Writing Question: What Comes First?

What gets you running to the computer, ready to start a new piece? Every writer is different, and even for a single writer, inspiration may strike in different ways for different pieces. We asked the Odyssey graduates to talk about how their story ideas usually develop, and what element of the story is most important to them.

In what order do you normally come up with the various aspects of your stories? Which of the following comes first, second, etc.? Theme, idea, plot, character, something else?***

Larry Hodges, class of 2006

I’m basically an “idea” writer. Until Odyssey 2006, pretty much all of my stories started with an idea or situation, and I then worked out the characters and plot together. At Odyssey, I realized that since I can come up with story ideas on just about anything, I could start with a theme, then come up with an idea or situation using that theme, and then develop the plot and characters. That led to stronger stories.

Starting with a theme and/or idea doesn’t mean you should not worry about the characters. Once I know what the story is about, I try to spend a lot of time developing unique and interesting characters that fit into the story. Often the characters take charge of the story themselves, something that might not happen if I tried to develop them too strongly in advance. In my novel Campaign 2100, I’m still flabbergasted that the most vivid, memorable character, Feodora, started out as an undefined bit character, but she took over every scene she was in, and I ended up with four major characters instead of the planned three. I had to send her on trips just so the other characters could get screen time!

I just went over all of my stories (LOTS!!!), and I only have one story where I started with a character–“Counting Sheep.” In that one, I started with an autistic character who endlessly and obsessively counted sheep and never slept, and went on from there, making it up as I went along. Predictably, that story took many more drafts to finalize than just about any other story, and the ending changed about a zillion times.

Cherie Wein, class of 1999

Sometimes the title pops into my head, and I write a story to go with it. Other times I get a picture of a character or a setting, and I write a story to go with them. I might picture a scene with a couple of characters, and then figure out the backstory and what happens afterward. So I have no particular order to any of them, except when somebody tells me, “Go and write a story about such-and-such.” Then some of the elements already exist, and I have to think up the others to go along with them.

Susan Abel Sullivan, class of 2005

My stories seem to start from a variety of places, although I never start with theme, and I don’t remember ever starting with plot. Plot is something that tends to evolve as I write.

Of my more recent stories, I tend to start with “what if” questions the most often, followed by the first line of the story or poem popping into my mind complete and unbidden. Sometimes I’ll know the end of the story first and start there, working backwards. And my novel began with character.

Examples of “What if”:

* The Girl Next Door (short story) – What if a psychopath sent the girl next door a wooden advent calendar? And what if the little compartments contained human body parts instead of candy?

* Acts of Intimacy (short story) – What if an orthopedic surgeon got his jollies from touching the bones of his patients during surgery? What would drive a doctor to such a compulsive perversity? Even though this story started with a “what if?” question, it also started with the end of the story.

* The Accidental Poet (short story) – What would happen if a high school kid could get revenge by writing limericks that came true?

Example of first lines:

* Dead Letter Dogs (poem) – “I mailed my dog to a dead man.”

Another example of starting with the ending:

* Finding the Way Home (short story) – A couple have a ghost dog that only they can see. How did this come to be?

Paul Schilling, class of 1999

With the trilogy I’m writing now, it started with the setting, but that poor solar system just sat there in my head until I realized what story would fit it best: two characters from two worlds falling in love, followed by a plot carefully thought out to keep them in close physical proximity and emotional distance until the obvious climax. Two other novels are named after the main characters because they were the reasons I wrote the books: then came the plot. All the rest were idea novels: second came the characters and the plot just came as I wrote.

Curiously, the character novels came out of my fingers faster than most of the idea novels. I suppose the more vivid the character, the easier the other decisions come to me.

Amy Tibbetts, class of 2004

I always start with setting. It’s what interests me most and appears most vivid to me. My settings are based on historical times & places but with fantasy (magical or alternative) twists. My characters follow closely after the setting. I like character-driven stories, so once I’ve decided which setting I want to write in, most of my energy goes into the characters. Plot & theme have always been hard for me. My stories used to go nowhere. But since I’ve been studying plot and not allowing myself to start writing until the outline is done, it’s been much better.

Ellen Denham, class of 2006

I suppose most of my stories start with a “what if,” for example: What if you could rig up a machine to make somebody’s larynx sing after their death? Or, what if someone with a verbal tic (maybe borderline Tourette’s syndrome) had a stroke that affected their speech, leaving them only able to repeat a seemingly meaningless phrase? I start writing from that premise. In the first draft, I’m more interested in exploring the “what if” and seeing what results. I maybe have some plot ideas to start with, then I need to choose a POV character and start writing. Usually I don’t know the ending when I start. Typically, the ending I come up with doesn’t feel right.

Then, it’s time to consider theme. What do I really want to say with this story? Often I can pull one or more possible themes from what I’ve already written, but I have to decide on what the main focus is going to be. I rewrite the story accordingly. For example, the one about the woman who had a stroke (not a genre piece) ended up being mainly about family relationships. The protagonist felt she’d never again be the “cool aunt” she’d been to her niece and nephews. I decided that the theme was that you’re still the same person even with a disability, and people who love you will eventually recognize this. Then, I had to rewrite the story to get in much more about the niece and nephews and cut back on other things.

I’m not sure how well my method works, but it’s definitely much better than pre-Odyssey when I didn’t do much consideration of theme!

*** =  Question submitted by Larry Hodges.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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