#117: Story Beginning Choice Paralysis

Dear Story Nurse,

The first draft of my fantasy novel came out as a messy tangle of scenes. I’m now trying to turn it into something more coherent as I edit, but I’m struggling to pick out which of about three options should be the opening section. Sometimes I think one looks good, sometimes another.

Option 1 is chronologically first, set about three years before the main events, and sets up/reveals a lot of the emotional landscape behind the rest. It’s close to my heart, but other than the emotion shifts, doesn’t have a lot happening.

Option 2 is where the first draft started, an apparently small event with a lot of undercurrents swirling around underneath. It’s the event where the main character’s life is first pulled askew from what she wants it to be, if not quite upside down.

Option 3 is a busy action scene with the main character and her entire village turning out to cope with an immediate disaster. It’s also her first encounter with one of the antagonists.

I’ve had both positive and negative feedback on all of them, which makes it harder to decide. It feels like I need to decide before I go further, because which one I choose is going to have serious implications on how I unknot my tangle of a first draft.

How do I make this sort of decision when all the options seem equally good at different times and I keep second guessing whether I’ve picked right?

—Split Decision (they/them)

Dear Split Decision,

The three options you’ve come up with fall neatly into three very common categories of story opener: prologue, protagonist introduction, and in medias res. All of them can be perfectly fine ways to start a fantasy novel (though these days there isn’t a lot of love for prologues). In order to choose one, you need to understand the narrative purpose of each. You also need to know what kind of book you’re writing. You suggest that choosing an opener will shape your revisions, but I suggest that you need to pick a direction for your revisions and then go with the opener that suits the book you decide to write.

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#113: Getting Beyond the Beginning

Dear Story Nurse,

Lately, I keep coming up with setups for stories – complete with hooks and challenges I think will be really fun! – and then I look at all this space afterwards and have no idea what to put there. I guess I give the characters problems, but I get stuck trying to find the actual solutions. I keep trying to plot and getting really tied up in knots, and then writing scenes just to get into the story and losing interest quickly because I realize I’m just building a path as I go and it’s going nowhere in particular.

Any tips for getting unstuck and figuring out middles and ends?

—But to What End (she/her)

Dear But to What End,

That sounds very frustrating. You’re certainly not alone in having trouble getting past the beginning of your stories. On the life and mindset side, I’ve answered similar questions from people who are recovering from stressful events, getting back to writing after a long time away, stuck on “should”, and having trouble staying focused. On the craft side, I’ve helped writers who get carried away with big ideas, can’t choose among several possible endingsdon’t know how to make endings feel smooth, and have protagonists who aren’t active enough to push the story to a conclusion. If any of those sound similar to your situation, those posts may be helpful.

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#60: Starting Small

Dear Story Nurse,

I took a really long break from writing partially due to mental illness and chronic fatigue and partially because I was looking at it as something I *had* to do, and I’d forgotten why I actually love writing. So I’m trying to figure that out, and I’m only really writing fanfic right now because it’s easier for me, but I seem to have run into the same problem I run into with my original fiction.

I really want to write longer works, but as soon as I decide that’s something I want to do, I basically lose all interest on whatever I’ve been working on. I pretty much never finish anything that I want to be longer than 5,000 words. Occasionally, I’ll accidentally make something a little longer, but I get kind of antsy about that too, even things I’m initially really excited about writing. I’m not sure how to fix this.

—Briar (they/them)

Dear Briar,

I’m sorry you’re having a hard time coming back to writing after so long away. That’s something a lot of people struggle with (see my posts on returning to writing after a long hiatus and when creation feels like a chore), especially if you took the break on purpose and for good reasons. Having filed not-writing under mental health self-care for so long, it can be challenging to now believe that writing will be not only safe but actively beneficial.

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#53: Avoiding Repetition in Episodic Work

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m working on a series of short stories that follow the same set of characters. Each story is about 5,000 words and needs to stand alone as an episode: a conflict needs to be introduced, the characters need to react to that conflict, and some kind of resolution should happen by the end of the story.

