Every act of creation begins with a first impulse that things could be different. Small acts catalyze movements and monuments, placing a single word or stone on another until a larger structure emerges. This, too, is how we write.
What is often intimidating about writing a novel is finding one’s way into the story, determining the right place to begin not in terms of chronological or narrative time but in terms of giving that first amorphous blur of the story tangible form. Beyond the initial story kernel—a dynamic setting, a physical sensation, an image of a character performing some action for reasons unknown—the shadows of a larger plot can often be seen but not fully grasped. As with all fragile, gestating things, the kernel must grow before it, or the larger structure connected to it, can manifest.
Before I wrote the book that would become my debut novel, I had an image: a child who, faced with the trauma of displacement, tells herself a story to survive. Rather than diving into what I sensed could be a novel, I first explored that kernel in the more intimate space of a short story. This allowed nuances of theme and character to surface before I began drafting the novel. The short story form continually beckons our attention back to the details, making it an excellent teacher of precise language, of painting tone, and of showing us how the smallest, subtlest moments can reveal character and theme.
Starting with a short story allows for the freedom to play, push, and explore before a novel’s plot is nailed down. The short form can also support a more delicate, detail-focused story engine, and beginning this way often helps to bring that focus forward into a novel. After all, the reader’s experience consists of a series of focused moments, sensory details, a felt sense of the characters’ internal and external states that possesses an almost physical weight. By nature of its brevity, the short story form directs our attention to these elements. This is useful regardless of whether the short story itself ends up in a finished novel or not. Like the mechanism behind the face of a watch, so much of a novel is hidden but necessary material.
So, where to begin? Focus the lens on the story kernel, the image of that single potent moment. These initial images often have movement to them—the cold rush of salt water, a character bent over an unseen object, the shattering of glass. Open with a sentence that captures that movement, that inherent tension. This is key: the kernel must have tension.
From there, explore the moment that first drew you to the idea. Capture the tone. Capture the voices of the characters, their dialects, their accents, and their pet names for their loved ones. Capture the dynamic motion that is present in even the smallest of moments. Let this sensation of movement guide you. Motion is an indicator of tension, and tension will lead you to the essence of what the kernel is, why it matters, and whether it can sustain a larger structure.
Flesh out this scene into a short story, ensuring that the spark of tension has shifted something crucial in your characters. If the idea is suitable for a novel, it will not conclude cleanly or firmly in the context of the short story. Conclude the short story instead at a natural pause, a moment of clarity that opens new questions. It will feel more like a comma than a period. This is all right.
If your story kernel compels you toward a novel, expand your field of vision slowly, building on the delicate short story mechanism to create a larger engine. What brought the character to the water, to the object before them, to the shattered window? Where must they go from here? Once the skeleton of the novel’s plot begins to form, write this as a short story, too—a bird’s-eye view of the novel’s landscape. Starting with this shorter form will help to balance tension and intimacy as the story builds on itself, allowing the novel to remain both rich and focused.
In writing as in life, there is the world in our hands and the world we cannot yet see, and we bring the two closer together every day that we rise and tug the pieces of our lives into a slightly different conformation. This is how we build our writing and our world: one small act of creation at a time.
Read Jennifer's short story "Orchard Street Tenement."
Jennifer Zeynab Maccani is the Syrian American author of The Map of Hopeful Broken Things (Touchstone/S&S 2018), a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers, and a Montalvo Arts Center LAP Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere.