Three ways to start a new novel
I am often asked how ideas for stories come about. There is no one answer for that – one has come from a dream, one has come from walking past a television, one or two started off as ideas for screenplays and then, once the first draft was written, were turned into novels. But the usual starting point, for me, is the need to want to write something.
There are so many reasons for wanting to tell a story, but the main one is purely that; you want to write a story. We can shorten that sentence: you want to write. That’s the best starting place. After all, if you don’t want to write, you won’t want to write a novel, but do you start with a character, a theme, a plot, place or protagonist? Do you think, ‘that would be a good setting,’ or do you think, ‘that’s a great dilemma to explore’? I’ve touched on finding inspiration before, see Finding Inspiration on your Bookshelf, but, for me, there has to be a spark, something that makes your heart leap and say ‘that’s it!’ Sometimes, though, that spark is just a flickering flame and needs fanning. I am in that position at the moment and so here are a few ideas about the process of getting started.
Some people start with a character. Someone you know, someone you’ve observed, read about or seen on the news. You find an interesting person and think, ‘what would happen if…?’ And the ‘What If?’ is probably the best place to start. What if your best friend suddenly found herself/himself in a strange location, what would they do? How would they react? From here, the story grows out of the character, but even with those few lines, you can see that you already have the main ingredients for a story: a character and a problem. After all, without conflict, there is no drama, and without drama, there is no (decent) story. Yes, we can all write about pleasant things and how wonderful our visit to a location was, what a great holiday we had and how nicely it all turned out, but that’s not going not be of much interest to many readers. Readers want drama, they want to follow your character through some kind of adventure, change, difficult situation, and see them win at the end – or lose, you can do either.
Starting point one: Find a character and explore the ‘What ifs?’
Here’s another way of starting things off. I am currently thinking that I might like to write a story set in a haunted mansion in the wilds, isolated, cut off, and creepy. Yes, it’s a very overdone setting, and the first things that come to mind are very overused stories. ‘The Cat and the Canary‘, ‘The House on Haunted Hill’, ‘The House that Dripped Blood’ and all the rest. Classic, Gothic, creepiness with a group of people confined to one location and unable to leave. It’s been done to death by Miss Author, in the study with the typewriter. So, why not make it a spoof? Why not find a way to turn in on its head. That’s what I am trying to do. What if this was a comedy horror/mystery/thriller? You could then really play on the cliché and have fun. (Actually, that IS ‘The Cat and the Canary’, so make your characters specialists in a field, and only when all five realise that they need each other to survive can they band together to defeat the evil. But what happens if one of them…? And on we go.)
When writing ‘The Saddling’, the location was paramount. It’s set on the Romney Marshes, and so I was after atmosphere, and the setting brings that with it, depending on how you use it. I remember one of my essays at school, when doing A Levels, was to discuss Thomas Hardy’s use of Egdon Heath as a character, as the protagonist actually, and that’s another way of coming at it. Make your setting (the heath, the marshes) the protagonist, and you have both character and setting before you start.
Starting point two: find a setting and think who would be uncomfortable here? (Immediate conflict.)
Another way to come at it, and I’ve done this, is to start with a plot. One of my first stories is called ‘You Wish’ and I hit upon that with the idea of, ‘What if you got your wish for one day?’ Nice, there is definitely a plot there about getting what you want, and we all want that. But then I added, ‘But in return, you have to suffer three days of the downside, the payback?’ That then gives us conflict and, in this case, loads of ideas for comedy. (It’s a comedy novel and rather a mad one, but I still like it.) And then I thought, ‘One person getting their wish and then having to deal with the consequences is one thing, having four people all doing the same is another. And so, the four main characters appeared. But I wanted to tie it in with fast, mad-cap comedy and a bit of a farce, so these characters then had to intertwine and come together and stir things up and… I won’t give away the story, but the point is, I started with a complicated plot and then put in the characters. This makes for an action-driven story with some depth to the characters and also, as there are four main characters, more chance of readers associating with at least one and cheering them on.
Starting point three: Find a situation
One of my previous cabaret partners used to quote from a show (I think it was ‘Merrily We Roll Along’) and come out with: ‘What comes first, the music or the lyrics? Answer: Usually the contract.’ (Sorry if I’ve misquoted that.) But what comes first when setting out to write a novel? Well, ‘anything’ is my answer. Start with a character and have a book about a character’s change, start with a setting and find inspiration from it, start with the idea of a type of fiction, comedy horror, life story farce (mix genres, I do), or start with a great big ‘what if?’ You will soon find that, once you’ve started thinking, the other things will attach themselves to you. I want to write a story about five people in a big old haunted house, I can even picture the building. Knowing me, I will draw up a floor plan. But I will have to start thinking: who is going to be at this house and why? So, I have a setting, and the characters will come, and then, based on who they are, the plot will emerge. There’s no theme for this idea (theme and subject, or message, is another way of starting out) but that’s all part of the writing process. Let it develop.
So, when asked how a novel comes about, I now usually say, it originates from the desire to write… something. How you then structure your writing is a subject for another day.