How Do You Write a Story?

The Little Man knows that I am a writer, and the other day he asked me, “How do you write a story?” I gave him a paternal smile. I’d been waiting for this question for a long time and was eager to answer it. I said, “Well, a story has three parts, a beginning, a middle, and an ending.”

“Yeah, but how do you write a story,” the Little Man repeated. “How do you know what the beginning is?”

“Well…” I said, my smile beginning to fade, “you, um…” Here I faltered. I realized that I was giving the Little Man the theory. But he wasn’t asking for theory. He could care less about theory. What he wanted to know what how I wrote a story. And that question is much harder to answer, mainly because I don’t really know the answer.

Here is what I can say about how I write a story:

1. It usually takes two independent ideas for me to get started. At least, that’s the case with stories I consider to be successful ones1. One idea is rarely enough. Two ideas, floating about separately, but coming together unexpectedly is like the flint and steel that creates a spark. When I have that spark, I’m usually ready to get started.

An example of this is my story “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown.” I had an idea that I wanted to write a story about a woman playing professional baseball. That idea by itself wasn’t enough. At the same time, however, I had a strong desire to write a Sports Illustrated-like long-form profile. I wanted, temporarily at least, to be a baseball writer like Roger Angell. It occurred to me that maybe I could write a story that read like a profile—and that the profile would be about a woman who played professional baseball. The result was “Gemma Barrows,” probably my personal favorite of all of the stories I’ve published.

2. I usually have an idea of how I think the story will end. Generally, when I start writing a story, I have some notion of how I think it will end. This is not always how the stories ends. Sometimes, things drift off in unexpected directions. But I’ve found that it is easier for me to get started if I have some target to aim for—even if ends up being a moving target.

3. I usually have some sense of how I want to tell the story. This is a combination of the tone of the story, the voice I want to use, and the structure.

4. I fidget a lot at the beginning. This is the part that is almost impossible to put into words. My favorite description for writing a story—the one that most closely matches how I work—is something Stephen King has said. He describes stories as “found things.” They are like fossils buried in the earth. A small piece is visible to you at the beginning. You slowly begin digging around it, uncovering more and more of the fossil, revealing its secrets as you go. But even I don’t know what that fossil is or looks like until is it fully revealed.

The act of uncovering that fossil is almost impossible for me to describe. About all I can say is that I fidget a lot at the beginning. As I try to find the direction that the fossil is buried in the earth, I flounder. The story is little more than fragments in my head. I’ve uncovered only the smallest sliver of petrified bone. But as I flounder, and dig, I can start to see more and more of it, and eventually, I can see the whole thing.

5. I tell myself the story first. All of this floundering goes into the first draft. I am telling myself the story so that I know it. Once I know the story, I can try to make it interesting to readers other than myself.

6. I rewrite the story. My second draft is always a complete rewrite. I have the first draft on one half of the screen, and a blank draft on the other half, and I begin the process of rewriting the story. This time, however, I’ve told myself the story. I already know what happens. I know that a thing that happens towards the end, might be made even more significant if I add something toward the beginning. This is my favorite part of the writing process because I take the story that I’ve told myself, and dress it up. I imagine it is similar to the raw footage taken for scenes in a movie, that are ultimately edited together, with special effects and a great soundtrack thrown in to produce the final effect.

Once the story is finished, proofread, and sent out, I want to have little to do with it again. For me, the thrill is in the process of creation. Once the thing is finished, and out in the world, it is, in some sense, no longer mine. Readers will add their own interpretations to it, and what I have to say about it matters little. At this point, I am already seeking out the next set of ideas that will spark another story.

  1. My definition of “success” is a story that I ultimately sell.