Story ideas often come to me at the most inopportune times like when I’m about to fall asleep or right in the middle of a long run. I’m usually prepared for those scenarios because I keep my iPad on my nightstand (I have an electronic notebook) or I just keep ruminating on the idea while I’m out on the trails so that I don’t forget it. I’m not complaining; I’m glad I have the luxury of too many ideas in my writing notebook. I can think of nothing worse than pages of blank white paper (or, in my case, a blank screen with an irritating blinking cursor). Nevertheless, it’s interesting to look at these ideas and how see how they evolve as I flesh out the short story or novel.
When I look at my notes, they most often describe a scene that provides the spark for the story. Invariably, all of my notes describe the beginning of the story; the point where it becomes most interesting, or at least interesting enough for the reader to want to read on. My notes for my first novel, The Vanishing, simply describe the scene where Ella is on the verge of killing her husband and the agony and emotions she’s experiencing. That’s how the novel begins, and from that scene the story unfolds revealing how Ella arrived at the point where she wanted to kill her husband. My original idea, the beginning of the story, set the mood for the whole novel for both me and the readers.
My current project, The Fire Within, starts with the main character struggling to run around a track on his prosthetic legs, which is exactly how I described the idea in my original notes. I want to capture the readers’ imagination with a great beginning that leads to a deluge of interesting questions and, hopefully, leaves them wanting much more after the first chapter. Beginnings have to be one of the strongest parts of your story if you’re going to keep the reader engaged, which is one of the reasons my ideas tend to start there. I often ask myself “Why would I be interested in this story?” The beginning has to satisfactorily answer that question. It’s no accident that agents only ask for the first 20-40 pages of a novel when you query them. If the story doesn’t work in those first few pages, it’s not going to work over the course of 80,000 words.
Once I have the concept of the story down and understand how I’m going to start the story, it’s time to turn that great beginning into a dynamic short story or novel. For short stories, the beginning is usually enough to propel me forward for 5,000-8,000 words. I often think of short stories as scenes from larger novels, and if I look at any of my short stories, I could easily turn them into novels if I thought the story had enough gas to run over 80,000 words. With novels, the beginnings provide the literary compass for me as I outline out the major sections of the story. I constantly go back to the beginning as I develop the outline and ask myself if the storyline is staying true to the original idea. If not, I make changes. It’s actually rare that I get to the outline phase and change the direction of a story completely away from the original idea. If the beginning is truly as good as I believe it is, then it will hold sway over the whole writing process.
None of this process precludes me from changing the beginning. I refine it over and over as the story develops, but the essence of the beginning is always there. The idea from which the story sprung remains a central point of focus for me. I’ll often go back to my notebook and read my notes just to see if the story stayed true to my original idea. So far, each of my stories have. I view the original idea, the great beginning, as the foundation for the story, and if you truly have a solid foundation, you can build a strong story that stands the test of time and revisions. A great beginning is that important.