Story Starters, Openings and How to Write Fiction

This is a topic of the day from my Daily Journal yesterday. I’m considering moving the Daily Journal over here and posting it to my Pro Writers list every day. If you’re reading this, you’re on that list.

Anyway, here’s a topic of the day for you.

Story Starters, Openings and How to Write Fiction

One person asked me in an email yesterday where I get ideas and how I can move from story to story. Apparently because of my flurry of activity recently.

I’m going to answer that in two topics.

First of all, I’ve started only seven new works since May 4 (finished 6). That isn’t a lot. At all. In May, I wrote only two works: a novel and a short story. The short story also became the first chapter of my next novel (so eight works if I counted that twice).

In June, thus far I’ve written one novel and four short stories. Yesterday I started a fifth short story that might be a novel instead. That’s it.

But to story starters —

When I sit down to write a short story, it’s most often on the spur of the moment. So I have to come up with a story starter.

What is a story starter? It’s a character with a problem (doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story) in a setting. Period. That’s it. Seriously.

(But where do I get the characters? The problem? The setting? That will be in “Getting Ideas” in tomorrow’s post.)

From that story starter, I write an opening.

To do that, I sit down at the keyboard and write whatever springs to mind. Then I write the next sentence, write the next sentence and so on.

The length of the opening varies from writer to writer. For DWS the opening is around 300 – 500 words. For me, the opening is usually 500 – 700 words. By then, I know whether the story will work.

If the opening works, I just keep writing the next sentence. I don’t worry about (or think about) sentence structure, spelling, etc. I just write and keep writing.

I never wonder where the story is going or how the character will solve the problem or any of that. I just write the next sentence.

It really is that simple. It works. It’s how Bradbury wrote. It’s how Stephen King writes. It’s how almost every pulp writer who ever lived wrote. And those of you who have been with me for awhile have seen it first hand.

Do I develop the character?

No, other than knowing his or her “type.” Beyond that, like all humans everywhere, the character develops himself (or herself).

I am constantly surprised by the things my characters say and do. And that’s good. If the characters surprise me, they will also surprise the reader.

If I think them out, plan, plot etc. in advance, I’m playing the Almighty Writer on High. I don’t do that because whatever I can “think up” (conscious mind) the reader can think up. Plotting, planning etc. leads to predictable stories, and predictable stories lead to yawning readers.

Do I agonize over the problem?

Again, no. In my stories, the problem in the opening usually is the “big” problem of the story, but not always. In my openings, the character most often makes decisions and moves toward solving the problem.

What about the setting?

In every opening, I try to invoke all five physical senses. That’s what makes the scene come alive in the reader’s mind. I love writing dialogue and I love writing action (especially Sam Peckinpah style slow motion stuff, sparingly) but none of that happens in a vacuum.

If you don’t provide (through the POV character’s senses) a good description of the setting, any action or dialogue is being delivered against a white background. Not good.

Okay, so come up with a character who has a problem. Drop him (or her) into a setting. Sit down at the keyboard and write whatever springs to mind.

And don’t worry about it. You’re just allowing your characters to tell a story. Nothing more earth-shaking than that.

Back soon with “Getting Ideas.” Or you can subscribe to my other blog at  and read it when it comes out tonight. (grin)


5 thoughts on “Story Starters, Openings and How to Write Fiction”

  1. I got a great story starter in a line from an old AIP Vinent Price movie in which he said, “I was so angry this morning I threw a cabbage at a cat!” I loved the line so much I wrote it down as the first sentence in a new novel. That’s all I had – no characters, no plot, nothing other than the single line. I hit 45,000 words this morning and will wrap up the work around 65,000 words. The key, to me anyway, to the story starter concept is the base word – start

    • Man you’ve got that right. “Start” is important. After that it’s just a matter of KCB: Keep Coming Back. 🙂

  2. Glad to know I’m not the only one to work that way! If a talented person such as yourself works without a plan or outline, I,m on the (write) tract. Thank you.

    • Hi Rich,

      Thanks for the complement. I wouldn’t dream of outlining. I write to entertain myself first. Well, to let my characters entertain me. If I knew how everything would turn out, I wouldn’t bother writing the story. 🙂 Be sure to see the post tonight. I just finished the topic, and I think it’ll ring a bell for you.

  3. I tried the outlining routine, which included filling out those stupid character questionnaires and such. Then I bought a clue and realized that the folks who pushed those down my throat were WRONG. I abandoned both and just started writing. As you said, the characters reveal themselves as I write. Oddly enough, not a single of my characters has bothered to reveal what kind of ice cream he/she likes best. And can you believe it? They don’t care what their “communication style” is either. They just communicate per their personality, temperament, and life experiences without psycho-analyzing themselves. How weird is that? LOL

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