to hurt them. Write a list of possible problems they may encounter and think how they can fix those problems.

Take a logical approach to it and work backwards.

If you come up with an exciting idea on that list that sparks your imagination, write it and see if it fits with what you have. If nothing on the list seems exciting, keep brainstorming, or even ask yourself questions about before Chapter 1. Maybe Chapter 1 is actually Chapter 4.


Don't be afraid to write out-of-order. You may not know Chapter 2's contents, but you may know Chapter 6 or 7. You can always go back and connect the dots. In writing Chapter 6 you may discover your Chapter 2.

I personally keep a document of "excerpts" for anything I write. Anything that comes to mind goes in, and then you stitch them into your story wherever suits best. So you're writing everywhere in your story at once, not only start-to-finish.

You may have put too much into Chapter 1. All of your characters have met, secrets have been revealed, desires fulfilled, reasons explained. In this case, you may want to push some things forwards, as they may fit better later.

  • 3
    +1 for "write out of order". Sometimes it is the destination that helps you fill in the parts of the journey. – Stephen Feb 8 '18 at 15:50
  • Another +1 for "write out of order". Although I'm not a writer, I was just about to suggest something along the same lines: invent an "interesting" scenario, twist or plot-point that might happen several chapters down the line and then work at joining the two together. Maybe create several such "events", with no particular order in mind, and see if/how they can be woven into a whole. Even if you don't get something "workable" the first time, trying to do so might help suggest directions from the opening the will work. – TripeHound Feb 9 '18 at 16:10
8
+50

A story is about one or more characters. These need not be human, and they need not necessarily even be living beings (a story about an AI's struggle for equality could make an interesting sci-fi story as well as an allegory to our world past and present...), but they should be something that the reader can identify with.

Characters inhabit a world. The world need not be large, or elaborate, or even in the least bit different from our own, but you can't just dump characters in a void. (Or, well, a void could also be a world. Likely just not a very interesting one, except insofar as it could present plenty of challenges to the characters.)

Characters want something. That really is the basis for any story. They might want fame, or money, or to get rid of a trinket that is causing them all kinds of trouble, or even just flat out survival, but in the end, they want something.

Generally, characters face difficulties in trying to attain what they desire. Not everyone is set up to become famous, or rich, and even when they are, there's usually hard work involved; and to just throw the trinket in the nearest river is too simple for some reason, maybe because they need to be certain that the trinket is thoroughly destroyed so that nobody else can use it.

You have a cast of characters, and you have a world in which they live, even if those aren't yet fully fleshed out. What you now need is something that your characters desire (to have a story at all), and something to keep them from attaining that goal (to keep the story interesting to the reader).

So get inside your characters' heads. What drives them? Even if that is just to live a calm life at the farm, what do they want above all else? Very often, that will be your story ending, or very near it. Now, put some obstacles in their path toward that goal. They might be the Chosen Ones to carry the God-Given Almighty Trinket from Apoint to Btown. They might be working leisurely around the farm when someone sets their fields ablaze and kills their herd or tortures their family members, and they need to figure out who and why hired the thugs because the authorities don't care or are incompetent. They might be facing a government that doesn't want them to attain their goal for reasons good or bad. They might be facing the forces of nature. Or anything else you can think of that would keep your characters from doing what they most desire right here, right now.

Once you have those two additional things in place (what drives your characters, and what can keep them from succeeding), then you have the core outline of an actual story. The story, then, will typically be how the characters face and overcome those challenges, generally growing in the process; although in some cases, the story can be about how the characters face and are overcome by the challenges.

Chapter one sets the scene. Now figure out how your characters want to change it.

  • "Characters want something" and "characters face difficulties". To me this is what constitutes a story. The end of the story is one or more characters overcome the difficulties and get what they want, or get something different from what they wanted while realizing it's better for them. The length and drama of the story is determined by how badly the characters want and how hard to obstacles are. +1 – Todd Wilcox Feb 9 '18 at 18:37
5

What you need is inspiration - try throwing a coin

The problem is that you only have the start - but not the end. Without knowing where you want to go it will be hard to flesh out the middle part where most things happen.

One option would be to get a feeling for what your idea for the story is like and then go and read stuff that feels similar. For example: if you currently feel like the best comparison would be the Hunger Games then go and read the Hunger Games and try to listen to what your heart says at certain points.

