Before the story starts

This week’s prompt is “what are your favorite writing exercises.” Like physical exercise, they all sound like great ideas, and maybe we resolve to get up at six a.m. and create a new and regular habit because we know how good it is for us, and so we do–for three days in a row. And then we fall off the yoga mat or stair stepper or elliptical. Here is a writing exercise that I did once, in which I found undisputed value (attributed to author and presenter Katherine Ayres).

Unless we’re talking about Tristram Shandy, the story of your novel starts in the middle of someone’s life. Everything that has happened up till then has been formative in some way, obviously with some events more important than others. The trick of this exercise is to create the biography of your protagonist up to the point where the story opens. For practice, Katherine asked all of us to make a list of the 10 most important/memorable events in our own lives to date, and then create a one or two page autobiography, finding the aspects of self that are revealed through these events. For instance, when I was about four years old, I took a pair of pink plastic scissors for safely cutting paper dolls and trimmed off my two-year-old sister’s golden curls, which were the admiration of all. She stood patiently in her crib while I did it. I swore she gave me “permission,” and that’s all I remember of the event. However, in my family, the story is legend. What it reveals about my younger self, I leave that conclusion to you, dear reader.

To achieve depth and resonance and appropriate motivation, your protagonist should be as real to you as your self. Therefore, you need to know at least the ten most important milestones or events in his or her life. For the novel I was working on at the time of Katherine’s workshop, I did, in fact, sit down and make such a list for my protagonist. And then as I wrote her biography, her character emerged more fully and I understood where she had come from and what made her the way she was today. I knew a lot more about her relationship with her twin. Some of the verbiage I developed in the biography went straight into the narrative when it became relevant, as if it already existed and wasn’t being written to plug a hole. It was almost magical.

I don’t know why I can’t make myself set the alarm and wake up and do this every time. It’s so good for me.

This post first appeared on The Lucky 13's blog 9-Nov-2012.