How to start a story … or how to beat writer’s block

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to attend some sessions at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, my hometown. Working freelance from home means you sometimes feel you’re working in isolation, so seeing and hearing from so many talented people about their work and the writing process is somewhat of a gift – a reminder you’re not in it alone.

Anyway, I got to watch celebrated children’s author, Morris Gleitzman, effortlessly work the room, telling his audience, including many young writers, about how to start a story. You see, he used to get stuck about getting stuck, and thought there must be ‘the secret’ for writing stories that all the big authors knew. So he read the first pages of hundreds of novels in his local library to see if he could work out what ‘the secret’ was.

Here’s what he found.

Every first sentence started with something key in the life of the main character.

A problem.

The story that unfolds is thus how that character faces up to and deals with this problem, along with many other problems along the way. How they do this, and whether they ultimately solve their problem, is what creates drama and creates engagement with the character.

Ask yourself, he said, what’s the thing that your character would most hate to happen? To find this out, you’ll need to get to know them in your imagination. Be nosey, ask them questions, find out their secrets. Your story will start to take shape and the words will start to come.

It’s such a simple approach, yet it’s relevant for writers both young and old. It’s so easy to get caught up in the ‘how’ or the ‘why’, it’s easy to forget the ‘what’. Think of the ‘what’ as the problems, or plot points, the character deals with, the ‘where’ as the setting, the ‘how’ as your writing style, and the ‘why’ as the deeper themes that underpin your work. So that just leaves the ‘when’, and when better to start than now?  

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