Do you like where the story is headed? If so: why? And if not: why not?

This is basically an old trick for when you can't make up your mind about a decision. Should I buy this new car? for example. You take a coin and assign Yes to Heads and No to Tails. Then you throw the coin and see what comes up.

But: you don't blindly follow chance. The moment you see the result you will feel something. Maybe it feels good - that means your subconcious wanted you to choose this all along and now you've got confirmation, so this is what you really wanted all along and you should go ahead and do it. Maybe it feels wrong - then your subconcious wants something else. And now you know what your subconcious does not want.

In any case you will now know what you want, no matter which side came up.

You can do this with your book, too. If reading stories you've read before is not what you like you can try the following:

  • Sketch your current plot, characters, ... in a couple of paragraphs as your "Chapter 1 Outline"
  • Sketch one idea that springs to mind - something you remembered from stories you've read for example. Something that feels obvious, or even unoriginal. Or maybe something that feels so original, you are not sure if it won't alienate people. It doesn't matter. This is your "Chapter 2 Outline - Number 1"
  • Sketch another chapter 2. Something different. Maybe the exact opposite of your first idea. Or maybe something slightly different that you came up with while writing the first draft. Again, this doesn't need to be "great" or anything - it's just important to have an idea. This is your "Chapter 2 Outline - Number 2"
  • Throw a coin and see whether you like the result.
  • If you have more ideas take a dice instead.
  • Continue until you are at an end.

You will probably rewrite most of the stuff anyway at some point while fleshing out your chapters, but this way you have an idea and a fast method to continue when you get stuck. And whenever you don't feel like something is right, put it aside, but keep it, and continue from a point that does feel right.

  • 1
    I'd like to back this idea up, I frequently find that the act of making a decision will inspire a gut feeling that reveals truly how I feel when I was indecisive before. Often I'll ask a friend to make the decision for me, then either I like the choice, or I don't. I'm rarely truly indifferent after that. The important thing is to then pay attention to how it feels, and if you find you don't like the outcome, choose the other one. – Ruadhan2300 Feb 8 '18 at 15:49
  • 2
    Philip K Dick pretty famously relied heavily on the I Ching to make major plot decisions in The Man in the High Castle, and abided by those decisions whether or not he liked them. I wouldn't necessarily go that far, but considering the book has been adapted to TV, it clearly worked for him. – Arcanist Lupus Feb 9 '18 at 2:20
4

To get an end from a beginning, ask three questions:

1) What changes?
2) What stays the same?
3) What changes, and then changes back?

In Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta's relationship changes, so does her perspective on the world, so does the Hunger Games themselves, and so forth. Her commitment to her family, and pragmatic, resourceful outlook stay the same. The setting changes, and then changes back.

The things that change give you a story (so the reader is interested), the things that stay the same give you continuity (so the reader cares), and the things that change and then change back give you context (so the reader understands the changes). So if you can answer these three questions, you not only have an end, you have a middle as well.

3

The answer in this case is fairly simple but at the same time pretty complex: What drives your characters to some kind of development?

In fact: Even if you set up your story around a hero, the hero don't act on own purposes. He reacts to incidents in his environment. Is there a thread to the land, he does everything to prevent that.

The characteristical details are some other point. Some bandit wouldn't thought of helping poor villagers if it doesn't benefits him.

Then some of the last major reasons is the world and the plotting and scheming behind the curtains. Kings plan to erase their enemys, merchants want to drive there concurrence out of the way ... your world is an own ecosystem and needs a closer look. Develop the surrondings, plans and schemes of people your hero meet and you have a fairly good start with your world and story development

3

My advice is to look for the conflict that interests you. If you have conflict, you can have players on both sides and that conflict can guide you to possible conclusions. -- I think it's likely that Collins knew about the Capital early in her writing process. Maybe even that it was reality TV gone wrong. But that's what you need to find next. How you find it is probably just a lot of thinking and testing ideas. Talking with someone out loud may help

If you have characters and a setting, then you should be about to know what your characters ultimately want or how the antagonist will create conditions to fight against.

