Starting a story isn’t like anything. It’s not like laying the foundations of a whimsical carnival ride. It’s not like planting a garden of vegetables that grow to look like you. It’s not like polishing an elaborate piece of ideological jewellery to a commercial sheen. It’s not like finding the figure hidden inside the block of marble, or the fossil in the geode, or the meaning in the symbol. It’s not like conceiving a baby, or shovelling gravel, or grooming your turtle.
Writing a story is communication with - if you’re lucky and scatter the relevant bits of your soul into it – a layer of entertaining beauty on top. If you want to write a story, that means you hope to communicate. And if you hope to communicate, you need to have something to say.
You can say anything you want. Any thought, any feeling, any experience of joy or pain or ambivalence that you noticed experiencing can suit your purpose (not everyone will approve of what you’ve chosen to say, but that comes after you’ve done the work in the first place). Pick something you care about, something which is yours, something which is worth sharing with other people. Lots of good ideas start with ‘it’d be cool if,’ but get more personal than that. Your work deserves it, and so does the world you’re going to be communicating with.
The hard part is that you have to find a way to communicate your idea so that it sounds like a story. You need characters who desire things. You need something working against the characters’ desires. You need to run those things into each other at some point. And they all need to relate to your original idea – your theme, if you want to get all authorial about the terminology.
The first thing is to decide what you want to say. Pick something that resonates with you: an idea, a viewpoint, an experience. Think about how you feel about it. Turn that into a sentence. Look at it for a while. If you don’t like it, change it. If you like it in less than nine minutes, you’re probably not trying hard enough. Once you’ve got the subject and the predicate and the articles in an order you’re at least 70% proud of, congratulations.
You still have a lot of setting-up to do – you need characters, and a setting, and things for the characters to do. You need histories for them, so that they can act out their roles consistently in your imagination and give other people some frame of reference for loving (or hating) your characters as much as you do.
But even with all that blank distance stretching out before you, bear in mind that you’re further along on your story than you’ve ever been before. If you finish reading this and open your word processing app, or pick up a notepad, or let your attention drift while tattooing your cellmate, then you’re on your way. Start thinking about things that matter to you and writing them down in coherent, communicable thoughts. Once you’ve done that, then again, congratulations.
Your story has begun.