Character, plot or pace – which one comes first?

One of the most difficult issues a new writer faces is to know where they should begin their story. Creative writing books often advise that a story, whatever its length and genre, should begin at a point where something is happening. Ideally the protagonist, your main character, is facing the essence of drama – a conflict. I agree, but what is essential is that the reader should begin to establish a relationship with that character so that they want to read on to follow them on their journey through the story, to what will hopefully be a satisfying ending.

The initial conflict provides a situation, which brings out aspects of their character that should appeal to the reader as they face their dilemma. The background to these is the place – the setting. This will help set the era, the physical aspects – the stage – against which the characters are performing on the page.

A common mistake is to open with too much explanation about their character’s life before the current situation. This means the reader may become bored before they understand who the protagonist is and become interested in them as a person who they can relate to.

Every writer will be inspired differently by people, places and plot to create that spark, which drives them to convert an initial idea into the first gripping page of a novel.

For example:-

Phoebe’s Challenge: Phoebe is a young woman who works in a mill with her younger brother, Thomas. The idea for the opening was triggered by an illustration in a children’s book written about the hardship of life in cotton mills at the turn of the nineteenth century. I then created the evil overseer Benjamin Bladderwell as the main reason why it became imperative that Phoebe escapes. I liked the idea that the plot would become more complex if a mysterious stranger helped them. Without giving any spoilers away, this then broadened the whole plot out into the world of smuggling around the bay towns of North Yorkshire, England. A time when we were  at war with France. From here Phoebe and Thomas’s adventure involves more conflict amongst the different social classes and a life and death chase with a man who they do not know if they can trust. Over the pace of the adventure another thread is layered, that of the developing romance.

From one initial idea, others spark until what is created is a tightly written romance or mystery to be enjoyed. Wherever my initial idea comes from for a story, I always aim to take my readers on an adventure which will end at an optimistic point, where the main character has overcome problems and survived.

I am always fascinated to hear how other writers work, published or not. What inspires you to write? Where have your best ideas come from?

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