11 April 2020

First Thoughts about Writing a Story

Last Saturday, John Floyd talked about how he starts writing a new story. A very interesting post. Check it out if you missed it.

John said he usually starts with a plot.

I’m different. I usually start with a character, then fix on a setting, and finally decide on the inciting incident which often includes a crime. I never outline but simply start a story and keep writing most every day to finish it. If I do get stuck, I make a list of what could happen next, pick what I think is the best situation, and continue writing.

I think there are two reasons it’s so much easier for me than other writers to not plot. First is to read. A lot. Stephen King says we should read the same amount of time every day as we spend writing. Sounds about right to me. But I started reading early (with Nancy Drew—I’m a cliché!), and average two books a week, and have for years and years and years. I know there have to be terrific authors out there who do not read much. But if you are struggling, I suggest you read more in your genre to get a feel for how good writers do it. And maybe get some insight into why you consider some writers amateurish and not be that way yourself.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression (Second Edition) (Writers Helping Writers Series Book 1) by [Becca Puglisi, Angela Ackerman]
For some reason I am highly focused. You can even interrupt me when I’m writing, and I will get right back to where I was and continue on when you leave me alone. How do I do that? I SEE in my mind’s eye the setting and what’s happening. I HEAR what the characters say and how they say it. And I FEEL their emotions as I write about them. I even find myself making faces, which I can use for dialogue tags. But the seeing and hearing are the most important things. Because I’m THERE, when I get back to writing, I can continue with little trouble. If you “see” everything, you will prevent mistakes such as having someone sitting and a while later, standing without showing it happening. You can imagine the gestures the characters are making and use them to make tags. You can describe the setting the same way every time you need to mention a table or a chair.

So, it’s all a snap for me, right? Of course not. I have other problems. The first and worst is character names. I wish I had all the time back spent messing with them. For a novel, I average about five or six name changes. Thank goodness for Find and Replace in Word although that can be both amusing and frustrating. For my current work, I decided to change a character’s name from Slack to Novak. I forgot how many characters wore slacks. This is about a 75,000 word novel. My fear is that I haven’t corrected all of them because you can’t totally depend on Replace to work correctly. I can only hope my beta readers find any of my characters wearing Novaks. Then I changed Mark to Aaron, and there was Maker’s Aaron instead of Mark. <sigh>

I learned early to make a list of characters in a chart that can alphabetize rows. First and last names each receive their own rows, and I also have ones for age, car, and description and other details I need to remember. So, as soon as I have several names, I alphabetize them by first name, try to have others with a different first letter, then do the same with the surnames. When writing series, these are really handy to look back at when I forget a minor character’s name or description, age, or make of car.

Because I am more interested in characters than the actual plot and setting, I have a lot of dialogue and people’s reactions to what’s going on. I find myself repeating certain reactions. Each novel seems to generate it’s own particular reaction. The last one was “shrugged.” This one has too many folks gasping. Fortunately, I own a terrific book called THE EMOTION THESAURAS—A writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. They have a whole series of books like this one, but for me, this is the most useful. Pick any emotion, go to the index, and choose things like anxiety, denial, happiness, surprise (gasp), and so forth.

That’s not all. I sometimes put in characters that in the end do not add much or anything to the plot, so I have to kill them off. And sometimes I leave stuff out that needs to be there and it can be difficult to find a place to impart the information needed during edits. I might even have to add a character or two.

Each story is different, so of course, each one has its own idiosyncrasies and needed fixes. For some reason, I don’t hate editing like a lot of authors do. Which is a good thing. My average is about five passes for novels and sometimes even more for short stories because every detail in those needs to work extra hard.

All that said, I do pay a lot of attention to plot. I try to have interesting starts and finishes to each chapter and to the story as a whole. I enjoy making up twists and unusual situations. But for me, the characters drive the plot. They act and react. I need to put some hard or uncomfortable situations in front of them and see how they handle them.

Who else usually comes up with a character? I suspect it’s probably a tie between character and plot coming first, with setting coming in last. But if you choose setting first, I’d love to hear how that works for you. 

I hope everyone is doing okay staying inside most of the time and maybe getting lots of writing and reading done. I certainly am. Take care!


  1. Good posting.
    I'm ambidextrous. Sometimes I start with a plot, sometimes a character, sometimes a title, sometimes an ending where I hand the ball to a character and see how he or she gets to the ending. Now I'm confused. How to I write these things?