As I write more stories, I’m noticing that the way I introduce the conflict of the month is getting repetitive. Since this series follows the crew of a spaceship as they do odd jobs across the galaxy, each story starts with them either getting a new job or picking up a distress call.

I feel like I’m endlessly repeating the scifi equivalent of “So this dame walked into my office…” How do I vary the way I introduce the conflict that sets a new story in motion?

—Keeping It Fresh (she/her)

Dear Keeping It Fresh,

This type of challenge crops up a lot in episodic work. Fortunately, that means there are some well-established ways to handle it. Continue reading

#29: When Creation Feels like a Chore

This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

Some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life has been when revising and editing my own stories. Unfortunately, I need to produce some kind of draft before I can start polishing, and that has started to feel near impossible to me.

I’m trying to resume writing after several years hiatus due to a tumultuous life event and emotional fallout that left me with no energy to spare for creative pursuits. Now that my mental wellbeing has improved and day to day life has become much less stressful, I’d like to do something nice for myself and have fun writing again. I’ve set aside some hours at my preferred time just for that, and my partner is being wonderfully encouraging.

However, I find myself treating what’s supposed to be an opportunity for creative play as if it’s a chore I’m trying to put off long enough to forget about entirely. I feel like I have no clue what comes next, struggle to commit to what thin threads I have, and both my freewriting and outlining attempts too often turn into long agonizing sessions of tensing my imagination into immobility as I attempt to Make A Really Cool Idea Happen Right Now.

Previously, I mostly wrote romantic vignettes and notes for potential storyworlds without much for plot. I’m trying to resume writing similar short scenes as well as outlining a romantic fantasy novel very loosely based on some earlier work, though plot remains as elusive as before. I’ve considered trying to write nonfiction or a different type of fiction to attempt to get unstuck and perhaps find “what I’m really meant to be writing”, but I still end up unhappily mired early into the “what shall this specifically be about” stage and just end up feeling more directionless than ever. I’ve also spent some time trying to do stream of consciousness warm-up writing, but that has yet to help me produce anything beyond a lot of lines about “I don’t know what to write.”

Any advice for getting through the initial decision and drafting stages for those of us who feel like the fun comes after?

—Stuck at the Start

Dear Stuck at the Start,

I get the sense that you’re trying to make up for lost time by doing years’ worth of writing all at once. You’re trying to write beginnings with your head full of middles and endings and plots and “is this idea good enough” and pressure pressure pressure. You also mention that you love editing and revising, which explains why you’re critiquing your drafts before they even exist. Your brain is desperately trying to escape the pressure by retreating to the part of wordcraft that feels enjoyable and happy and safe. Alas, that part can’t happen until you have a draft, and so the pressure to create a draft increases. It’s a vicious cycle. You need to get out.

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#21: Stopping and Starting

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently living at my parents’ house and working part-time. I’ve been trying to work on my fantasy novel more since I have more free time, but I keep hitting a wall. The first time I tried to write it, it was a disaster. I had no plan, nothing about it was pleasurable. I started again, it went better this time, but eventually it stopped working. Instead of pressing on, I started over again. I started at the point I was most excited about, instead of trying to do back story or following a formula.

I wonder if this stop and restart habit came from my Creative Writing degree. I revised many short stories, so starting over might have become habit.

Now, you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to ask next. How do I stop myself from stopping and starting over again? My novel is never going to get finished if I keep doing this! I want to have this first draft finished by the end of the year.

Thank you for your help,
Third Time’s Hopefully the Charm (she/her)

Dear Third Time,

Novels are definitely a different animal from short stories, and it’s hard to make the jump. It sounds like you’re accustomed to writing short fiction off the top of your head and then revising as needed, but that approach isn’t working for your longer project. And when you’re doing something different from what you’ve done before, nothing gets in your way more than a creative writing degree and a lot of practice doing other kinds of writing, both of which fill your head with all sorts of ideas about what writing should be like—how you should experience the act of writing, what sort of work you should be producing, how long it should take you, and so on.

