5 Steps to Take Before You Start Your Next Story

by Emily Wenstrom | 38 comments

Starting a new story is hard, whether its a short story or a full novel. After all, a story is made of a million moving pieces, all developing and coming into focus with time and hard work.

next story

How to Start Your Next Story

When you’re ready to start a new story, it’s tempting to get right to drafting. But if you take a little time to pound out some of the bigger pieces of your story first, you can make the drafting journey a lot smoother.

Here are five steps to take before starting your next story:

1. Catch a spark

You know how this starts. You get that spark. That little piece of a new idea that you know is really a story. It might just be a character’s voice, or a small piece of a plot, or even an image.

However small it is, the inspiration it holds is huge, and you’re going to make a full story out of it.

It can take months, even years, to write a complete novel. But ideas crop up all the time, especially if you’re looking for them. Spend your time with an idea you absolutely love.

2. Meet your protagonist

Before you dive into drafting, identify your story’s protagonist and take a little time to get to know her. What’s her background? What does she love? What motivates her?

Without understanding your central character, you won’t get far into your plot before running into problems.

3. Find something to fight against

Now you know your good guy, get to know your bad guy. Of course, this can be a standard villain or antagonist, or it could be something else.

For example, it could be an outside force like a malevolent government or a hurricane. Or, it could be internal to the protagonist.

But whatever it is, you should understand what it is, and what motivates your protagonist to fight against it, from the beginning.

4. Explore your setting

A good setting isn’t just a canvas for the story to be painted on. It sets the tone for the story, and can even be a  source of hurdles for the protagonist.

Some authors consider the setting to be as important as a character, or even one of the characters. So it’s worth taking an imaginary walk around town before you get to writing.

5. Identify your tentpole moments

If you’re not an outliner by nature, you’ll probably expect to discover a lot of your plot as you write. But knowing the general direction you’re headed in can help a lot.

That’s where tentpole moments come in—the big moments in your plot where something big happens, or a shift takes place. Identify these moments up front to help give your plot focus from the get-go.

Get to writing!

It’s impossible to know everything about your story before it’s written, but a strong foundation can get you off to a strong start and even save you precious drafting time. Follow these five steps for a smoother drafting process.

What does your drafting process look like? Let us know in the comments.


For this practice, pick one of these steps to explore for a new story, or one that you haven’t done yet for your work-in-progress. Take fifteen minutes and complete it now! Write it out as you think, and then share in the comments.

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.


  1. dduggerbiocepts

    Emily – I appreciate your good and concise advice in writing. That said, I am about to be off topic here. I have noticed a significant number of current novels that appear to violate the basic copy rights of other novels and or entertainment forms like movies – in the use of their titles.

    I note with similar interest that your soon to be released novel “Mud.” carries the same title as a relatively recent movie called “Mud.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mud_%282012_film%29). Has this apparent title duplication not been a copy right issue for your novel? Like I said, you are by far not alone in the re-use of existing titles, so please comment on this.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      No, it’s not a copyright violation. Here’s a great resource on the topic: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/can-you-use-a-book-title-thats-been-used-before

      That said, it’d certainly in a writer’s interest to have unique titles. Personally, my publisher and I decided to keep MUD even though there are some other similar titles out there because none of them were anywhere close to my genre (fantasy), and so it was extremely unlikely that any of these titles would be confused for each other.

      Good luck with your own titling! I hope this helps.

  2. Lenke Slegers

    Hi, I just got started with the prompts, and would like to post my first practice (write about a time you felt out of place), but I cant seem to find the right post. I would like to point out that english is not my mother tongue.
    Hope its ok I drop my practice here:

    Slowly I opened my eyes again.

    Before I did that, my ears heard a lot of different noises I couldn’t place. Did I really hear so many diverse birds? There was one that threw me off, annoyed me. It was a load shrieking sound, probably the one that woke me up so early it was barely getting light. My eyes flew open at the sound of it, half dreaming of childhood days when irritable boys would scratch their fingernails over the blackboard. My heart hammering in its chest, my brain racking to remember where I was, in this strange place, full of new noises and smells.

    I remembered, and closed my eyes again to cool down and wake up a bit more at ease. My ears stretched to catch all the birdsongs. It was delightful to observe the choir of chirping.

    Slowly I opened my eyes again and got out of bed, eager and nervous to face the day.