Katnis Everdeen would have lead a boring life if the capital hadn't introduced the conflict of the hunger games. That is the name of the book after all. Once you find the conflict, you write about the people who feel the pain most acutely

2

1) Related to Secespitus's answer: Are you familiar with Rory's Story Cubes? they are dice with little icons on the sides rather than pips or numbers. They might be stick figures doing something, an object, an cloud, fire, a book, etc. For kids, you roll the dice and use whatever comes up to make up a story. Pick up a few sets (there are several — places, actions, people — plus geek-related ones) and try experimenting. See if anything jogs loose.

2) There's an entire tumblr dedicated to writing prompts. Browse through it, or pick a few and run your characters through them. Just sketch it out; you don't necessarily need to write the entire short story if you're feeling overwhelmed. But get accustomed to doing things with your characters.

3) The old adage goes "If all else fails, chase your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them."

2

Sounds to me like a bad case of writers block. Hateful stuff. Usually when I'm in a situation like this - I have characters, worldbuilding, and a vague idea of what I want the reader to feel when the read it - I do one of two things:

1 - Find out what my character loves most, and take it from them. What do they do? Wallow in self pity? Curl up in a permanent ball of 'Woe is me?' Or do they fight to get it back?

2 - Find something they want more than anything, and dangle it in front of them like a cartoon carrot on a stick. How do they get it? Will they get it?

Most times, I start writing to these plot points and the story gets completely away form me, making these points moot to the overall story in the end. Basically this is just a way to get things moving - after that things will start coming to you. Get creative and good luck! :)

1

A Potential Way Of Getting Around Your Case Of Writer’s Block:

1.) Visualize What You Have So Far: Take some index cards or something, on each one write down a different character and as much important information you know about them; have one for each setting.

2.) Identify What Your Story Is About: This May feel stupid, but take an honest look at what you have at the core of. The story. Is it the classic clash of good and evil, is it the bones of brotherhood, or is it the victim standing up to the abuser? Identify what the central conflict is, as that is what will push your narrative forward.

3.) Choose A Conclusion: Now that you know all the moving parts in your story, and the central conflict. Think of what an interesting resolution to that conflict could be. Could it be someone grappling with inner morality who realizes that they don’t have to live in the grey area to do good? Maybe your centerpiece of the bonds of brotherhood, and the main character realizing that their brother is not who they thought they were before breaking ties with them. If you can’t discover your story chronologically, you need an end to build towards.

4.) Fill In The Blanks: With all your ideas layed out, your central conflict identified and with a conclusion to build towards, determine how to bridge the gap between your hypothetical first and third acts. How you do that largely depends on what is at the center of your story, and how you want supporting characters and subplots to improve upon that central conflict.

TL;DR: Figure our what you have, determine central conflict, figure out a resolution to that central conflict, fill in the rest.

1

Context: I was a similar situation a few years ago. I wandered into a museum and by chance found a whole world that was there for me for the taking. I instantly knew that I wanted to write about this world. The only trouble was: I didn't have a story. I had this beautiful world that was teeming with conflicts, but I couldn't immediately harness any of it.

Here's what I ended up doing, over months of frustration, doubts, and useless trial and error efforts:

I started writing, all passionate and confident that such a great world would naturally produce a breath-taking story. The first draft was a disaster. The second didn't make it much better. The novel felt incongruent and lacked an emotional core. I was passionate about the topic, but I couldn't project this passion onto my characters, since I didn't know what exactly it was that I needed to happen.

Then I sat down and thought very hard about this question: What is it that fascinates you most about your story set-up (i.e. your world)? What grabbed your attention and refuses to let go of it? For me, it was a very specific albeit slow societal change that changed the self-perception of my protagonists and made them step out of their comfort zone to change their relationship with the rest of the world.

Based on this, which conflicts are specific to your world? It sounds as if you have developed a great world. What can happen in this world that is unique (or at least not arbitrary) and requires the framework of your specific world? Think of Nazi Germany (or, if you like that better, the wizarding world under Voldemort). Inter-societal trust has vanished. Peoples' lives are reigned by mistrust and paranoia. In a world like this, a story about betrayal can become very specific and explosive very quickly. Just think: Would you care in today's world if somebody told your boss you were a Jew? Likely not. In Nazi Germany, it could have been your death sentence.

In my case, "my" world allowed me to write about self-perception -- what is good, what is evil, what is sick and needs to be cured, and what of all these things am I? --, integration, and exclusion.

