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How to Start Your Stories

Are you looking for a way to start writing a story? How and where to start is always difficult. Have you picked the right place? Have you chosen the right words? Have you established the right tone? In my years of teaching at the UCLA Extension Writing Program, I've seen students who freeze, unable to move a word forward as they consider and reject, consider and reject each possible start for their story.

Because we have to start somewhere, let's take the pressure off. Let's worry later about the right place or word or tone. Let's take this easy exercise to find some beginnings for your story. The exercise is in four parts. For each part, write continuously for five minutes. Do not stop. Let fly the first thing that comes into your mind. Move immediately through each of the parts with no breaks in between. This is a form of free-writing where we simply want to get something down on the page. Later, we'll go back and expand and revise. You can write by hand on a pad or a notebook or type on your computer if it's handy.

Part I: Write only the first sentence of the good things that have happened to you (or to someone you know). Here are some models. “When I was a boy I always wanted a horse and when I turned ten, my father bought me one.” “Have you ever been famous even for a moment?–I was when I caught the last out that won the final game for the league championship in our small town.” Write only the first line, no more than that, and then move on to another story and another.

Part II: Write only the first sentence of the bad things that have happened to you (or to someone you know). Examples: “Plants never live long when they're around me.” “I'm the kind of man who women cross the street to avoid.” Again, write only the first line, no more than that, and then move on to another story and another.

Part III: Write only the first sentence of any of the stories you've always wanted to tell about something that happened to you or someone you know or something you heard about. First line only, then move on to another story and another.

Part IV: Write only the first sentence of any of the stories you've never wanted to tell about something that happened to you or someone you know or something you heard about, the stories you've kept hidden and secret, the stories you've been afraid to tell, the stories that scare you. First line only, then move on to another story and another.

After your twenty minutes of writing are up, if you have faithfully performed the exercise, you'll have the rough start of quite a few pieces. If you have not already done so, type up these story starts and begin the evaluation process. Does one of them jump out at you? Pick that one and continue writing. At the end of each sentence, ask yourself, and then what happens? Let that initial sentence take you forward and see where things go. (If, for some reason, none of them jump out at you, then either repeat the exercise, or pick one from Part II or Part IV and start working.)

Good luck and good writing!       (This piece first appeared in North American Review.)


©2014 Rebecca Dru Photography

Ian Randall Wilson's short stories and poetry have appeared in many journals including The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and North American Review. A faculty member at the UCLA Extension, he is the winner of the 1994 Cera Foundation Poetry Award.

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