How do you start a story?

The starting line (from Relay for Life)A writer on asked if she needed to have a complete story in mind before she started writing. It’s a good question. I’ve never written that way, though. There are times when I didn’t know how a story would end when I started it, and I often had to change a story several times as I write.

Her question raised another one for me: How do you start a story?

I’ve never started a story the same way in each of the projects I’ve written. Offline was based on “Bartleby the Scrivener,” so that was the starting point for my novel. Doria was based on my struggles to process the real-world events I saw on the news. My latest screenplay, Comic Book Heroes, was built around one scene.

The novel I’m starting is taking shape in a completely different way. Instead of starting with a plot, I’m starting with the characters. Specifically, it is starting with a character who begins the book with a single line, “I hated Reseda High School.” From the line, I’m fleshing out who this character is, why he feels that way, and who the people are in his life who can influence him for better or worse.

I’m now at the point where I’m building a plot around these characters. To help me, I’m referring to John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story. I’ve always found his 22 steps a helpful guide in arranging plot points so they move the story along and build to a powerful climax.

As I develop the plot, I have to go back and change the characters. For example, I had to change one character from a girls’ basketball player to a cheerleader. I made the change because I had to begin my story during football season instead of during basketball season. Developing the plot also helps me identify ways to get my characters to interact and affect each other.

I find that creative works are organic. They grow and take shape almost on their own. They can also change — often extensively and sometimes surprisingly — during their development.

So to answer the writer’s question, you don’t need to have the complete story in mind before writing. Part of the fun of writing is to see how your creation changes as you write it. And to answer my own question, there isn’t a single way to start a story. Just as each story is unique, the method of creating each one is unique. There is no right or wrong way to start or create a story as long as you finish it.

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