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Defeating the blank page

Copyright C. Lindsay 2020

Getting started is the hardest part of writing. Many times I’ve typed out a sentence and then deleted it because if it isn’t grabbing my own attention then it is certainly not going to engage a reader. After many years of angst I realised the problem wasn’t so much in the sentence it was in my own expectations; I was trying to achieve the impossible by getting it right the first time.

Robert Graves reportedly said, ‘there’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting’, and he’s right. The second draft is always better than the first, and the fourth is better than the second. Expecting any part of your piece to be spot on right from the start is unrealistic. But you’ve got to start somewhere, right? So, let’s boil it down. In its simplest form a narrative is just a character in a place experiencing thoughts and emotions through interacting with their surroundings. Turning this into words is difficult, but it can be helpful to combine the elements of character, feeling and setting to start getting some ink on the page.

  1. Making the connection between character and motivation:

There are four basic ways you can explore a character’s motivation. He/she is:

  • Going towards something positive (e.g. Getting married)
  • Going towards something negative (e.g. Going to war)
  • Going away from something positive (e.g. Leaving family to go on a long journey)
  • Going away from something negative (e.g. Leaving prison)

Deciding on this before you write will set the tone for your entire piece, the opening included. A character going towards something positive in life will be joyous, and this should be reflected in the language you use. Conversely, a character going towards something negative could feel anything from mild anxiety to outright terror. Going away from something positive could lead to a feeling of regret, whereas relief is more applicable to going away from something negative. Of course there are endless possibilities. Once you know what your character is feeling it will be easier to present him/her in words on a page.


  1. Putting the feeling in motion

Once you’ve got a motivation in mind you can put the character in a place and have them moving in relation to their positive or negative – then draw a simile or metaphor out of the method of transportation. This is easier than it first appears. Every form of transportation has a sound, moves at a particular speed or has a shape, and all of these things can be compared with something else either as a simile or metaphor, or even just a simple straightforward comparison.

Here are some examples using the wedding, war, journey, and prison ideas I introduced above. I have provided a sample sentence and an explanation of the techniques that I used. Note that the explanatory sentence is a good example of the kind of thing you need to write in your reflection of MOD C response. 


‘The clipity-clop of the four white horses in front of the carriage was still not as fast as her heart, which throbbed under the lace of her wedding gown.’

Here the words ‘carriage’ and ‘wedding dress’ are enough to set the scene. More importantly, the sound of the horses’ hooves described as being slower than the bride’s heart creates hyperbole that conveys the joy of approaching something so positive.


Going to war:

‘The landing craft cut through the waves like a bullet before stabbing itself into the Normandy coast; as German bullets felled the men on either side of him Tom’s face went as white as the sand.’


Here the words ‘landing craft’, ‘Normandy coast’ and ‘German bullets’ are enough to set world war II as the context. The movement of the landing craft is described in simile as a ‘bullet’ and the language of violence is continued in ‘stabbing’. This imagery of violence makes Tom’s terror understandable and accessible to the audience as he is thrust into this horrible experience.


Going on a long journey:

The wings of the plane spread out over the tarmac like those of an enormous predatory bird, and Sarah was quickly swallowed as she boarded. Fastening her seatbelt, she looked out the window and let her eyes rest on the world she was leaving behind. ‘This is not the end’ she told herself unconvincingly, ‘this is a beginning’.


Here the words ‘plane’ and ‘tarmac’ set the scene as an airport. The simile is simple, matching the wings of a plane with the wings of a bird, but making it a ‘predatory’ bird and extending the metaphor with the word ‘swallowed’ hints at Sarah’s anxiety regarding the journey she is taking.


Getting out of Prison:

‘The words “Department of Corrections” was written on the side of the bus, but to Andy it was a rocket blasting him onto the surface of an alien world where skirts were shorter, haircuts were more expensive and cars were everywhere – he was ready to explore.’

The bus becomes a rocket to another planet, which helps to convey how strange the outside world is to a prisoner who hasn’t seen it for decades. The metaphor is extended by describing Andy as an explorer.


This method gets you off and running with both plot and characterisation, and it puts you immediately in the mindset of ‘getting literary’ by using similes and metaphors. It might be the sentence you keep, but as your piece evolves through various drafts you might come up with something else. Regardless, the most important thing is that the page is no longer blank.  


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