    Our guide was waiting for us. Asked us how our night was. It confused me. What would he care about my night? Should I tell him the bird’s shrieking scared me a bit? But then it seemed he wasn’t really waiting for an answer. He urged us not to forget our camera’s and to move on.

    Straight out of the gate we went. Immediately we were shouted at in some strange language. My ears strained to try and pick something, any word that might sound familiar, to give me a clue of what they were laughing about. I looked at the guide to get some indication from him, but I couldn’t read his face. It was dark and set. No smile, no comfort, no words. He just trotted along and we followed in his dusty footsteps. My hands immediately became sweaty and grimy, as my shirt already stuck to my back where drops of sweat trickled down.

    More and more dark faces showed on the road, all looking at us, none of them smiling or even looking remotely friendly. I paced up to be closer to our guide, throwing glances at the other person in our small pack. She obviously didn’t have my reservations, as her eyes were bright and sparkling, soaking everything. Was she so happy or just being naïve?

    Our guide stopped at the side of the road, for no apparent reason. There was no bus stop to be seen, and we were told we would use public transport to get into town.

    • Jhean Moico

      Hi Lenke 🙂

      I think it’s very brave of you to post your writing here. You’re really taking your writing to a whole new level. I can’t even do that myself 😀 Anyhow, I am not a native English speaker myself. I have a lot of exploring and learning to do. But good job. The brief part of the story you posted here is nice.

      What’s the genre?

    • Lenke Slegers

      Thx Jhean!
      There is no real story or genre on this one, as it is just a practice. You should be able to read about the discomfort in the story. Not sure I pulled it of.

    • I'm determined

      You did. Believe me. You pulled off that discomfort very well.

    • rosie

      Wow! Lenke, it’s difficult enough to write like this when you’re a native speaker! Well done, and keep writing.

    • Lenke Slegers

      Thank you Rosie!

    • I'm determined

      I’m waiting to read about the crisis. When is the next shoe (or slipper) about to drop? Something’s going to happen, and I’m on edge, hoping that the main character, his seemingly naive companion in their ‘small pack’ will come out safely. I get the sense of Christians walking behind the gladiator into the arena where lions await them! Can feel those jaws open, sharp teeth enclosing my head. and Of!! the stench! Those lions forgot to use their mint toothpaste that morning.

    • Lenke Slegers

      wow, very enthralling indeed! I can almost smell the non-minty breath of those lions… 😀

    • 709writer

      Wow, this really drew me in – sounds like the makings of a suspenseful story!

    • EndlessExposition

      I think this could use more “show, don’t tell”. For example, instead of stating outright that the narrator heard a lot of different birds, describe their individual songs; throw in some onomatopoeia. There are also places where the narrative could slow down. It feels like the story is jumping from one place to the next very quickly. Other than that, I like this, and I think it has a lot of potential!

    • Lenke Slegers

      Thanks a lot for the advice. Really helps.

  3. LaCresha Lawson

    I have my spark!

    • Lenke Slegers

      Cool, bring it on!

  4. Jean Blanchard

    I’ve started a short story inspired by one of the one-liners in the previous exercise. I have brain-stormed the setting and I am now getting to know the main character who, as it turns out, is not very forthcoming. I can see her and place her in scenes so I’m just going to wait a bit longer to see what happens next …

    • 709writer

      Sometimes it takes a while to draw the personality and history out of the character…my main character is quiet and withdrawn toward the person who rescues her, because of the abuse she suffered. But as time goes on and she starts to trust her rescuer, she starts to open up. It can help to just put our characters in a bunch of different situations, like a restaurant, on the sidewalk, at a festival, and see how the character interacts with the environment around them.

    • Jean Blanchard

      My short story seems to be turning into a novel and I find that quite frightening. How can I handle it? Or, how do I proceed?

    • HeatherLionClove

      If you try to develop too many characters, it can end up that way. If you’re stuggling with length (20 pages?), limit yourself to maybe 3 characters you get to know, and 3 locations.
      I was writing a short story that had to be 10 pages or less and I just had to keep making the font smaller and smaller 🙂

    • James Bekenawei

      I am having similar problem. Writing a short story that is anything but short. It keeps getting more complicated and I feel I have dug myself into a pit and getting out is impossible. It’s really hardwork keeping this short and simple.

