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What Starts a Story?

There are many doors into a story. I’ve heard writers say they start with character or an image from the plot. Both are great jumping off points. But I do things a bit differently and it has some surprising benefits.

I start with the world.

Where will I take the reader? What milieu, what setting, what geography?

In science fiction this question has obvious utility, since you’ll want to deliver a rich, imaginative environment. But it’s also a good question for mainstream stories, whether set in a circus (Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen), 19th century India (The Far Pavilions, M.M. Kaye), or the arctic (The Terror, Dan Simmons.) Place is not just backdrop, but a vivid entity that can become as central to your story as the characters.

Even Garbage Is a Starting Point

We’ve heard before that setting is important. But beginning your story search with the locale can kick-start the whole creative process. Recently I read an article about the great Pacific garbage patch, a gyre of marine litter the size of Texas. I immediately began work on a post-apocalyptic short story that became “Cast Off World.” It was published in Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction and will appear in Year’s Best SF 16.

When you open yourself to the power of place, you find stories tied to numinous landscapes, rich milieus and intriguing messes like garbage gyres. Why is this?

Landscapes Challenge Characters

If stories are driven by conflict, then how excellent if the very milieu offers opposition to your character. Instead of directly flogging the plot for conflict, put the character in a frozen landscape, a crippling social environment, or a terrifying political hierarchy (for the latter, think Shogun.) Trouble and tension ensue.

In Wolf Hall, the 2009 Man Booker prize winner, the fates of the characters are decided in the stultifying audience chambers of the English nobility. You may marry the king or be beheaded. Or both. The plot is dependent upon time and place: the religious and societal turmoil of 16th century Tudor court. No wonder people love historical fiction.

But the triggering place doesn’t need to be a well-known, pre-cast world. You can make it up.

Beginning with a Tunnel

For my quartet, The Entire and The Rose, I began with place. I asked where a galactic-scale story could happen if I didn’t want to use space travel. The answer

came: a parallel universe. Fine, but still bland. And then the triggering idea: what if the universe had a shape? Thus began my discovery of the Entire, a tunnel universe with walls and a lid of fire for a sky.

After this insight, the other story pieces cascaded into place. It seemed as though there was an Entire, and I was uncovering its history. Who built the place? Why? Who enters this universe as a stranger? Who is motivated enough to grapple with the immense political forces? If it the Entire is infinitely large, how do the inhabitants travel? What culture would have evolved?

Some characters will be especially challenged by being strangers in a specific place. These folks make excellent additions to your cast. Also, you may find that certain characters must exist in your milieu. If the world is as big as a galaxy, and if the mode of travel is upon a never-ending river, wouldn’t there be a special role for river pilots? Let’s call them navitars. Are they slaves, power-brokers, or half-mad seers? Fun stuff. And it started with the world.

Landscapes Shape Characters and Plot

Once you let your imagination loose on setting, you begin to see how profound it can be. Desert, mountain, sea, an island of garbage . . . these places spawn life-views, attitudes and cultural imperatives. Therefore, culture, too, may flow from place, from the very geography. In Dune, the culture arose from the desert, as surely as the prickly pear cactus from our own Southwest.

And so on, down the basic components of story, all springing from the soil, the terrain and the unique physicality of place.


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