Where does a story start? Well, on the first page, you may say. But that’s not quite true: while that is technically the beginning of the narrative as far as readers can see, the beginning is rarely the true inception of the story. And as far as time is concerned, there is one thing that precedes all else as the true beginning of the story.
We start with a scene.
As bizarre as it may seem, many great stories started with a snapshot of the real story. Before George R.R. Martin wrote his famous A Song of Ice and Fire series, he was focused on his current science fiction novel named Avalon. During this stage in his writing career (in fact, while writing the third chapter of said sci-fi novel) he pictured a scene: a young boy seeing an execution and meeting direwolves. This simple scene would not be expanded upon until later, and eventually became the prologue to A Game of Thrones.
Lewis described that he saw scenes from his books first. Before Narnia ever came into existence, he had a vision of a young schoolgirl standing under a lamp-post in a snowy forest. This provided him the basis for his much-beloved novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
And it kind of goes without saying that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the line “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” on a blank test (God bless the student that turned in that blank test!) years before The Hobbit was written. And it wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings that his career really took off. Well, where did it start? In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.
In a way, writers are almost like the mythical prophets that they write about. These glimpses into future stories are almost like prophetic visions (you can feel better about skipping work because you had a vision if you construe it like this), and writing stories is like chronicling a prophecy. Pretty neato, eh?
But what’s a vision without an interpreter? After all, one line or one scene is not a story, no matter how awe-inspiring it may be. That scene has to be expended on, developed into a reasonable narrative. We’re not only fantastical prophets of the divine; we’re scientists and artists. Whatever magical nonsense your creative side might cook up must be tempered with the logical craft of your writer side.
But ’nuff said, it seems that you need to have a to develop one single scene into a story before you can sell it. But the main problem about people who see scenes from uncreated movies or books is that they don’t need to be a writer for it to happen to them. George R.R. Martin was already well-established as a writer when he got the idea for his famous novel series, but Tolkien was a university professor. He had to learn the craft of writing fiction the hard way.
Well, perhaps you’d like to dip your toe into the world of writing. Maybe you’re convinced you’ve got the world’s next bestseller locked up in your noggin. You may be an experienced writer with 50 or so novels written. Whoever you are, I’m here to help you translate that single scene/idea/line into a consistent narrative that you can build a story out of.
The key here is questioning. Tolkien immediately started questioning the line he had written on the blank sheet of paper: What is a Hobbit? What does his hole look like? Why does he live in a hole and not a house? Is it “a” Hobbit or “the” Hobbit? If there are others, where do they live? Is a Hobbit sentient?
These are natural questions…and ones that you must ask your own idea. Say you get the glimpse of a scientist, eagerly bending over a microscope and writing things down. But he’s completely oblivious to the horrifying alien monster that’s creeping up behind him, casting a giant dark shadow against the wall.
Hold on. What’s the monster doing here? Who is the scientist? What does the monster want with the scientist? Is the monster an escaped lab rat or an alien assassin, sent to destroy the scientist’s work? If the monster means ill towards the scientist, will he escape alive? If so, how?
Well, let’s say that this scientist’s name is John Dawson, and he’s researching this alien species called the Vek’vinn. Right now, he’s on the verge of an important discovery, so he’s not paying attention to what goes on around him. But before we get to “what does the monster want with John Dawson”, several more questions spring up: So what’s Dawson’s background? Who are the Vek’vinn? Why is he researching them? What is he discovering about them that’s so important?
Before you go on to answer the next question, stop. Answer the sub-questions before continuing: it will cause the next questions to make more sense. So let’s say the Vek’vinn are a recently discovered alien race by the NER (National Earthlings’ Reserve) and they’re all over the news. The media is demanding we know more about these aliens, so the military caves and allows John Dawson to study the Vek’vinn, most of whom are captured and imprisoned aboard a space station orbiting Neptune.
But, of course, this opens up more questions: The National Earthlings’ Reserve? What’s that? Is that a form of advanced humanity? If so, how far into the future are we? Do we have ray guns and star cruisers? Usually around the 3rd level of questioning you get into the grittier parts of world building, but by now you’ve pinpointed what things have to be explained to your reader.
So once you’ve answered all of that, you can see about the next question: What does the Vek’vinn want with Dawson? Well, if we’ve properly answered what a Vek’vinn is (a reptillian, humanoid-type creature with four spindly arms, two legs, and almost human eyes. They sit around most of the time and don’t appear to have a spoken language. Oddly enough, their physical mannerisms, tendencies, and clearly-marked sex are strikingly human, raising questions about their origins), we know what it wants with Dawson: it wants to know more about him.
And so we come to our first plot point. Why would the Vek’vinn be sneaking up on Dawson? How did it escape? It was locked up! Well, the government needed to pull the plug on their experiment, so they decided to turn the Vek’vinn loose in hopes that they’d kill Dawson, and then they set the space station to self-destruct.
At this point, it’s very confusing. Procedure? Ask more questions! What is the government trying to cover up? Their secrets concerning these experiments. What secrets? That the Vek’vinn are really the result of abducted humans, changed through vile experimentation. Wait, wait! This all ties back to the cruise ship that was supposed to have been blown up a few months ago–the ship that had Dawson’s wife on it.
The humans on that ship were, as it turns out, taken by the government and experimented on to create the Vek’vinn. But when a group of the aliens escaped and alerted the media, the government had no choice but to allay their suspicions by letting Dawson on board the ship to study the alleged aliens.
But they never wanted Dawson to discover anything: six months in, before he discovered anything important, they initiated their protocol to release the Vek’vinn on Dawson, whom they assumed would be killed, and afterwards explode the station, thus terminating the last of the press’ questions by saying that the Vek’vinn had gone extinct.
But Dawson slowly starts to figure out the mystery, piece by piece. That big discovery was going to be the thing that linked human DNA to a Vek’vinn’s biological structure, but once again we come full circle: back to our original scene. So the transformed human sneaking up on Dawson (female, by the way) doesn’t mean him any harm, but wants to learn from him. Dawson is, of course, terrified when he turns around, but the Vek’vinn makes humanlike signs to Dawson that she means him no harm.
They’re able to further communicate through writing, and Dawson discovers that the entire station’s inmates have been freed, and they’re rioting. Their minds have cracked under the horrors of flesh transformation, and they’re angry at the government who did this to them. They’re dead-set on killing Dawson, but the Vek’vinn woman wants to escape the space station with Dawson (by now, I think you can deduce who she really is). They’re able to narrowly escape the murderous Vek’vinn (who, over the course of six months, have degenerated in to less-than-sentient states) and flee across the stars, back to earth.
So you may think me a magician. I did, after all, pull all of that from a metaphorical hat (a single scene, literally one sentence). But really, all I did was answer questions. As soon as I hit the part about describing Vek’vinn, I really started to “heat up”, and the rest of the story followed.
While you may never see a book on this (I will not lie, I really considered it for 1.98375 seconds), I hope you see how easily a fictional universe and narrative can be extracted from a single (seemingly random) scene from one’s imagination. Writing pro tip: the “theme” for my writing above was strongly influenced by the alien film District 9. If you pick a piece of art to mimic in style, you’ll find that a lot more original ideas will naturally flow to you.
And I’m sorry to have burdened you with an incredibly large article. But, as you can see, when I’m on a hobby horse, it’s pretty hard to get me off. Hopefully I’ve illustrated that a good, complex story can evolve from a simple scene in which two or more things of note are happening.
And remember, it always starts with a single scene.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!