  2. Jan, I usually start with a scene in my head where some character has an unusual problem and then write that part down. Sometimes I know where it is going, but more often than not, that piece goes into a file called Story Starts. That way, on any given day, I can pick a Story Start that really interests me and write on that one. Like you, I see/hear/feel the story scenes from inside the character's head.

    Nice article. It always helps to be reminded about some parts of the writing craft.

  3. Jan, 90% of the time I start with a character (or characters) and a scene. Of that, 70% of the time I have no plot. So when one fizzles out (and they do, more often than I'd like to admit), I put it into a file like R.T.'s, but I just call it "Ideas" that I dive into whenever I'm in between jobs.
    Thanks for the post!

  4. For me, to say what comes first, character or plot, is too simplistic. I can't separate them. If a novel is a character with a problem or goal and obstacles to that goal which are resolved by the end, then I need both the character and the problem! That said, I did come up with a mob goddaughter first, and then happily set about thinking what messed up crimes she could get into.

  5. This is great, Jan! An in-depth look at the process you use. I always find it interesting to learn not only what seems to work for writers in general, but what seems to work for particular stories--and sometimes it's not the same. Sounds like the only thing you and I really do a LOT differently is the outline vs. no-outline thing. I have to outline, at least in my head, before I start. I have to have that structure in place, in my mind, first--If I didn't, I'd never get anything worthwhile done. I admire those of you who don't have to restrict themselves that way.

    Again, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks!

  6. Hi Jan,

    I loved reading about your process. Most of the time I start with the characters but I do a rough outline of the plot before I start to write the initial draft. Hey, whatever works!

  7. Always interesting to see how another person develops a story. I can't imagine how anyone who doesn't read can be a writer. Like you, Jan, I do the character lists. I feel they help bring the character alive and they me on focus with their individual quirks.

  8. I'm impressed that you have such a clear understanding of your process. Every time I think I understand how I do something, I write it out and it makes no sense to me. I don't outline but I need a sense of where I'm going even if I have no idea how I'm going to get there. A key element seems to get me started, such as a motive for a crime or a particular twist, but the rest is a discovery for me.

  9. O'Neil, I'd be confused, too! Hey, whatever works. Don't mess with it. I'm halfway ambidextrous because I swing a golf club and a baseball bat with my left arm and do most everything else with my right. And I can bowl with either. My mother was forced to give up her left-handedness in grammar school, so I probably got what I got partly from her. Keep on writing!

  10. RT, that's interesting about your starting with scene. I do the same thing you do with story starts. If I come up with something I think will make a good start, I imediately gie it a title, which I often change later, set it up into a Word doc and put it into a folder marked Short Stories Unfinished. I have another folder for novels, of course, and I jusr slip the much fewer unfinished ones into that. How many story starts do you have? I've never counted mine, butI plan to now. When I have time.

  11. Eve, one of the main reasons I decided early on to write mysteries is because I found it easier to plot with a major crime at the center of each piece. So, thinking about this further, I'd say I usually think of a character (and probably their occupation), then setting--where they are when everything starts, and then some crime being committed, leading to plot. That all has just evolved as I've written more and more. I also make these decisions quickly. Maybe if you pull a few of those unfinished stories up and fixate on a crime that could be committed, you could finish some. Or not. Just a suggestion.

  12. Hi Melodie. It's great that works for you. I'm a bit slower. I just know that usually, I need a character first, not the plot like so many others do. I also often have the setting next, then I figure out the rest. Thanks for commenting.

  13. Hi, John, and thanks for joining us. I can usually get to about a quarter of the way through a story without much trouble. But then I generally have to make conscious decisions. I've found that taking a walk helps me do that. It's better than staring at the screen, for sure. Obviously what we're both doing is getting the job done most of the time. And that's all that matters.

  14. Hi, Jacquie--yes indeed, and as I just said to John. Whatever works. Thanks for commenting.

  15. Hi, John Lindermuth! Grea to see you here. Yes, can't work without those character lists! And happy to know you use them, too.

  16. Well, Susan O, I think I might have also thought of a key element a few times (it's hard to remember what sparts each story, especially years later). The one I remember most clearly was after leaving a writer's group meeting, all jazzed up, driving down a narrow street in the dark and suddenly seeing a jogger. And I thought, oh, what is someone hit him? And put him in the trunk. I was off and running (pun intended). That's how "Why I Quit Jogging," still up on Mysterious-E, was born. But come to think of it, I really did start with a character thart time, too. Thanks for joining us!


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