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Beating the Blank Page

One can read all the ’How to Write a Story’ guides that one can (including How Stories Really Work) but actually sitting down to write a story one meets certain almost universal obstacles no matter how many books have been read or notes have been taken.

Thousands of pieces of advice exist on how to go about writing fiction, but it is still seen by many as a mysterious process. Even the best and most inspirational quotes by the most successful and popular writers don’t tell you what to do first. Fiction is usually divided up into compartments - characters’ plot, setting - and we are told that all of these elements have to work together to create an effect or series of effects. But how do you begin?

How Stories Really Work at least starts off by explaining what a character really is and how a plot actually works, but the process of beginning a story is often still hard. As a teacher of literature for twenty years, and as someone who has studied novels, plays and films closely over that period, I have found that most approaches to this are ineffective. So I developed a simple five-step plan to get a writer started, based on the guide I devised on how to write essays. It’s designed to boost morale, lift confidence and raise quality.

Almost every writer is taught that a story has to have an introduction of some kind, followed by increasing conflict and concluded with a climax and a denouement. How to make that all hang together in a unified way is part of what How Stories Really Work can help with, but even these concerns are not the worst issue facing someone sitting down for the first time in front of a screen or with a book and pen, staring at a blank page and wondering where to begin. The most difficult thing faced by fiction writers when it comes to writing a new story, given that they have read up on characters and plots and so forth, is how to actually start.

Take for example a short romantic story. Even if the writer has developed characters that appear genuine and has some idea of how a plot would unfold, he or she sits in front of a blank screen with a keyboard in front of them. What should happen first?

Writers usually do several things at that point:

1. They go off and do something else.

Contact a friend through the same computer they are sitting at, make a cup of coffee, stare out of the window waiting for inspiration, make more notes. Anything but start writing. Procrastination is epidemic in proportion; interruptions, particularly self-interruptions, are the fiction writer’s worst enemy.

2. They start ‘developing characters a bit more’.

What results is a mish-mash of made-up facts, perfectly reasonable, about a set of inert characters who only exist in note form at that point. At the end, writers end up with a couple of pages of reconstituted ideas, but no story.

3. They write an uninspired first line and give up.

Truthfully there are many ways of writing a good story, but whichever way is chosen, from the writer’s point of view the best way is the way that works. Workability trumps idealism.

Whatever you plan to write about, there are ways of getting something done which can build a firm foundation. The first thing to tackle is the awful sense of blankness or confusion which you face when you look at an empty screen or white page in front of you.

Here’s a three-step method which will help you over that hurdle. You won’t find this advice anywhere else, but it works.

1. Write a really turgid, boring, dreadful opening paragraph.

Really. Write the most awful, shallow, hopeless opening that you can imagine. Iron out of it any possible creative wrinkles. Really make it despairingly dull and flat, the kind of thing which any editor or publisher anywhere in the world would reject out of hand.

‘She came into the room. She looked across the room and saw him. He glanced across the room and saw her. She knew straight away that he was the one.’

Remove any adjectives; extract any meaning. Make it as lifeless and uninspiring as you can. Keep writing until you have about ten tedious sentences. Then sit back.

‘What have I done?’ might be a question which occurs to you. What have you done? You’ve created a paragraph where there was blankness; you’ve put something where there was nothing. That’s a step forward, albeit very small.

2. Now take this piece of worthless writing and change it.

Specifically, add five adjectives or adverbs. Using the simple example above, let’s see what that does:

‘She came majestically into the room. She looked across the congested room and saw him. He glanced idly across the room and saw her. She knew straight away, indubitably, that he was the intended one.’

Why only five adjectives or adverbs? It’s only an arbitrary number, but any fewer than that will have little effect, while more than that will probably overload what you have written. Plus five is an easy number to remember if you are trying desperately to get something going.

Notice the marked difference in the passage above. Simply by adding adjectives and adverbs you have injected some life: you have prompted some subtle questions in the reader’s mind: why ‘majestically’? What is going on in the room that makes it ‘congested’? What is he doing there that means he is free to glance ‘idly’? The combination of ‘majestically’, ‘congested’ and ‘idly’ suggest that this is a social gathering. The words ‘indubitably’ and ‘intended’ take us into the interior world of the character: why ‘indubitably’? And ‘intended’ for what?

3. Change the order of the words around to make it more exciting.

What’s the most interesting thing in this short passage? Probably her realisation that ‘he’, whoever he is, is the ‘intended one’. So let’s start with that:

‘She knew straight away, indubitably, that he was the intended one as she came majestically into the room. She looked across the congested room and saw him. He glanced idly across the room and saw her.’

You can also boost the vocabulary a bit as you go:

‘She knew straight away, indubitably, that he was the intended one as she floated majestically into the chamber. She looked across the congested space and saw him. He glanced idly across the same space and saw her.’

There are of course almost infinite variations. Shorten it, lengthen it, alter it. The point is that you have conquered the first obstacle, the one which, unless surmounted, defeats all the rest of your efforts. You now have something on the page or screen which makes sense and perhaps even sounds good.

This will boost your confidence to continue.

But what happens next? You still have the rest of the story ahead of you. That’s where the next piece of magic comes in.

4. Draw a simple map.

On it mark five blank destinations.