David Farland’s Writing Tip: How to Start a Story

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How to Start a Story:

I cheated. I needed to compose a writing tip, so I went online to a large writing group on Facebook and figured I’d answer the first question that popped up.

Unfortunately, the first question was a doozy. It basically said, “Should I write a short story or a novel?” My answer is “Yes, whichever one you like reading the most, since you’ll probably naturally do a better job of writing the kinds of things that you like to read.”

But the query went on, “And what genre should I write in?” My answer is similar. “What genre do you most love to read? That’s the kind of story to keep you up at night working, and to give you the most rewarding writing experience. You’ll write it better because you’ll know the genre well enough to understand whether your ideas are cliché or fresh, and you’ll know what your readers expect.”

Then the author asked, “And can you suggest a title and a plot for my story?” and “Could you suggest some good names for characters?” Yes, I definitely could do all of that, but no one should do that for you, and you’re acting like a child just for asking.

In this case, we probably have a young author who really has no idea how to start a story. Surprisingly, though, every writer has the same problem—over and over again. Each time you compose a story, you have to figure out how to start it.

I have to write a short story tonight for an anthology. To do that I just ask myself a few questions.

1. Setting.

Every story needs a setting, both a time and a place. So what’s interesting about the time and place of my story? What details might I use to bring the tale to life and establish verisimilitude? What can I add to make the tale deeper or more interesting?

2. Characters.

Who are my characters for the story? What makes them interesting? What makes them mysterious or engaging? How are they in pain? Do they hope to help someone or attain something? Are they active or reactive? What important things happened in their past? What are their goals and dreams? There are a lot of questions that I can begin asking, and these are just a few.

3. Conflicts.

What are my major conflicts for the story going to be? Is it a romance or an adventure, or is there a mystery in the tale? What b-line conflict do I want to deal with? How do my characters grow or change? How will I introduce those conflicts in an exciting way? How can I deepen and broaden the conflicts at multiple points in the story so that I can escalate the tension time and time again? What happens in the climax? How can I tie the conflicts up in a way that will be surprising to the reader?

4. Theme.

Sometimes, stories are commissioned based upon a certain genre or motif. For example, I recently had an editor call and say, “I need a story with a unicorn in it. I want it to be science fiction in the far future, and be kind of dark or horrific. Oh, and I need it tomorrow.” So I wrote the story. It turned out to be one of my favorites. (“We Blazed” is available on Amazon.com.) In this case, my story was inspired by the Covid pandemic.

5. Treatment.

I may also set goals for how I want to tell the story. I might want to create a certain tone for the story—say write a romance with some fun comic scenes and a sense of wonder. Or maybe I want to figure out how to hook readers into the story by coming up with a great title and some nice hooks for several major scenes. Perhaps I want to leave the reader weeping in the end—three separate times. I set these kinds of goals well before I begin the story.

It’s only as I answer all of the questions above that the story begins to weave together. So I know some things about this piece. It’s about pandemics. It will be fewer than 3000 words. I’ve decided who my protagonist is. I even know my cast. I don’t know what the hooks for each scene will be, but I’ve got some ideas for a direction. I know what the sub-themes will be, and have some ideas for an ending.

So how long does it take to brainstorm a short story? Just a few minutes. Novels sometimes take longer.

 ***Important Announcements ***

Please support this Kickstarter for Robert Zangari. His Epic Fantasy Novel: The Prisoner of Tardalim, recently won two awards for his fantasy books, and is running a kickstarter to promote them. Check out his facebook post at: https://www.facebook.com/316432875186763/videos/2745656199042878

David Farland will be teaching a Masterclass at Fyrecon on November 12-14 on “Strategies for Success—presales, launches, and long-tail strategies.” For more details, go to 


Dave will be teaching at 20Booksto50K in Las Vegas LIVE on November 10-12! More details to follow. (Please wear a mask and practice social distancing).  


Apex is growing! This Saturday we will be talking to Echo and Lazarus Chernik, two world-class artists and illustrators, and judges for the Illustrators of the Future Contest, on what to look for in the cover design of your books and stories.

Next week we will hear from Terry Brooks and Orson Scott Card.  It’s like a traveling conventions with bestselling authors, editors, publishers, agents, and artists. Throw in thousands of dollars in free writing workshop and live writing groups, and we’re trying to create the best value for writers on the web, at only $209 per year.

Go to www.apex-writers.com to learn more or to register.

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