You may love writing fiction, but chances are that you have challenges. Perhaps you begin many more novels and stories than you finish.
It’s a common challenge—your hard drives may be packed with unfinished fiction. Although that’s fine—you can begin stories just for fun—it’s unwise to make it a habit.
Recently a frustrated writing student who’s starting her self-publishing career asked me for a guaranteed way to finish every project she starts.
My suggestion: start with the story, rather than the characters, or plot ideas. Once you have the story, you can allow your characters to dictate the plot.
When you’re writing fiction, start with the STORY
In this article on outlining fiction, we suggested:
Before you think about your novel’s first page, think about the novel, as a whole. What happens? What’s the story?
When we’re writing fiction, it’s easy to get side-tracked. Thinking about the story first means that you know your novel’s:
- Beginning AND ending;
- Main characters;
- Story genre. (Although you can change this at any time.)
Story and plot aren’t the same thing.
The story encompasses who the characters are, what conflicts they are facing, and where this is all taking place.
Think of the story as a quick summary.
Check out movies on the internet movie database to get the idea.
Here’s the quick summary of The Godfather:
The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty in postwar New York City transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant youngest son.
When you start with the story, you don’t even need to create your own story—use stories in the public domain (PD).
We’ve already looked at public domain stories and why you should use them. After all, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare and Disney, it’s probably good enough for you. (Grin.)
Many fiction authors start with public domain stories; it’s a popular trick.
Many authors know the “story” trick to write novels
Some of these authors write fairy tale retellings, or Jane Austen retellings—it makes writing fiction much easier. Others don’t; they merely use PD stories as kickstarters.
Why not try it yourself? Choose a story that’s in the public domain—almost everything written before 1923 is in the public domain by now. Then use the story to kickstart your fiction.
When I suggest this trick to new authors, some tell me that they want to tell their own stories. Of course you can, and should, but be certain that your stories have a story question, as well as intriguing characters, and lots of emotion.
When you retell a story, you know that audiences love the story. It’s a guarantee of success. Even if you’re certain that you want to tell your own stories, try this simple exercise.
Try this “retelling” exercise to become familiar with stories
Yesterday I started a new novel for myself, rather than for a ghostwriting client. I’m using a popular short story by Guy de Maupassant to kickstart my planning; this story is well and truly in the PD.
Why not choose a PD story, and do the exercise? Doing this exercise will teach you how to build your own stories—stories you know you’ll finish.
Here’s the exercise.
- Select a novel or short story you enjoy (ensure it’s published before 1923 and is in the PD,) or pick your favorite fairy tale.
- Summarize the story in a few paragraphs.
- Describe the characters: one paragraph for each.
- Think about your emotional connection to the story—why do you respond emotionally, and what you do feel?
The emotional connection is vital: it will help you to craft a unique piece of fiction, which readers love, even if you start with something in the PD. By the time you’ve finished writing, your fiction won’t be anything like its inspiration: it will be totally your own.
Writing fiction: tell the story first, in a quick summary
If you want to write novels and/ or short stories you know you’ll finish, always start with a quick summary of the story, including the story’s ending.
Try the exercise above, and have fun with the process.
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Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.