You come up with an idea. You sit down to write. An hour or two later, you scrunch up the paper or switch off the computer in disgust. Or you’re already halfway through a story and don’t know where to go next. When I first sat at the computer to begin a psychological thriller, I had no idea of the difficulties in store.

Choosing an Opening

I began with a repetitive dream, perhaps one of the most difficult starters because of the tendency to overdo things by pumping up the fear factor. Not only was the dream untypical of repetitive dreams, it didn’t actually tell the reader much. When I took the work to a novelist group, a member suggested opening with the first inciting incident where a young married couple return from a New Year’s party and the wife, an artist, thinks someone has tampered with her painting. The wife is correct, of course, but her husband thinks she’s overreacting. The rationale and back story took a long time to sort out and I ended up with an entirely different story. I experimented with a number of openings, finally settling for a short dream in present tense – an option I wouldn’t normally recommend. I settled for this option because I believe it’s the best way of beginning this particular story.

Openings are a real headache. In my opinion, people shouldn’t worry too much about the opening sentences at first. It’s better to continue writing until you have a basic draft to work with. Then, you can go back over the draft and select a few possible starters.


My least favourite part of the process. In writing dialogue, the writer has to give the impression of real speech without recording it word for word. Each speaker also needs to be distinct. I try to hear the characters’ voices and accents when I read back over the manuscript. At some point, I made the decision not to print off large sections of dialogue until I’d had the chance to read the sections again a day or two later. It’s amazing how muddled dialogue can get on a first attempt. Not to mention, all the shrugging, smiling, grinning and laughing people can do in one chapter. Generally, writers should stick to “he said/she said” and avoid the use of other attributive verbs because these distract the reader from the purpose of the speech. Also to be avoided are unnecessary adjectives – for instance, he said quietly, she said angrily. The speech itself should reveal how the character speaks.

Dialogue has to travel from an opening point to a finish through a process of development – again, difficult to pull off. Making a few notes away from the computer helps keep dialogue focused. In particular, you should ask yourself what you are hoping to convey in the section you’re working on.

Loss of focus after a few chapters

When I first started, the story soon became chaotic and unbelievable. Add to this, the overwriting and clumsy punctuation. Nowadays, I jot down the relevant story questions after every fifty pages of work and I constantly refer back to the notes.

Many stories pass through eight stages:
The starting point (“stasis”).
An inciting event (“trigger”).
The central character’s search for an answer, an object or a person (“quest”).
A succession of obstacles preventing the character from achieving their aim (“surprise”).
Decisions the character makes (“critical choice”).
The consequences of the choices (“climax”).
Consequences of climax (“reversal”).
Aftermath/New Stasis (“resolution”).

In thrillers and crime, the central characters should be driven by conflict, both external and internal.

In my earlier drafts, the main character went to the police when she suspected someone was coming into her home – a course of action most people would take in real life. As I reworked the back story, I realised the character couldn’t go to the police because of a secret in her past. Instead, she is forced to turn to an elderly family friend, someone she doesn’t fully trust. Here, we have three sources of conflict – the disturbances in her home, her past secret and her distrust of the elderly friend.

To discover sources of internal conflict, write biographical notes for each of your main characters in first person, paying close attention to areas of their lives that draw a blank or produce a particularly strong emotion. Mark these areas and go through each one separately, making further notes. You now have your sources of conflict to work with.


9 thoughts on “Creative Writing Headaches

  1. Thanks for the feedback. I made many errors with back story when i started, but tend to have a clearer idea these days. That said, its better not to plan too much at first.

  2. In an earlier writing course I discovered both the ability and the tendency to use dialogue to propel the storyline along. As long as the reader has a clear idea who’s speaking, the ‘he said/she said’ thing can practically be done away with. One way to do this is to replace ‘he said’ with some action the character is doing. Few people stop doing everything just to chat while standing stock still.
    You can check to see if the dialogue ‘works’ by reading the passage out loud, or better yet, have a friend role play it with you.

  3. First, thanks for visiting my blog. I’m going to add you to my blogroll is that’s all right.

    Second, two notes on dialogue (I understand what a frustration it can be). A: I find that we speak in a cadence. The first thing I do is something Phyllis sort of mentioned above: I “hear” the lines. Say them out loud. If it breaks off awkwardly, I rewrite it. Since you appear to also be a musician (did I read that correctly?), I imagine you grasp already what I’m talking about here.
    B: I’ve started doing a writing exercise of sorts when I need inspiration, or as a way to plan dialogue. Simply, I write in dialogue only. Just write the parts of the conversation, without all the actions and the “he saids”. Once you have the dialogue itself down, then add the action in around it, as you see fit. It doesn’t work on every occasion, but it may help if you get stuck in the planning.

    Great blog. I’ll be checking back often.

  4. Thanks for the reply, r2streu.

    The musical training really helps with dialogue and all aspects of the writing. I’ve spent a lot of time editing and tapping the pen to each syllable – this gives a feel for the rhythm and pulse.

    Thanks again. I’m planning regular articles on writing and music.

  5. I really connected strongly to this post – I work very similarly.

    I tend not to worry about the beginning until at least second draft stage – that way I know my main character more intimately and what’s important to them. I tend to try to start with a scene that demonstrates either a point of change for them, or the weakness that will ultimately be challenged in the story etc.

    And like you I struggle a bit with dialogue! So important, but so hard to make it truly sing. You have some good strategies though. I think writers tend to be quite sensory people – I know ‘hearing’ the conversation play out in my head and visualising the characters move and interact helps me enormously.

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