How to Start a Story
Trying to start writing a story is a daunting prospect. Whether it’s a short story or a novel, sometimes it’s putting the first few words on the page that’s difficult. If we aren’t careful we can end up just staring at a blank screen because we don’t even know how to start the story.
I used to have the same problem. Now people say, “Where do you get so many ideas from?”
There’s a trick to starting a story that I can share with you and I got it from Ernest Hemingway.
How to Start a Story like Hemingway
Hemingway! But Hemingway was a genius! He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for goodness’ sake! True, but even he didn’t know how to start a story sometimes. What chance have we got, when Hemingway struggled? Well, some, because we can learn from the master. This is what Hemingway said he did:
Sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
How to Start a Story with One True Sentence
The idea that to start writing you first need to write One True Sentence is one that lots of authors and story theorists have used and found to work:
- Ernest Hemingway called it one true sentence.
- In Story, Robert McKee calls it the controlling idea.
- In The Art of Dramatic Writing , Lajos Egri calls it the premise.
But they’re all talking about the same thing. What they’re talking about it is:
What you are trying to say.
Call it the truth, call it the controlling idea, call it the premise, what we need to do is think about what we want the reader to come away from the story believing.
We want to change their mind.
That’s the question, you see: what do you passionately believe? What makes you want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them until they agree with you? That’s One True Sentence.
No idea and no situation was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.
Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing
And because it’s your story, you can metaphorically grab the reader by the shoulders and shake them until they listen.
Storytelling is the creative demonstration of truth. A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action. A story’s event structure is the means by which you first express, then prove your idea… without explanation.
Robert McKee, Story
So that’s the thing to think about. Don’t worry about characters yet, don’t worry about setting, don’t even worry about plot. Think about something that you think is true. Write it down. Make it the truest thing in the world.
Write One True Sentence
A Problem (and an Opportunity)
I know what you’re thinking: grabbing people, and shaking them? They will hate me if I just go on a rant about ‘the truth’ like some crazy person. That’s true. If we write a story that just expresses our One True Sentence the story will be what we call ‘preachy’. Preachy is not fun because it abandons the core of storytelling - conflict. That’s the problem. But we aren’t done yet. There’s also an opportunity.
The Sentence of Doom
Now we have our One True Sentence, it should be easy to write down the exact opposite. Write the most evil thing you can think of. Write something False. Write a Sentence of Doom. Now we are getting somewhere, because if our story shows One True Sentence in opposition to a Sentence of Doom then it will have conflict – and conflict is what stories are all about.
How to Start a Story: Personification
Robert McKee makes a good point at the end of the quote above – “prove your idea… without explanation”. That’s similar to the classic writing advice – show don’t tell. The One True Sentence doesn’t go in the story, and neither does the Sentence of Doom. They’re something we write down and refer to. What we need to do is personify the conflict by introducing some characters.
We can use the archetypal characters from Archetypes that Make Your Story Resonate to personify our story. Probably the Protagonist is on the side of Truth and the Antagonist is on the side of Falsehood. Or perhaps the story is more complicated? It’s up to you. Start thinking about how the characters can personify the conflict.
How to Start a Story: Plotting
So we have our One True Sentence, our Sentence of Doom, and our Archetypal Characters to personify both sides of the story. Now we can start to think about illustrating the conflict. To do that:
Plot is a huge subject. Writing Spy Fiction with an Unputdownable Plot starts to help us think of a plot.
How to Start a Story: Examples
Here are some examples of One True Sentence in spy fiction:
There’s no moral high-ground in espionage.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold , John le Carré
Wake up Britain! Germany is becoming a threat!
The Riddle of the Sands , Erskine Childers
Spying is a ridiculous thing.
Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene
Note two things:
- The One True Sentence is never explicitly stated in those books (although The Riddle of the Sands comes pretty close). Their truth is shown , not told .
- You might not agree with any of those book’s One True Sentences, but that’s not the point. Their authors believed them and set out to prove them.
How to Start a Story: Write a True Sentence
So next time you’re staring at a blank screen, or the wall, or out of the window, don’t despair.
- Think of something true.
- Write down that One True Sentence.
- Then think about how you can use storytelling techniques to illustrate that truth.
Now you are thinking about how to start the story, not what to write about.
And that’s got to be better than just staring at a blank screen, hasn’t it?
I used Hemingway’s ‘how to start a story’ trick when I was writing my novel A Kill in the Morning. After it was shortlisted for the Terry Pratchett Prize, I sold A Kill in the Morning to major publishers Transworld. Thank you, Hemingway!
Read a Kill in the Morning
You can read the opening here:
Read it, and see if you can guess the One True Sentence. Email me if you do!
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