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#14: Where Do Characters Come From?

Dear Story Nurse,

A recurring problem I encounter in my writing across the board is that I’ll come up with very cool ideas for worlds and settings, but then become completely stumped with inventing characters and stories for them.

I’d hazard that part of this problem stems from the fact that I come from a fanfiction writing background where characters are pre-supplied, though I’ve been working on original stories for several years now. I’ve got no problem worldbuilding, either in an already-extant canon nor an original world of my own.

When I have a story idea come to me already with characters and rudimentary plot, I’m fine—the problem only shows up when I have a world but no story, and then I find myself stumped, brain running in circles as I try to force a plot to happen. I sometimes feel like I’m just picking random plots out of a hat and trying to paste them into the setting, which is obviously not ideal—the plot should be just as interesting as the setting.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to work on these issues, or how to apply the creative juices from worldbuilding to character/plot development? Helpful writing exercises?

Thank you so much!

—Plotless (she/her)

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m coming back to writing after a bit of a hiatus. There’s lots of general skills I’m working on, but most of them are improving. Except for character creation. I used to write original characters all the time as a kid, but I seem to have forgotten how.

I have an idea for a portal fantasy story (probably novel length). I’m really excited about it, and the general world-building is going really well, but I’m struggling to actually start the first draft, because I can only come up with really vague idea of the characters I’m writing about. Conventional advice according to Google is that if I start writing my characters will develop over the course of the first draft, but I can’t develop them enough to figure out how to start.

Is there some way to push through this and get my story started? Or is there something else I can do to get a grip on my characters before I start?

Thanks very much,

Character Catch-22 (she/her)

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been writing scifi/fantasy fiction for fun since I was a kid—for fun, and for sharing with my friends. But recently I’ve been finding a lot less fun and a lot more frustration, because everything I write kind of peters out, and I’d really like, just once, to actually finish something.

I’m one of those people who gets super into worldbuilding. I have stacks of notebooks filled with little ideas, or bits of description, or pages and pages of how this alternate universe could work. Basically, if I were writing an encyclopaedia, I’d be golden. But an encyclopaedia does not a story make, and I want to write something someday that someone might actually want to read.

I think the place where I struggle is characters. I can look at a world I’ve made, and see where the friction points are, like “well hey if that thing is banned, is there someone trying to smuggle it?”. I can look at a formal plot structure and think of things to put in the boxes, more or less. I can write the idea of a character, like where they live and how they grew up and how their background might throw up some threads that could be put into a plot. But when it comes to wants and desires and behaviours and three-dimensionality, well… I’m more likely to end up falling into an existential crisis about what I want out of life, and that helps nobody.

Are there technical exercises to help with this kind of thing? Do I just need to plough through 70,000 words with a cardboard cutout of a character and then look back and… redraft somehow? (I have actually tried that, several times, but I tend to reach a point where I just can’t find the motivation to keep writing something so flat and dull. I think I need something to break this cycle of “shiny idea!/start writing/realise the characters have no character/hit wall/feel miserable/different shiny idea!/…”)

—Dweller in the Well-Painted Doldrums (she/her)

Dear letter writers,

As you can see from one another’s letters, you’re not alone in this! I wanted to include all three of your letters because I think some comparisons will be instructive, and because you all have much more in common than you might realize. You cite different sources of difficulties with character creation: being used to working with other people’s characters, coming back to writing after a hiatus and having rusty skills, and having your own internal anxieties get in the way. But if your circumstances were strongly and significantly affecting your writing, they would affect all aspects of your writing, and you might not be able to write at all. Instead, you’re faulting your circumstances for something that’s actually about you: right now, by training or inclination or some combination, you’re much more comfortable worldbuilding than you are sitting down with some characters and turning them into real people.

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