Start With An 'Emotional Trigger'

Spilled Ink Issue 83 Jul, 2010

“To get started, write whatever you feel most strongly about or the part of the story you most want to write. This is your emotional trigger.”

How do you start that story you want to write?
It’s a question that has plagued human kind since prehistoric times, when our cave dwelling ancestors pondered were to start inscribing the images that make up the stories they wanted to tell (before writing). In the accompanying illustration, a piece of Himalayan rock art, how did the Ancients decide when and where to begin the message? ...whatever it is.

Say you’ve just returned from ‘The Great Himalayan Trek!’... ‘A Trek to the Top of the World!’ ... ‘The Trek of a Lifetime!’, or however the trekking agency brochure has hyped it. You’ve been there, done that, and now you want to write about it. Where to begin? Raymond Martin, in his Writer’s Little Instruction Book: Craft & Technique (quoted above) advises beginning at one of two points, either with some strong image or idea derived from the experience, or with some other aspect of the topic that you want most to write about. The best way to get started, Martin says, is by launching your great essay with an “emotional trigger”.

I’ve recently conducted research on a popular artist’s work. I took pages of notes, and came away with so many potential stories that I’m not sure where to begin. For one thing, she often paints dogs into her art, which suggests a potential story line; but, how to start it? During one interview, I was struck by something the artist said: “I’ve never met a dog I didn’t like!” Now, there’s an opening line (even a great title), a catchy ‘hook’ that’ll both start me off and should attract readers. And, it has a certain emotive feeling to it.

I may change the beginning later, but for now that’s where I am with the story. Of course, it helps if the readers also like dogs. And that tells me that I could send the story to a dog or pet magazine, or to the ECS magazine editor who is planning an issue on pets or animal art.

Back to your trekkng story. Ask yourself: What was the key event? Was there an emotional highlight? Did something truly remarkable happen? Was it something your guide said, or that a porter did? Was it the Yeti tracks you found in the snow? Or what went through your head when you fell and twisted your ankle...? Was it the view from the top of the pass? An afternoon quietly observing a puja in a mountain monastery? The alpine glow on a towering peak one evening? Or, a meal you ate in a villager’s home? Any one of these things may have triggered a strikingly emotional feeling, a ‘must-tell’ moment. If so, start there.

You can always change it later, for how your story starts and proceeds will ultimately be guided by where you publish it and what the readers like. And, you may have to satisfy a
demanding editor. But, in the meantime, if just getting started is your problem, forget (momentarily) the readers and the editor and concentrate on how to kick start the story. This is where the advice of writers like Raymond Martin comes in handy. Begin with an “emotional trigger”, something that especially excites you. Re-writing and polishing will come later, and will be all the easier if you’ve got something good, something emotive, to start with.
Good writing! 

Don Messerschmidt may be contacted at