Strategies for Getting Started

I've been struggling for several days with a scene that's just not working. Much of the problem centers on the fact that I'm very early into a new project, and I barely know these characters. Sure, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to happen with (and to) them, but I can't make them do much of anything until I figure out what makes each one tick, who the supporting players are in the lives of each protagonist, and start auditioning a couple of antagonists.

I've never had much luck with those character interviews/dossiers some authors complete in the prewriting stages. (When I've tried this, the characters seem to delight in contradicting every neat little notes I've taken.) Mostly, I just use my head as a battering ram and write my way, in fits and starts, through the characterization process, delighting myself with each new discovery -- and trashing pages and pages that don't fit with my emerging picture of who each person is.

This is all when and good, except that what works for one project is useless with another, so it's important to have some backup strategies. Today, I'm going to step away from the keyboard, turn up the music, and sketch out a sociogram, to graphically depict character relationships (from affinities to antipathies to anything you want to show). If that doesn't get me in the mood for writing, I'm going to get out my magazines, scissors, and glue, and make a great big, messy collage of what I like to think of as the story's central imagery.

As I've learned from experience, however, neither one may get me where I need to go, so I'm also thinking of trying out a strategy Joni once mentioned, that of jotting on notecards each scene I have in mind. Then I can shuffle the order of events as needed and jot character notes that will enhance the dramatic impact of the story. Because to my mind, the plot and characters need to develop in tandem. Otherwise, they won't complement each other.

Once you have an inciting inciting or scenario in mind (if you begin that way, as I do) you can start out by asking yourself a few important questions.

1. How would the backstory (past events) impact a man or woman's personality? Think of several possible reactions/outcomes and consider choosing one that moves beyond, or in a different direction, from the obvious. Or one that seems on the surface to contradict expectations. (That's how complex characterization happens, as you can spend a whole book, even a whole series, unravelling the reasons.)

2. Which type of person would be most challenged by the plot events you have in mind? What career, family situation, or personality trait would offer the most dramatic tension, yet feel natural enough that it won't seemed contrived or melodramatic?

3. When it comes to the story's protagonists, which qualities make them relatable, even heroic, in the eyes of readers? How can I quickly establish that, in spite of all their challenges and flaws, these are people my audience will want to ride along with on their journeys. If I fail in this, I may as well stay home because no one will read beyond page six of the story. (And no, the "page six" isn't literal, but you know what I mean.)

So there you have it, my everything but the kitchen sink list of strategies for getting started. Does anyone have another to add? I'm always looking for another weapon to add to my arsenal and would appreciate your tips.


Nabokov used the notecard shuffling strategy too! It works!

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