    • Lenke Slegers

      Had that too. It helped me to make a timeline and mark all new characters or big events or changes in the story. Then roughly think of how to kill a couple of characters fast and swift without having to rewrite everything.
      I was just a kid though, long time ago. And never actually finished the ‘short’ story.
      Good luck!

  5. Elaine

    I’m starting with my main character; I’m asking myself questions to discover who this person is.
    Her name is Clare.
    Maybe she will tell me her story. My first choice is to make her a married woman with several children. Someone in her life will have a mental illness that creates conflict.

    • 709writer

      Sounds like an interesting start – married, caring for children, and someone with a mental illness. Is the person with the mental illness an enemy or a loved one? Imagine the tension that might be involved if it’s a close relative or friend who has the mental illness – maybe it’s even a love interest. A lot of possibilities there! Let us know when you have more about Clare!

  6. 709writer

    The damage was far worse than external. No matter how hard Shadow ripped his shoulder, blood seeped through his fingers from the bullet hole. His chest heaved.

    The man who’d shot him – Sean – stood across the barren clearing, his pistol still aimed at Shadow’s head.

    “Tell me where the brat is.” Sean spoke through gritted teeth. “Or you’re getting a bullet through your head next.”

    Shadow raised his voice. “You’re a coward – you only feel powerful when you’re hurting little girls,” he said. His pulse hammered and he squeezed his hand into a fist. “But you’re not touching her again. Ever.”

    “You’ve got ten seconds to answer me,” Sean said.

    Shadow darted forward and closed the distance between them in a heartbeat. He knocked Sean to the ground, grabbing the man’s hands to aim the pistol at the sky, past Shadow’s shoulder. At full strength, Shadow could have overpowered Sean without even tensing his muscles, but in Shadow’s weakened state due to his injuries, he had to make each move count.

    “I’ll kill her myself.” Sean’s voice was guttural as he struggled to turn the gun back toward Shadow’s chest. “After I finish what I started with her.”

    Adrenaline spurted through Shadow’s veins. He wrenched the gun from the man’s hands and leapt back, stumbling a bit, but recovering his balance to stand a few paces away.

    He gripped the pistol in both hands. “Now you’re going to answer me.” Shadow sighted down the pistol and bored his eyes into Sean. “Your boss. Where is he?”

    “I’ll die before I tell you,” Sean growled.

    Shadow lined up the sight of the pistol with Sean’s forehead and stilled, exhaling a slow, controlled breath.

    He squeezed the trigger.

    I’d love any feedback/critiques. Thanks! Great article, Emily. : )

    • Pedro Hernandez

      This was a very interesting read. I liked how you kept the tension and mystery throughout the story, making us wonder “Who is this girl?” “Why is Sean looking for her and why is Shadow protecting her?” But I feel like this story could have used a little of the old “Show, don’t tell” But overall a great little story.

    • 709writer

      Thank you for the feedback. : )

    • EndlessExposition

      The reader gets a great sense of character for both Sean and Shadow, even though it’s such a short excerpt, which is very impressive. Keep up the good writing!

    • 709writer

      Aww thank you! I feel more comfortable with Shadow and Sean than I used to, but it’s definitely a work in progress. One thing I have trouble with sometimes is finding out what someone’s motivation is – do you or anyone here know of exercises for finding characters’ motivation?

    • EndlessExposition

      That’s a difficult one for me too. Honestly, the way I figure it out is just to think about it a whole bunch. Examine the path you have your characters take in the story, examine their actions, and then think about what would be a logical reason for them to do the things they do? For example: the behavior of my main character in my (perpetual) work in progress, Alex, is motivated by her fear that she’s never good enough. Because of this, she’s indecisive and tends to leave projects unfinished. It’s all about psychology 🙂

    • 709writer

      Thank you for the tip! I’ll try this when fleshing out my characters’ motivations. : )

  7. EndlessExposition

    I’ve been developing a new screenplay in the last week. It’s early days yet, so I’m still drawing a full plot out of the “spark”. Here’s a synopsis, I’d love to hear your opinions!

    Gabby is an angel on a mission – by midnight on Holy Saturday she has to convince Mags, a lonely college student, not to commit suicide. Mags, however, has no intention of being convinced, setting off a day-long argument between the two, and Gabby finds her plan not working out exactly how she thought it would. She is supposed to be the one changing Mags’ life – but instead she finds that it is Mags’ grit, Mags’ love of Eliot, Mags’ kindness, that is changing her. As the day rushes on towards midnight, Gabby realizes Mags will not be saved by God’s love for humanity, but by an angel’s love for one girl, and that girl’s love for an all-too-human angel.

