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Writing Tips: How Hemingway Starts A New Story

This is from Quora, which is turning out to be a source of inspiration for writing, even.

http://www.quora.com/Whats-the-best-way-to-start-writing-a-great-short-story/answer/Graeme-Shimmin

I wanted to keep a record of it here, in case I ever lose this.


There’s a trick that I can share with you that I got from Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway – there’s a guy who could write a story.

Start Writing like Hemingway
Hemingway! But Hemingway was a genius! He won the Nobel prize for Literature for good­ness’ sake!

True, but even he used to find it dif­fi­cult to get star­ted on a story.

What chance have we got, when Hemingway struggled?  Well, some, because we can learn from the master.

This is what Hemingway said he did:

Sometimes when I was star­ted on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sput­ter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always writ­ten before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sen­tence. Write the truest sen­tence you know.”

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

One True Sentence

The idea that what you need to do to get started is write One True Sentence is one that lots of authors and story the­or­ists have used and found to work:

  • Ernest Hemingway called it one true sentence.
  • In Story, Robert McKee calls it the con­trolling idea.
  • In The Art of Dramatic Writing , Lajos Egri calls it the premise.

But they’re all talk­ing about the same thing. What they’re talk­ing about it is:

What you are try­ing to say.

Call it the truth, call it the con­trolling idea, call it the premise, what we need to do is think about what we want the reader to come away from the story believing.

We want to change their mind.

That’s the ques­tion, you see: what do you pas­sion­ately believe? What makes you want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them until they agree with you? That’s One True Sentence.

No idea and no situ­ation was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical con­clu­sion without a clear-cut premise.

Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing

And because it’s your story, you can meta­phor­ic­ally grab the reader by the shoulders and shake them until they listen.

Storytelling is the cre­at­ive demon­stra­tion of truth. A story is the liv­ing proof of an idea, the con­ver­sion of idea to action. A story’s event struc­ture is the means by which you first express, then prove your idea… without explanation.

Robert McKee, Story

So that’s the thing to think about. Don’t worry about char­ac­ters yet, don’t worry about set­ting, don’t even worry about plot. Think about some­thing that you think is true. Write it down. Make it the truest thing in the world.

Write One True Sentence

You think you have problems writing? Imagine trying to write on this.

A Problem (and an Opportunity)

I know what you’re think­ing: grabbing people, and shak­ing them? They will hate me if I just go on a rant about ‘the truth’ like some crazy per­son. That’s true. If we write a story that just expresses our One True Sentence the story will be what we call ‘preachy’. Preachy is not fun because it aban­dons the core of storytelling – con­flict. That’s the problem.

But we aren’t done yet. There’s also an opportunity.

The Sentence of Doom

Now we have our One True Sentence, it should be easy to write down the exact oppos­ite. Write the most evil thing you can think of. Write some­thing False. Write a Sentence of Doom.

Now we are get­ting some­where, because if our story shows One True Sentence in oppos­i­tion to a Sentence of Doom then it will have con­flict — and con­flict is what stor­ies are all about.

Personification

Robert McKee makes a good point at the end of the quote above — “prove your idea… without explan­a­tion”. That’s sim­ilar to the clas­sic writ­ing advice — show don’t tell.

The One True Sentence doesn’t go in the story, and neither does the Sentence of Doom.  They’re some­thing we write down and refer to. What we need to do is per­son­ify the con­flict by intro­du­cing some characters.

We can use the archetypal char­ac­ters from Archetypes that Make Your Story Resonate to per­son­ify our story. Probably the Protagonist is on the side of Truth and the Antagonist is on the side of Falsehood. Or per­haps the story is more com­plic­ated? It’s up to you, but start think­ing about how the characters can per­son­ify the conflict.

Plotting

So we have our One True Sentence, our Sentence of Doom, and our Archetypal Characters to per­son­ify both sides of the story. Now we can start to think about illus­trat­ing the con­flict. To do that:

Something Happens

The something that happens is the plot.

Plot is a huge sub­ject. Writing Spy Fiction with an Unputdownable Plot starts to help us think of a plot.

Examples

Here are some examples of One True Sentence in spy fiction:

There’s no moral high-ground in espionage.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carré

Wake up Britain! Germany is becom­ing a threat!

The Riddle of the Sands , Erskine Childers

Spying is a ridicu­lous thing.

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene

Note two things:

  • The One True Sentence is never expli­citly stated in those books (althoughThe Riddle of the Sands comes pretty close). Their truth is shown, not told .
  • You might not agree with any of those book’s One True Sentences, but that’s not the point. The authors believed them and set out to prove them.

Start Your Writing with One True Sentence

So next time you’re star­ing at a blank screen, or the wall, or out of the win­dow, don’t despair.

  • Think of some­thing true.
  • Write down that One True Sentence.
  • Then start to think about how you can use storytelling tech­niques to illus­trate that truth. How can you prove that truth to the world?

Now you are think­ing about how to write the story, not what to write about.

And that’s bet­ter than just star­ing at a blank screen, isn’t it?

BTW: If you’re just starting writing your story, you’ll want to know what software you really need – so here’s a list of the tools I use: Published authors: What software do you use to write your books?

And for related tips on how to write the end of your story see Graeme Shimmin’s answer to What are the best endings in fiction and why?

Originally published as ‘How to Start Writing a Story‘ on Graeme Shimmin: alternate history and spy thriller writer