This guest post is by Elisabeth Sharp McKetta. Elisabeth teaches writing for Harvard Extension School, is the founder of Poetry for Strangers, and the author of two books, The Creative Year: 52 Workshops for Writers and The Fairy Tales Mammals Tell. You can find her at elisabethsharpmcketta.com.

Listening to my nearly four-year-old daughter tell a story always teaches me something about writing. Before she starts a story, she knows how she want her story to end (“The purple raccoon and I were up in the tree, having a tea party with the dog!”). Knowing how her story will finish allows her to play and play—fabricating the juiciest details she can imagine until she gets to her ending-point.

how to start your story

How to Start a Story

We cannot start to tell stories about ourselves until we have the clarity that comes with knowing the ending.

Often this is the reason writers get stuck in the middle of a story, not knowing where to go next. We wonder what the point is and what is relevant and why write at all, and why, for that matter, not return to the laundry or email? Laundry and email are tempting because they have such clearly defined ending points (all laundry = clean | all emails = answered.)

Human activity becomes unanchored without having a clear ending-point in mind. And so, we must bring a clear ending into our writing.

Your Story’s Ending Guides the Whole Process

There are so many ways to create an ending point for writing: some writers write for time (one hour = done) Others write for pages (two pages = done). These techniques are great if they feel like they are working.

I tend to lose meaning in a story unless I know the ending, and so my first work is to go in with one question: what do I want my readers to think/feel/know/aspire toward after finishing my piece of writing?

Then I ask the second question: what must my characters or my writing DO in order to create this point?

By answering these two questions, I know what my work is each day: to move closer (however incrementally) toward meeting this ending-point.

So Where is the Beginning?

One definition of a story is that something changes. The most dramatic changes happen when the beginning is somehow the opposite of the end: somebody cynical becomes hopeful, somebody abroad comes home, somebody who is trapped becomes free.

I often think of this evolution as a whale-tail of 180-degree change. Once I know my ending point, the beginning is easy: I just go to its opposite.

One thing that I do, when trying to pin down my ending and beginning, is to list ten values change in a given piece of writing, then list their opposites.

Because I am an optimist, I tend to place the most positive value at the end. For example:

Selfish→Generous. Naïve→Wise. Self-doubting→Self-trusting.

The value on the left is where you begin.

How Timelines (Not Outlines) Can Help

To anchor a story we need the beginning (what used to be?), the end (what is now?) and a turning point in the middle (what happened to make things different?).

Even a loose timeline like this one can help writers work toward the end, while leaving the middle loose and open. That way we can find surprise in the twist and turns of our stories, the ways we get to the ending, while the ending itself remains a beacon guiding us to finish.

And then, like my daughter in her raccoon story, the only work left is to fabricate the middle—in other words, to play, play, play!

How do you know where a story must end? Share in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Think of something you KNOW to be true about yourself. Then ask: “Was this always true?” “When did it start being true?” These questions will help you to reach an ending portrait, and you will know from there that the beginning must be different. Sketch a timeline with the ending point, then work backward. Set a timer for fifteen minutes minutes: write the ideal ending that you know to be true.

When your time is up post your practice in the comments section to get feedback from your fellow writers. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers. Good luck!

This blog post is adapted from the workshops in my book The Creative Year: 52 Workshops for Writers.

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