    • Lenke Slegers

      Nice spark! Not original, reminds me of City of Angels where the same happens, but still. Always a good plot when an original idea turns around and teaches something. Keep going!

  8. juanita couch

    I chose number 3.

    All of my life I have been told I was selfish. I don’t remember being a selfish person but my dad once wrote that I was a selfish person.

    I think I just took a road that maybe other people did not understand.

    According to Webster’s New Compact Desk Dictionary the word selfish is an adjective meaning; having or showing too much concern for one’s own interests, etc., with little concern for others.

    I don’t see how that makes me a selfish person because I generally respect and care for most people.

    Why is it so bad to be concerned for my own interests? Why does someone else have the right to judge my intentions as selfishness? My father probably didn’t intend to hurt me but to this day those words still sting. They leave a burning question in my mind as to my value as a person.

    The trouble is that I have spent most of my life trying to be what someone else wanted me to be or I thought they wanted me to be. Is that a form of selfishness? I don’t know.

    There are things I remember about my early childhood and there are more that I don’t remember. What I remember most of all is that I loved my parents, and I guess I was a little partial to my dad.

    I know that dad worked for the railroad and was gone sometimes because I have letters that he and my mother wrote to each other, even before they were married. My mother was a beautician and had her own shop in our home.

    Waterville, Kansas was a small town in our eyes. I don’t remember too much about the size in miles, blocks or the population. To me as a child my world consisted of an area of a couple of blocks.

    I remember our closest neighbors on both sides of our home. As you faced our house to the left lived a family of five. I think Mom and Dad were from German background. They had two boys and one girl. Their daughter Carol was my best friend.

    Next door to the right lived two elderly sisters. We enjoyed visiting with them occasionally. They enjoyed our company.

  9. Nancy Dohn

    It was the day the wind carried her into their lives. Heeshe remembered it well. Hot summer sun glaring down. Storm clouds brewing. Clinking of dishes and running water floating from the kitchen window. Heeshe’s aching back from pulling weeds in Momma’s precious rose garden.

    Dig, dig. Pull. Sweat. No break until Momma said so or there’d be a beatin’. “Heeshe! Come have some water now,” Momma yelled.

    Stepping down from the veranda, Momma handed her a sweaty mason jar and looked critically at Heeshe’s work. “You been out here two hours. That all you got done?” She kicked at the pile of weeds.

    Deep, cool water trickled down Heeshe’s tight throat. The nearby magnolia tree, bursting with creamy flowers, was alive with bees. If momma moved just a few feet to the left she just might get stung.

    Momma turned, mouth open, just about to say something when a gust of wind whipped a swirl of sandy soil into a ground spout that twirled between them. Spitting dirt. Rubbing eyes. Coughing. Both hunched over.

    It danced from the yard into the dirt road. When it cleared there she stood, clutching a suitcase in both hands.

    Nothing would ever be the same.

  10. Bridget at Now Novel

    Great tips – I like the part about getting to know your characters. I remember reading an author saying that after she’d written a novel and lived with her (male) protagonist for a long time she opened her wardrobe and said to herself ‘what are all these dresses doing here?’ A sign you know your character very well.

  11. Enriquillo Rodriguez Amiama

    Hi super Emily! I said that because you do a lot of things, wow. Thanks for sharing these five tips. They are sharp and direct to the point. Really valuable. I loved the spark. Sometimes it is not easy to catch.
    When I go to sleep, many good ideas come to my mind and I have to wake up and take my notebook, a pen, and write it. If I didn’t, I forget everything next morning!
    My drafting process is nearly the same as when I paint. First I have something in mind, then I look for info (images,etc). Second, I start writing like a surrealist one, avoiding to think too much, just writing anything that comes to me.
    After a couple of hours, I need to stop for a while and drink water. Writing again and look for the dictionary for some words, and take a look to the book I’m reading these days for more inspiration… I’m reading The magic mountain by Thomas Mann and Mr. President by Miguel Angel Asturias, a Nobel Prize winner from Guatemala.
    Nice to find your site, I will keep it into my favorites!

  12. lovely dream

    like it ^^



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