The following is personal advice mixed with a heavy dose of professional advice from Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing) and Stephen King (On Writing). As an active member of the writing community, I often see writers tossing out a familiar question: how do I start? While my general advice is to direct people to the two aforementioned books, I also recognise that writers feel so anxious about their work that they rather have the quick response and get back to work.
Here I want to take the wisdom I collected on the question and provide a shorter version to satisfy that curiosity – then compel writers to regard the details of Egri and King’s advice to deepen their understanding.
Important to note is that the advice refers to writing fiction and plays (the latter is Egri’s specific focus, though he acknowledges how it applies to prose). Other writing, such as screenwriting, poetry, and short stories involve their own craft – being skilled at one does not translate to another.
Remember, this is personal advice and I do not have the expert credentials to implore anyone to abide by what I have to say, other than to appeal to Egri and King’s expertise, but I have confidence as a developing writer about several things. One of them is that all these forms of writing are unique. The Dunning-Kruger effect provides me enough literary basis to acknowledge that I have no talent or skill when it comes to poetry. The elements and composition are not the same as prose.
Likewise, if one is the sort of writer who views “short story” and the chapter of a novel as something interchangeable, one does not understand the artistry of dramatic writing. Elements are the same, but the composition differs as the writer wields the elements in their particular medium.
The short answer to the question is: begin by writing. Just write. Do not even write the prose if you feel unprepared, write notes about the story. Write individual scenes, do stuff out of sequence – just write.
Just know that this alone will not result in the final product you want. Why?
What every story (or play) needs is a premise. This is not symbolism or themes; all of those things will play their respective roles later. The premise is also not a question. This is a thesis statement rather than a hypothesis, and every single detail of the story will revolve around it.
An example of premise courtesy of Egri: Intolerance leads to isolation. The whole of the novel or play will surround that simple statement. Egri provides this example in the context of the Gwethalynn Graham novel, Earth and High Heaven, in which a young Gentile woman falls for a Jewish man and her wealthy, intolerant father intervenes in every way to prevent it, forcing his otherwise devoted daughter to choose between the men and isolating him.
The setting, the characters, the action – every conceivable detail of the story serves that premise. Anything that does not serve that premise is fat that one must trim from the story, perhaps the most painful part of the writing process. One sometimes hears about this with filmmaking, too, where a director discusses a scene they enjoyed but had to cut because it did not serve the film in a meaningful way.
The importance of premise bears repeating again and again and again. I observe other starting writers discuss things like this wonderful cast of characters or incredible situations they imagined and how they intend to turn that into a novel. This in and of itself is not a problem; there is no one path to developing a premise and it’s quite possible to start with an interesting idea or character.
What does not work is building a list of stock characters and contriving a generic plot in which they will act. No writer will sustain an audience’s attention with the piecemeal prose that results. Such a story would lose all tension as the prose shifts focus to serve one idea and then another, rather than all ideas working together towards one common goal.
Character is of course important to the story, but only insofar as the character’s relation to the premise. With a premise determined, the protagonist of the story is a character who must champion that premise. Remember that the protagonist is not necessarily a hero – they are not necessarily anything except that which pushes forward the action of the story.
As such, the relationship between protagonist and premise must be indivisible. Egri takes great care in his work to describe the makeup of a character and it corresponds to premise. Two people in the same situation will approach the situation differently based on their background: are they wealthy, educated, intolerant, insecure, confused…The character brings to bear the perspective of that character in such a way that they cannot possibly do anything but drive forward the story.
Put another way, if the character arrives at any crossroads and has a reasonable out, a perfectly natural reason to abandon the story, then the writing will fail. The character must either take the out or the writer must resort to some lazy, unconvincing explanation as to why they stay.
This is the sort of thing that happens when a writer has “a great idea for a character” and “a great idea for a story” but no real sense of how they interact.
By all means, determine and develop that amazing character – but then also determine a premise with which that character works. There are many paths to discovering the premise, and that is why one should write and write some more.
The second bit of advice is courtesy of Stephen King and relates directly to the first:
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot…
In addition to making sure to write, also take the time to read others’ works. It will serve a role similar to that of having someone critique one’s own work. Read what others have done and ask questions of it. What works about it? What does not work about it? The story is not keeping your attention – why?
Dig deeper into details of the story that a young writer might not consider. Look at how other authors structure their sentences and paragraphs. Great writers I know employ devices that are less obvious to traditional analysis. Any fourth grade English class will teach a child how to determine symbolism or foreshadowing.
Note how a writer might transition from short, quick sentences to ones that linger; from wordy, descriptive paragraphs that change the pace of the story. Is an otherwise narrative-heavy piece suddenly focused on dialogue?
Like a brilliant filmmaker, none of this is accidental in a great work of prose. The author made a choice to compel the reader to feel something about the writing. Does the reader feel anxious for the protagonist? Perhaps that has as much to do with the hurried, short sentences as it does the description of an anxious scene.
A personal favourite is to regard film adaptations of familiar stories. I enjoy this because an adaptation is not the film version of the book – not when done well anyway. A filmmaker is also an artist, one with elements, skills, and craft unique to their medium. When they compose a piece of literature on film, they take the inspiration they felt from said literature and translate it. Thus, for any given adaptation of a novel one might experience a unique premise.
That’s right, while the events and even thematic tone of the piece may remain the same because of the influencing source material, different filmmakers might take the same novel and apply to it a unique premise that reshapes the entire story. The liberties that some audiences see a filmmaker take with their beloved literary characters are not choices driven by a misunderstanding but rather by the necessity of having the adapted version of the character serve the premise of that particular adaptation.
A brilliant example of this is the recent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women by Greta Gerwig. I invite any writer serious about their craft to compare and contrast the way Gerwig handles the material with the way Alcott did, with the way Gilliam Armstrong did in 1994 or Georke Cukor in 1933 or Vanessa Caswill in 2017. Plot points are the same but observe how different each feels and examine that as a writer. How might one’s own adaptation of that story look? Take what is known and dissect it to learn.
This is all simple but profound advice: write and read, a lot. I highly recommend both of the referenced works for a deep dive.
What I described about premise was meant to satisfy that impulsive curiosity – where do I start writing? The answer is wherever makes sense for you to develop a premise. Lajos Egri’s book goes to brilliant length describing what is meant by premise (and a good one), how to get there, and how to orient the story around that.
King likewise provides exceptional practical advice to writers to begin elevating their stories to higher art. It serves to explain how to use one’s craft in such a way as to relate that incredible story in one’s head to the reader in a compelling way.
Any fool with basic literacy can arrange words on a page to describe what happened. If that even amounts to storytelling, it will not be compelling or interesting. What separates great writers from the rest is mastery of craft, and these two books will help one start down that path.