Sometimes writers overthink story beginnings, when the more important thing to do is start writing (because you can always revise).

The following sentence pattern is an easy way to start any story and get you writing.

“I am ______place where you are________.”

I use this pattern all the time to start writing. The benefit is that it’s generative. Once you write where you are, the next sentences beg you to say what you’re doing, what you see and hear, and so on.

Here’s an example, from right this moment:

“I am at home, sitting at my office desk. It’s nearing midnight. My wife, who took on a cold two days ago, sleeps fitfully across the hall.”

This is already the bare bones of a story. If I change the point of view to third person (and do some light revising), I have material that might be the beginning of a fictional short story:

“He sat at the desk in his home office, the clock nearing midnight. His wife, who took on a cold two days ago, slept fitfully across the hall. Coughing and sniffling, she woke herself up twice, and both times called him to come to bed.”

I don’t know who these characters are yet, but I’m on my way to finding out, all because I started with a simple sentence structure.

It works for nonfiction too, maybe even more so. After attending a conference for a magazine client, I started the recap like this:

“I’m in Las Vegas at the PPAI Expo, standing in front of a makeshift stage. The executive chef of a well-known meat company is demonstrating how to grill the perfect steak. First he sprays a nice cut of meat with oil, then shakes some seasoning from a canister on top. Then he throws the meat onto a preheated electric grill (manufactured by another well-known company). After a moment, the smell of grilled steak drifts from the stage to my nostrils, and I am suddenly hungry.”

Next Steps

Let me break this down even more.

I started forming this process one Friday in a bookstore. I was flipping through a food magazine, and one of the stories started with the “I am _________” construction.

I went to a coffee shop to write. These are what my notes looked like:

  • I’m in a coffee shop in Del Ray.

  • I ordered a Colombian pour over coffee

  • I’m at a coffee shop in Alexandria, Va., sitting at a table made of reclaimed wood and trying to guess how many other freelancers are here with their laptops and phones.

  • I’m at a coffee shop in Alexandria, Va., sitting with my laptop at a table made of reclaimed wood and waiting for my order to be ready.

  • I’m at M.E. Swings, a coffee shop in Alexandria, Va., sitting with my laptop at a table made of reclaimed wood and waiting for my order. Swing’s is authentically hipster (a ) in that it is truly old and new at the same time. The brand is XXX years old, founded in XXX by XXX . But there’s nothing about an old commercial roaster. It’s the brand that’s authentic. The name, the values it stands for, etc.

In five short iterations, I found a center, a real scene, at least enough of one to get a story started at least.

Notice that each iteration gets progressively more detailed, and some iterations rely on different details than others. So the sentence construction is really just a launching point. The real exercise is to start noticing things. This is a good practical way to do it. (If you are not practicing but actually working on an assignment, this means taking great notes.)

Writing Exercise

Where are you right now?

Write it down like this:

“I am _____________”

Keep writing.