You’ve just had a fabulous idea for a story and your brain is bursting with all the details and you cannot wait to write it. You sit down at the keyboard and pull up a page, or grab a notepad if you draft long hand, and the blank page mocks you with its emptiness. The only thing on your mind is a huge question: Where do you START? The sizzling in your brain fades and you think maybe the idea wasn’t so great after all if you don’t know how to get started.
You’re trying to run the race before you’ve put your feet on the ground. Before your story can have legs, you need to know more about it. You need an outline. (I feel like there should be a musical tag here of dun-dun-DUN!!!) Before you freak out and start protesting that you can’t outline because it robs you of your creativity, or that you’re a panster and if you try to figure out your story beforehand, it becomes stilted and flat, I’m saying outline in the loosest sense of the word. An outline is not always a document with Roman Numerals listing all the scenes in the book. If I had to do that, I’d be rocking in the corner whimpering at the thought and I’d never get the outline written, let alone the book. Because when I write a book, I don’t know all the scenes that will end up in the book before I start. Part of the magic of writing is allowing your characters to develop and letting them lead the way.
Outlining could be developing your story structure which is figuring out your major plot points and when they occur throughout the story. Mystery writers might be more focused on this type of development prior to starting so they don’t wind up in a muddle half way through. There are some well known methods like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! which was developed more for screenwriting, but the use of beat sheets has been adopted by several novelists as well. Or you can try Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method which starts with a single overarching idea, the idea for the story summed up in a single sentence, and builds from there.
I have a friend who usually starts with the Snowflake Method, but when I attempt it, the only thing that happens is brain frostbite. So what happens if you don’t work well with a more formalized method of outlining? Start with what got you excited to begin with. Write down your idea. That’s always a good place to start because you might not remember it clearly later. Fill in as much detail as you can because I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone back to my outline and realized I had forgotten something. Once you have the story idea down, what next?
Play 20 Questions. Not really, but think of all the questions you need to answer and jot them down. Who is the main character? What makes them tick? What is their biggest obstacle in the story? How do they overcome it? Or DO they overcome it? Where does the story take place? What place in time does the story take place? What is the character’s main motivation? Who or what is the antagonist? How does the conflict escalate? What I’m really telling you to do is brainstorm. Once you’ve answered all the questions you can think of to start with, you’ll have a much better idea of where to start your story, what type of research you need to do before beginning to write, and where you want to end up when you’re done.
Whichever method you choose, the next time you face the blank page, it will invite you to start writing.
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