So, identify a conflict that is naturally amplified in your world and that sets you on edge. Last step: Put it at the heart of your story. Decide how the conflict will be resolved at the end of the book. (This ties in neatly with Mark Baker's excellent answer.) Then, and only then, you start writing.

1

In On Writing, Stephen King refutes Mark Baker's assertion that "[i]f you don't have a middle and an end, you don't have a beginning".

King says that he plots "as infrequently as possible", and that he "distrusts plot" because, first, "our lives are largely plotless" and, second, because he believes "plotting and the spontaneity of real creating aren't compatible".

Stories, as King understands writing, cannot be constructed logically through conscious reasoning: "I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves." Stories, King says, "are found things, like fossils in the ground," and

the writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. ...

No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it's probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer's jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jack hammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It's clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.

In her preface "Towards an archaeology of the future" in Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin uses a similar metaphor for writing and explains that the true shape of a story might be unlike the plot the writer has tried force on it:

After digging in several wrong places for over a year and persisting in several blockheaded opinions – that it must be walled, with one gate, for instance – I was studying yet once more the contours of my map of the region, when it dawned as slowly and certainly as the sun itself upon me that the town was there, between the creeks, under my feet the whole time. And there was never a wall; what on earth did they need a wall for? What I had taken for the gate was the bridge across the meeting of creeks.

Instead of by plot, Stephen King lets himself be guided by intuition. He begins most of his novels with a situation:

I want to put a group of characters ... in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn't to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety – those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot – but to watch what happens and then write it down.

The situation comes first. The characters ... come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it's something I never expected.

Ursula K. Le Guin works the same way, she explains in an interview with George Wickes and Louise Westling:

Actually I’m terrible at plotting, so all I do is sort of put people in motion and they go around in circles and they generally end up where they started out. That’s a Le Guin plot. I admire real plotting, but I seem not be able to achieve it.

The critical and popular success of Ursula K. Le Guin and Stephen King show very clearly that, contrary to Mark Baker's belief, stories can be written from a beginning and without plot.


And from their accounts of how these two writers work, an answer to my question may be concluded:

Stephen King: When you attempt to force your characters to do things your way, you will lose all sense of what they will really do. If, instead, you watch what happens, "the story's details ... [are] organic, each arising naturally from the initial situation, each an uncovered part of the fossil".

Ursula K. Le Guin: When you persist in your blockheaded opinion what the shape of your story must be, you will not find it. If, instead,

[y]ou take your child or grandchild in your arms, a young baby, not a year old yet, and go down into the wild oats in the field below the barn. Stand under the oak on the last slope of the hill, facing the creek. Stand quiet. Perhaps the baby will see something, or hear a voice, or speak to somebody there, somebody from home.


Sources:

  • King, S. (2000). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.
  • Le Guin, U. (1985). Always Coming Home. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Wickes, G., & Westling, L. (1982). Dialogue with Ursula Le Guin. Northwest Review, 20, 2-3.
  • I didn't say a word about plotting. I said there is a choice between something the character loves and something they want. Plot is merely a device to force them to make that choice and the author may very well work out that plot at they go. In fact, I think most plotters miss this point and create pseudohistory rather than story. On the other hand, I suspect natural storytellers instinctively turn their stories to towards that choice as they write. My point is not about plot at all, but about character and the essentially moral nature of conflict. – user16226 Feb 12 '18 at 12:48
  • Your rejection of plotting is strange though, considering that your question was how to derive a storyline from a beginning. If that is not plotting, I don't know what is. The problem in unearthing a fossil is to know what is fossil and what is earth. My notion is that moral choice, a choice between values, is the acid test. King talks of putting a group of characters in a predicament. What is a predicament? Is it merely a mechanical problem, or is there a moral dimension to working their way out of it? I'm saying what King is saying, but adding the moral element. – user16226 Feb 12 '18 at 12:56
  • What I am saying to you is that if you are suddenly stuck, it is probably because you have failed to place your characters in a true predicament (a predicament serious enough to drive a story of the length or seriousness that you wish to tell). If you had, you should, like King, be able to imagine some next thing that they would try to do to get out of the predicament and write that. If you haven't, you haven't actually written a beginning because what you have written does not do the job of a beginning which is to put your characters in that predicament from which all else follows. – user16226 Feb 12 '18 at 13:00
  • @MarkBaker You may want to re-read your answer. Your first sentence is: "If you don't have a middle and an end, you don't have a beginning." Then you state that a writer has to know the moral choice the protagonist has to make, which, you say, gives the writer the beginning, the middle, and two possible endings. This, as well as the analogy to architecture in your comment, clearly indicate that you believe that one has to know the basic outline or "blueprint" of the story (that is, the plot) to be able to write it. Your point may not be about plot, but plot is implicit in your point. – user29420 Feb 12 '18 at 13:09
  • No, you are misreading the answer. Consider King's fossil. That fossil is what it is. If it is complete, it has a head, a backbone and a tail. But it might not be a complete fossil at all, just some rocks or miscellaneous bones. But while fossils can be interesting in pieces, stories can't. If you don't have a middle and and end, you don't have a beginning. This is true regardless of whether you have unearthed the middle and the end yet. But how you can tell the beginning of a story from a random incident is by the moral conflict it sets up, even if rest is still buried. – user16226 Feb 12 '18 at 13:22
0

