You feel moved to write about a particular subject, and soon you have some paragraphs, maybe even pages. They may recount an anecdote, or describe a particularly evocative setting, or profile a unique character. How do you develop this writing into a story? How do you begin your journey into the zero draft?
Take a close look at what you have written for evidence of tension.
Can you find a hotspot in your paragraphs—the heat caused by the friction of forces working against each other? Any hints of opposing values, needs, perspectives? Conflict can be lurking in relationships between two people, in the behavior of a single individual, or in the divisions of your own mind. Poet W. H. Auden once defined poetry as the “clear expression of mixed feelings,” and stories emerge from similar uncertainties and tugs-of-war.
If your writing so far only recounts a pleasant vacation, or a happy memory of childhood, or the cuteness of puppies, invite yourself to give equal time to the other side. Vacations never go off without hitches; childhood is fraught with disappointments; and puppies poop where they shouldn’t. Tension is the truth.
Stories happen around hotspots, the point where flow meets resistance, where a pattern gets disturbed, differing needs meet head-on. These spots generate the energy to move the narrative forward purposefully, either through external action or internal reflection. They make us ask the question, “What’s going to happen next?” Tension seeks resolution.
You wanted to lie on the beach; your partner wanted to be doing something strenuous every minute. Your mother always had to throw in a critical remark. No one could be counted on to take the puppy to obedience school. Once you’ve identified a hotspot in your initial writing, make it your focus, your touchstone, and begin again. It will guide you through the trackless middle to the reassuring if provisional, end of your zero draft.