Why I Begin with the End
Two things need to happen before I write a story:
1. The seed, the spark, the idea. This usually involves a character and a conflict.
2. A resolution for that conflict--somewhere I'm going with the story. This resolution often changes as I write, but I must have a destination. I need an end to the story before I begin writing.
As a teacher, I plan backwards. I have to know what is on the test before I design the lessons. If I want students to be able to do skill x, they need to be taught skill x and have time to practice before they are assessed on their ability.
The same is true (for me, at least) in writing. A seed idea is fantastic, but if I don't know what kind of "plant" it will produce (how much space it might need to grow in the garden...how much sunlight...how much water), the story has no future. How long will the story be? How many characters are involved? How will I help my protagonist out of her/his problem?
If I start a story without an ending--a general destination at least--I might fall into one of the traps common to writing...the bad twist-ending (good twists can work, but only in the hands of master craftsman) or the deus ex machina. I'm using the definition of deus from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms here:
Key words: improbable (reader goes WTF?), contrivance (i.e., wonky invention that doesn't fit with the logic of the story), and convincingly (the reader believes that the event is possible)
The term is now used pejoratively for any improbable or unexpected contrivance by which an author resolves the complications of the plot in a play or novel, and which has not been convincingly prepared for in the preceding action...
No author, even those able to pull off the best twists, uses improbable, contrived, and unconvincing endings. Period. The end of the story must fit the world you've created in the story. If it doesn't, it shows...like a bad make-up job on an organ-grinder's monkey.
Do I change my endings as I go? Most of the time. Stories often surprise me. But I have an ending in mind as I start to provide a sense of momentum to the story, a sense of the "knot" (or initial conflict) unwinding as the reader progresses. And the protagonist must be involved in the untying of the knot. I believe this is true in all good fiction (at least fiction I want to read).
O. Henry made a name (a pseudonym, har) by writing stories with ironic endings...but stories such as "Gift of the Magi" are set up by their beginnings. The ending doesn't come from "left field" or is lowered into the story by a machine. It works because the story moved toward that inevitable, even if unpredictable, conclusion through the actions of the characters.
I can't begin without an ending in mind. What about you?