You have a beginning to a story. That's good. Then the key question, which only you can answer, is "How do you want the story to end?"

I write my (several) stories in an unusual way. In my first attempt, I wrote Chapters 1-3, then 9-12, and finally, 4-8. In the current effort, I wrote part of Chapter 1, then 12, 11, 10, an 9, in that order (so far). My advantage is that I know how I want the story to end, which is to say that I can "start" with the ending, and work back to the beginning.

My stories begin with a "mechanic," and perhaps yours do too. But ultimately, they are about people. How do you feel about your protagonist? Do you want him/her to succeed/fail/tread water? Who are the antagonists and why? What are the obstacles and why do they exist? Once you have answers to these questions, you have the makings of a story arc, from beginning to end.

-2

People are their own worst enemies. In my case, instant Karma sometimes gets me. There is hardship, people help. But, story endings may be unknown.

If you were writing about my neck of the woods you would know of my ambitions, problems that surround me, what I'm doing about them, how others are coping, with loss, love, kids, and the human condition.

Find what those are for your characters.

In my storyboard I ask: Does a fool ever win? Can I overcome grim forces. Does the hero get the girl? What motivates oppression? Can I feel for my antagonists? Are there reassuring gems found in all the chaos? These are elements I find interesting in my own life, and in other lives around mine. I find irony, poetic justice, human failings, and "order in the universe" compelling plot lines, because they speak truth to me.

You may be able to use these ideas with your characters to develop their stories.

We all have stories to tell. Drawing from our own life and others we know provides a treasure trove to draw from. The challenge lies in constructing believable characters who bear no specific resemblance to your own family and friends, lest they might feel wrongly depicted. Interweaving persistent human traits and enduring cultural themes helps your storyboard resonate with your reader. Making a simple storyboard is the place to start. Add details, trials and tribulations, unintended consequences; complexity is interesting if plausible.

The story may reveal itself with these exercises.

  • 4
    ...it might be because I have a migraine and I'm feeling tired, but I have absolutely no idea how this is supposed to relate to the question. – F1Krazy Feb 9 '18 at 9:15
  • 4
    Welcome to Writing.SE Jeff! The beginning of this answer looks like a well phrased rant about not getting things done. Then you mention some typical aspects of a story, which looks like it could be the start of a real answer to the question, which is about "How can I write the middle and end when all I have is the beginning?", but then you just end your "answer" with a meditational phrase. I also don't see how this answers the question. Could you edit your answer to clarify this? If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Feb 9 '18 at 9:23
  • You have the makings of an interesting answer here. I took the liberty of breaking up into paragraphs, so you (and others) can identify the key component parts and build on a work in progress. – Tom Au Feb 12 '18 at 3:29
  • Hi Jeff, Aren't we all. Your answer popped up in my 'review queue' and I edited it to tighten into an answer. If you are unhappy with the edits you can revert it - Or leave it - the SE should not need to be another undesired task in anyone's life! – DPT Feb 14 '18 at 17:11
  • Thank you DPT. Tightening up my writing style should be my top priority. – Jeff Reagan Feb 15 '18 at 19:09