The book channel /

Find Your Way Into the Story

I got the writing bug, aged seven, when I wrote a hoaky poem about the robin on our apple tree. My parents were ecstatic, so I decided to be a writer when I grew up. You could say my ambition was seeded through a slavish desire to please. By eleven I’d written a novel, about a Jewish girl called Anne whose father runs an inn in a place called Bethlehem. It was very holey (That’s how I spelt the word.) In my early career, I did loads of jobs: washing up in canteens, typing invoices for a shipping company, working as a security guard at a motorcycle show (That was fun! See The London Eye Mystery for how the experience made it into fiction.) I scribbled off-and-on, but an early attempt to write a children’s book (all about speaking insects) didn’t sell.

Then, I found a wonderful job with the writers’ association PEN, working to safeguard human rights around the world. This should have made me despair, given the terrible things that people often do to each other, but it didn’t. Instead, I was inspired by remarkable stories of courage. I met people in terrifying situations, displaying humour, pragmatism, and independence of thought.

This experience prompted me to give my own writing another go. What resulted was A Swift Pure Cry and The London Eye Mystery. The protagonists in these stories aren’t human- rights-heroes in the conventional sense. They are ordinary people, living in England and Ireland, who find extraordinary ways to overcome the difficulties in their lives. And for me that’s the essence of any good story: it’s where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.

There are many ways to start your story. The trendy way these days is to start with a bang. For example:

Ten seconds before the bomb went off, Rhiannon was checking her make-up in the polished glass of the optician’s window.

If you want to be seriously trendy you can kill Rhiannon off and have her become an angel on a special mission. Or you could save her, maybe she remembers the bus she has to catch and runs, just out of the penumbra of the explosion?

Call me old-fashioned, but often I prefer to be eased into a story, not clobbered into it. My favourite stories have unique and wonderful characters, openings that start to build on these characters right away. Think C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader (“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”). Or Jane Austen’s Emma (“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.“) You’re subtly hooked by wanting to know more about horrid Eustace and irritatingly flaw- less Emma. Will they have a come-uppance? What form will it take?

Here’s a story starter that also focuses on character-building:

Jenny Bliss threw open her bedroom window and sniffed at the pungent, country morning. Bluetits tut- tutta-tutted. In the back field, the lambs sounded as if they were being strangled. The dead-end road that ended at the farm where she’d lived all her life ribboned back around the mountain, disap- pearing into the blue beyond. ‘Another day down,’ Jenny thought, scratching her tiny, upturned nose. ‘One thousand, two hundred and forty-eight more to go and I’m out of here.’

You could continue the story or try writing your own opening…

Siobhan Dowd