View Full Version : What gives a start of a story for writers?
I read a charming article called "Maps in Literature" from Wilson Quarterly which describes how Stevenson created a map before actually writing Treasure Island. Once he drew the plausible treasure island map with hills, ravines, inlets, etc, he found it easy to create the characters (he said the characters jumped out of the map) and then he planned out chapters hence paving the road to a great story for children and even for adults. Of course, the article lists several more examples such as The Lord of the Rings, Winnie the Pooh, I do not remember the rest, to tell how the maps make the story persuasive for our imagination. I do not aspire to be a writer and I will never try to be one.
Because of the article I am now very curious about what starts a writer for a story. Please do tell.
It happens I happened upon 3 instances of this in the past month:
Penelope Fitzgerald (in "How I Write: Daisy's Interview"):
Before I start on a novel I don't need a synopsis of what is going to happen, but I do need the title, the opening paragraph, and the last one. Once I've got these, I can start.
E.L.Doctorow (interviewed on Charlie Rose (http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10586)):
CHARLIE ROSE: And this is how the book starts, "I?m Homer, the blind brother."
E.L. DOCTOROW: That?s the line that got me writing the book. I wrote that line down one morning. I didn?t quite understand it. And then I realized that this latent interest I had in the Collyer brothers had just popped up.
As a matter of fact, there are seeds of this book in earlier books. In "Ragtime," the little boy who is at the center of the story, is said to value things discarded by other people. And in "Billy Bathgate," I have a character named Garbage who is an orphan boy who collects stuff on the streets and lives in a cellar somehow with all this detritus. And so somehow this idea has always appealed to me as meaningful. And
it was the idea of the Collyer brothers that interested me.
CHARLIE ROSE: You?re not interested in documenting their story. You?re interested in an idea that came from them?
E.L. DOCTOROW: Exactly. The point is they have two existences, the Collyers, the historic existence and mythic existence, sort of like Abraham Lincoln, only less exalted.
The mythic existence interested me, and when you?re dealing with myth,
you don?t have to do research, you don?t have to worry about the details.
CHARLIE ROSE: But here is what I don?t understand. I don?t understand why you?re not curious to do that. I know you don?t need to do it, but is it counterproductive to know too much?
E.L. DOCTOROW: Absolutely. I?ve known many writers who have researched things exhaustively and they stopped in their tracks. They couldn?t continue. You can?t know too much if you are going to use your imagination.
Really, because you write to find out what you are writing. That is the process in fiction writing.
CHARLIE ROSE: You write to find out what you?re writing?
E.L. DOCTOROW: Exactly so.
CHARLIE ROSE: You once said to me writing is a process of discovery always.
E.L. DOCTOROW: Yes. You don?t feel possessive about what you?re doing. You?re simultaneously the writer and the reader. And you lay down a sentence and you?re reading it and with just with the same surprise or interest that the reader will have, theoretically.
CHARLIE ROSE: And this sentence, "I?m Homer, the blind brother," what was the significance of that?
E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, it was just tremendously evocative. And I realized that here was a myth that demanded interpretation. And I thought of the book as an act of breaking and entering, getting into that house and into their minds and into their imagination.
But all the books -- so this book started with that line. Other books have started, like "Billy Bathgate" started with an image I had in my mind of men in black ties standing on a tug boat, on the deck of a tug boat. And it seemed odd...
CHARLIE ROSE: That they have black ties and be on a tug boat?
E.L. DOCTOROW: ... this work boat. And then it turned out that they were there to take one of their members out in to New York Harbor and dump him in the water for a betrayal he committed to the gang.
CHARLIE ROSE: And that?s why they were there.
E.L. DOCTOROW: That?s why they were there.
And the minute I had that, I had the boy Billy watching in the very first paragraph, and jumping onboard just as the tug boat took off. And that started that book.
Lewis Carroll (in the hunt for an illustrative example (http://justtheplaceforasnark.blogspot.com/2009/09/fits-fifth-and-sixth-pages-38-and-39-as.html)):
On July 18, 1874, a certain Mr. C.L. Dodgson took a restorative morning stroll upon the downs outside Guildford, Surrey. The Christ Church mathematics tutor had spent the previous night nursing his consumptive godson, a depressing task since Dodgson rightfully feared that the young man?s condition might be terminal.
