If you’re an inexperienced writer who endeavors to create a novel or short story and are unsure of how to get started, I would advise putting your characters to work. Give them jobs. The reason why is because jobs allow you, as the author, to address the two most important elements of successful storytelling: character and plot.
How many people do you know who allow themselves to be defined by their jobs? How many have work personalities distinct from who they are away from the office? The truth is what people do and how they approach the act of doing it allows great insight into their morals, values and motivations. As a storyteller who aims to build deep, three-dimensional characters, you should know how crucial occupations are to your work. Researching various disciplines also trains you in a core pillar of craftwork: specificity.
Through researching how people in the same field as your characters accomplish their jobs, you’ll find the details you need to create convincing scenes. In fact, right from the outset of your story I would advise that you set your characters to work. The benefit of doing so is twofold. First, it forces you to create a scene. No matter if your protagonist is an emergency-room surgeon or a wallflower secretary, by making him or her do something you urge the story forward. You also quickly allow readers to see what motivates the people they’re bound to spend several hours with.
Even if your story is not set in a work environment, I would still encourage you to force your characters to engage in an activity. If they’re in the woods, get them to build a fire or set up a camp site. If they’re having dinner, make sure to hone in on the physical nature of the meal. In the short story “Mr. Sweetly Indecent” by Bliss Broyard, the author opens the tale — which is about a daughter confronting her philandering father — with a scene in a restaurant that utilizes the act of having dinner to effectively dissemble the plot. When the narrator calls the wine “immature” and condemns it for having “no staying power”, she is commenting on her dining partner rather than evaluating the quality of the vintage.
In “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, Ernest Hemingway opens with his protagonist, Robert Jordan, at work, plotting his attack on the Spanish hillside. Urgency exists in Jordan’s questioning of the guide who helps him decipher the map that he hopes provides the location of the bridge he intends to blow up. Such an approach drops the reader in the middle of the tale at a dramatic moment in the plot. It also reduces the risk of the author backing into the story. When a writer starts the story earlier in the arc than he or she should or tells too much about the characters without allowing readers to get to know them and their motivations, the story suffers.
Creative writers dissemble their narratives by moving from scene to scene. A sure way of getting a story headed in the right direction is to begin with an episode that includes action and a sure way of doing that is to tack into the activities, occupations and disciplines that identify our characters.