How a story starts

“What Form It Will Take” by Roxana Robinson

I start out with a particular moment that I find troubling, or compelling, or devastating. Sometimes it’s a moment that I’ve been part of; sometimes it’s something that I’ve watched happen; sometimes it’s something I’ve heard about. That moment itself is always drawn from life; it’s always a moment that I find deeply disturbing. If it’s powerful enough, then I need to write about it.

My task then is to write a narrative that will make that moment become as powerful for you, the reader, as it was for me, the writer. I must describe a landscape, introduce characters, and create the action as it unfolds, but all of this is directed toward the creation of that last vivid moment—difficult and breathtaking—that I found so compelling.

This is often how it starts for me as well. Not always, but often.

It’s like the eye of a storm. Everything else can swirl around in chaos — characters, setting, plot points, language. It can all be thrown about, changed, destroyed. But what’s at the center, that emotional core, that’s where you as the writer have to stand and stay and make your home. That’s where you have to bring the reader. Into the heart of it all.

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  1. Reminds me of Howard Hawks’ famous explanation of what makes a great movie: Three great scenes, no bad scenes. It’s those great moments, those true moments, that carry the reader (viewer) through everything else.

    There are a lot of things to mock in the movie of Les Misérables, for example, but when Anne Hathaway is singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” singing about all the things that women still suffer today, two centuries later (as she pointed out when she accepted the Oscar), and I’m bawling like a baby — at that moment the rest of it doesn’t matter that much.

    • Aw, haha, I really like the new Les Mis movie… But I totally agree with, and love the philosophy of, “three great scenes.” If you have strong pillars, you can build all sorts of things on/around them.

  2. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to explain that thing that anchors the whole story together. This puts it into words, so thank you! My own process makes more sense now hehe

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