How to Write a Story: Getting Started

This is Part 1 in our series on how to write a story.

So you have a story idea... and now you're facing a blank page. What do you do now? We receive lots of e-mails from people who want to write a story but don't know how to begin.

Here are some steps you can follow to turn a story idea into a story.

The 3 elements of a story

Let's begin with your starting point. You have an idea for a story. This idea might be...

  • a specific character you want to write about

  • a situation that occurred to you (for example, zombies taking over the world)

  • a certain setting (for example, Victorian England, or the town where you grew up).

Maybe you just know that you want to write a certain TYPE of story -- for example, maybe you've always loved reading historical romances, and you think you'd like to write one.

Or maybe you don't have an idea at all yet. That's okay. If you're stuck for ideas, you can always go to the prompts and story starters section of our website and pick one.

What's important ISN'T the idea you start out with... it's what you do with it.

That's my first piece of advice for you: don't feel that you have to find the perfect idea for a story before you start. If you focus on that, you're likely to end up feeling blocked. Just start with an idea -- any idea -- and see what you can make out of it.

This idea is your starting point; now, let's talk about where you're headed. You want to turn the idea into a story and, to do that, you're eventually going to need certain elements:

  1. a character

  2. a conflict or problem facing that character

  3. a setting, a time and place where the story happens.

The first and third elements are pretty obvious. The story's going to happen to someone (the character), and it's going to happen somewhere (the setting). But what about the second element? Why do you need a problem?

The character's problem or conflict is the engine that will move your story.

For example, let's say you've got a character, a banker named Kip, and a setting, Chicago in the 1980s. If Kip's happy in his marriage and his job and his life, there's no reason for the situation to change. That means there's no reason for the reader to keep reading.

But let's say some gangsters are after Kip. Or let's say his wife's cheating on him. Now, Kip has to take action. And the reader's going to keep reading to find out what he's going to do, and whether he's going to solve this problem or not.

man writing outside

Let's go back to your starting point, your idea. You want to develop that idea a little bit so that you have all three elements: a character, a problem, and a setting.

For example, let's look at some of the different types of ideas that we talked about before.

Maybe you're starting with a character idea. You want to write about a character named Lucy who's an acrobat in the circus.

Now you have to give Lucy a problem. Maybe she's in danger of losing her job to a new acrobat with a more spectacular act. Or maybe she's having a forbidden affair with the circus lion tamer.

Finally, you have to decide on the story's setting. What kind of circus are you writing about? Is it a modern-day circus? Is it in a small town or a big city; does it travel around?

Or let's say your starting point for a story is a problem -- zombies are taking over the world. Now you need a character to face this problem, so you decide to write about a woman named Julie who's happily planning her wedding when the zombies march in. Where does Julie live? Is she going to be battling zombies alone on her farm in Iowa, or will she be fighting them on the streets of London?

Or let's say you you're starting with a setting -- you want to write a story about your hometown. Now you need a character and a problem. Maybe every year in your town there's a big gardening competition, so you decide to write about a woman who's competing with her ex-husband to win the first prize. Now you have characters and a problem.

Click here to continue to Part 2 of this series on how to write a story.

Or learn how to write a story in our online course, Story Structure. This course will take you step-by-step through the process of developing your idea into a successful story plot.

More pages on how to write a story.

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