This is a common question, and usually what the person asking wants to know is: Do I start with an idea, a character, an image, a plot? Do I start with a setting? A theme? Or perhaps a conflict?
The truth is, while a novel must contain all of these elements, it doesn’t much matter where you start. Perhaps a better question is: How much do I need to know about my story before I start writing it? And the answer is: That depends on what sort of writer you are.
There are four main types of writers:
1) The word builder – doesn’t know where she’s headed but painstainkingly reworks each sentence until it’s perfect. She won’t precede to the second sentence until she’s happy with the first, won’t precede to the third sentence until she’s happy with the second, etc. (This kind of writer is rare indeed, but amazingly, she does exist. Not surprisingly, it can take her a very long time to finish her story.)
2) The intuitive writer – doesn’t know where she’s headed but fully trusts her intuition. She has such a strong, innate sense of storytelling that no planning is required. She begins her novel with no idea of the twists and turns it might take, or where it will end. She constantly surprises herself, and allows her characters to surprise her too. (Ursula Dubosarsky, a wonderful children’s and YA writer, works this way.)
3) The detailed planner – knows exactly where she’s headed for she has planned out every chapter before she begins. This writer will rarely deviate from her well thought-out plan – she knows before she starts that this story works. There are no surprises. (Writers who work this way usually finish their novels quickly. This is the method used by the very accomplished and prolific writer Morris Gleitzman.)
4) The relaxed yet focused traveler – has a strong idea of where she’s headed, but doesn’t know precisely what she’ll encounter on the journey. Somewhere between the intuitive writer and the detailed planner, this writer may know how the story ends, but often discovers twists and turns along the way. (Most writers, myself included, fall into this category.)
While I can’t tell you what you need to know before you begin, I can tell you what I need to know – and this will be true for the majority of writers.
Before I begin, I need a concept – but what is a concept?
I’ll use my own book, Dancing in the Dark, by way of illustration.
I want to write about dance: that’s an idea, it’s not a concept.
I want to write about religion: that too is an idea, it’s not a concept.
I want to write a book about both dance and religion: still an idea – a strong idea, perhaps, but not yet a concept.
I want to write about a girl from a very orthodox Jewish family who longs to take ballet lessons but for religious reasons, her parents don’t let her: we’re getting closer, but it’s still not a concept because I can’t see a story here, not yet. I need to know how her parents’ refusal affects her, how she reacts. If she accepts their refusal, there is no story.
I want to write about a girl from a very orthodox Jewish family who longs to take ballet lessons, and when her parents refuse their permission, the girl begins to dance in secret, and is soon caught up in a web of deception. Now, that’s a concept. I can see the story – I can see the girl sneaking out to class, lying to her parents, wrestling with her conscience.
A strong concept suggests a story. It suggests character, plot and theme.
Once I have my strong concept, what else do I need before I start to write my story?
I need names for my main characters – the sooner I name them, the sooner I can get to know them.
And I need a voice. I need to know who is telling the story. The protagonist? A third person narrator? Someone else? (With Dancing in the Dark, I wasn’t sure whether to tell the story in first person or in third – I had to experiment to find out what worked best for the story.)
If you’re the kind of writer I am, then you too will need, at the very least, a strong concept and a voice before you begin.
But only you can know whether you’re a word builder, an intuitive writer, a detailed planner, or a relaxed yet focused traveller.
Trust yourself, and let your story emerge.
NB: To “unlock the story within you”, I recommend The 90-day Novel by Alan Watt. It contains some great advice, tips and techniques (though I don’t necessarily recommend trying to complete a novel within 90 days). I also highly recommend Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.
About the Author
Robyn Bavati lives in Melbourne, Australia. Dancing in the Dark is her debut novel. Her next novel, Pirouette, will be out in November.
Check Out Robyn's Webpage
Like Robyn on Facebook
About the Book
When Ditty Cohen first sees a ballet on TV, the beautiful, gravity-defying dancing captivates her.
She’s instantly connected to the graceful performers, realizing her passion is to be a dancer. There’s just one problem: Ditty is from an ultra-orthodox Jewish family and her parents forbid her to take dance lessons.
Refusing to give up on her newfound love, Ditty starts dancing in secret. Her devotion to dance is matched only by her talent, but the longer Ditty pursues her dream, the more she must lie to her family. Caught between her passion and her faith, Ditty starts to question everything she believes in. How long can she keep her two worlds apart? And at what cost?
DANCING IN THE DARK is the dramatic, inspiring story about a girl who discovers the trials and triumphs of pursuing her greatest dream.
Buy DANCING IN THE DARK on Amazon
Find DANCING IN THE DARK on Goodreads