As he walked through the summertime English countryside in his scratchy woolens and mudcaked wellies, a curious and unexpected-type thought broke upon his somber reveries; a random line of nonsense verse flashed suddenly through his mind:
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
[...]Dodgson discreetly withdrew from public view for the next two years, to allow Carroll the time and privacy necessary to compose the remaining 5,057 words of that poem which we know today as The Hunting of the Snark. It was a difficult task, the poem was essentially composed backwards from the initial fragment and Dodgson?s own academic and family affairs sometimes required the poet to set aside his work so that the hardworking academic could attend to his own less glamorous, though necessary duties.
The poem was finally completed and published in 1876 and has remained in print to this day.
And then there's Henry Green's once-removed version of the madeleine:
In his 1975 memoir Here at The New Yorker (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here_at_The_New_Yorker), Brendan Gill (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brendan_Gill) relates that during a luncheon at the Ritz Hotel, New Yorker (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Yorker) editor William Shawn (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shawn) asked Green what had led him to undertake the writing of Loving. Green replied, "I once asked an old butler in Ireland what had been the happiest time of his life. The butler replied, 'Lying in bed on Sunday morning, eating tea and toast with cunty fingers.'" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loving_%28novel%29#cite_note-1) :eek:
nnyhav and Mise Eire, thank you!
It appears to me that some authors are just gifted story tellers. It reminds me of the protagonist in Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen who could make up a story given a first sentence. I have never read anything by E.L. DOCTOROW, Penelope Fitzgerald, or, Green. Therefore, I can't comment on them.
The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll is intriguingly comical and humpty dumpty wacky and worthy of a discussion. Hmm?it took him two years to compose the long poem. I had to look up the word "snark (http://www.toasted-cheese.com/jj/definition.htm)."
"Taking Three as the subject to reason about--
A convenient number to state--
We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
By One Thousand diminished by Eight.
"The result we proceed to divide, as you see,
By Nine Hundred and Ninety Two:
Then subtract Seventeen, and the answer must be Exactly and perfectly true.
(3+7+10)*992/992 - 17 = 3?
After all the searching, computing, arguing, they figured out it is a Boojum, a ugly fantastic creature.
Was it to amuse children?
Gabriel Garc?a M?rquez explains in the preface how he came up with the idea for writing Of Love and Other Demons. As a journalist, he was sent to cover the news about old bodies being dug up from an old chuch's basement. From this inspiration struck.
Henry James is famous for his many discussions of what he called a "donn?" - (something given). That is how he referred to the seed, the germ, the hint from which his novels and stories grew.
Read any of James' prefaces or extracts from his notebooks and you'll find these references.
ironical lines also serve this purpose.
what about the starting of a short story"WANDERING WILLIE'S TALE" by Sir Walter Scott?
Inspiration, admiration, love, dissatisfaction, fame, imperfection, envy, stress, near end, boredom. And one more - hunger. To be continued...
So from this thread we can conclude each writer has a different way of starting a book or a story?
What is the exact motivation for reviving this thread, which has been dead as a dodo since 11th December 2009?
Weren't YOU the one who complained that the forum was sluggish?
This morning I followed the effortless pursuit. What if we are really unaware of how to start this epochal fiction? I found the answer in the web:
How to start a story
1) “Once upon a time”… Or with a twist (!!!!!): “Once upon a particularly terrifying*
2) “One day…” Or perhaps “One gloomy day…” “One sunny day…”
3) With direct speech - e.g. “Hurry up,” yelled Mum, “the taxi will be here any*
4) Starting with a question. E.g. “Have you ever wondered why belly button fluff
is always blue?”
5) How about a sound effect? E.g. “Eeeeek,” went the brakes as the car
6) Go straight into the action. e.g. “ A vicious right hook caught me just above
7) Characters can introduce themselves e.g. “Hello, my name is Sid. I’ve go a*
brain like a computer and a photographic memory. I’ve been following you now
for three weeks, two days, seven hours and thirty-two minutes.”
8) Start with a statement e.g. “Michael was miserable.”*
9) A description of a place, a character or a smell can be a good place to
start. “The acrid smell of smoke drifted towards me.”*
10) Time can start a story e.g. “It was midnight….” Or “The clocks struck
11) Weather? “The rain came down like a hail of bullets on the roof of our
12) Flashback e.g. “As I wondered the lonely cliff path my mind went back
twenty years to that terrible stormy night when my life changed forever.”
Not bad. Lucid, relevant, not bombastic. What do you think?
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