Starting from scratch
I’m getting ready to begin outlining a new novel, so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where ideas come from and how we develop them into something rich and compelling.
Everyone has a different process, and everyone’s process changes as they learn and mature as writers. I know when I first began writing, I’d get hit with an idea (“oooh, shiny!”) and immediately start writing with absolutely no thought to plot, conflict, change, character arcs, or really anything else. I’d just roll with it.
For some authors (so-called “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants without an outline), this process works great (Stephen King is reportedly a pantser). But as I learned more about writing, I began to feel paralyzed by all the things I now knew I needed to make happen in any given story. To shake free of this deer-in-the-headlights feeling, I had to start doing more planning and now I’ve become something of a plotter (outlining in advance). Maybe when I gain greater confidence, I’ll shift back towards pantsing again. Who knows? Developing and writing a novel is a pretty fluid thing, and whether we’re pantsers or plotters, our ideas and writing typically evolve and morph as we go.
None of this really answers the question, though, of where we start. You’ve got an idea. Maybe it’s a particularly vivid image, or a character’s voice yammering in your head, or some thoughts about a great adventure, or a setting you’re just aching to flesh into a whole world. Whatever it is, you have to take that idea and blow it up like a big balloon, filling it with air and making it buoyant and whole.
Where does that first big breath come from?
Do you start with your protagonist, developing them from a few scratched ideas on a bar napkin into an ambulatory, reach-out-and-touch you creation, or do you start with plot, with the events that will sweep that character up and change their life forever?
So far, in my writing, no matter what my kernel of an idea is, I tend to start with character, then world, then plot. It’s hard for me, at least at this point in my career, to devise a twisty, compelling plot if I don’t have a handle on the person it’ll most effect and the setting in which it’ll take place. So I spend a lot of time working on that character. What’s his/her backstory, how did they get where they are and what advantages and handicaps has that given them? What about their family, their friends, their lovers? How have they supported, undermined, or betrayed them? What does the character look like and how do they think? What are their quirks and tics?
Often the answers to at least some of these questions are tied pretty intimately to setting. The world we live in and the culture we’re a part of have a huge impact on how we think and act. Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me, but I pretty much can’t create real-seeming characters if I don’t have at least a partial handle on the world they inhabit.
All that work, and still I’m only poised at the gate, fingers hanging above the keyboard, waiting to type sentence one. Like a champagne bottle corked and ready to blow, I’ve got this whole character (and usually a grip on several secondary characters) and world-building just bursting to get out of my head and swan dive into an adventure. Only then do I plunge into the plot. Or maybe I just start writing and use a “pantser” method to find the plot.
Maybe, though, I’ve got it totally backwards. Maybe my process is leaving me hamstrung and playing catch up, putting my characters through their paces in a story that’s limp and unstructured.
I’d love to hear from all of you. Where do you start? When you sit down to write that first sentence, how much planning have you done and what kind of planning have you done? Do you start with characters, with world, or with plot? And how does that choice effect the way the rest of your process (and your novel) unfolds?