Friday, May 22, 2009

Why I Begin with the End

Barry Napier planted the seed with a post about deus ex machina ("god from a machine"), KV Taylor watered the garden with a a nod to Hitchcock, and now I add my nickel's worth to the discussion. (it was two cents but inflation kicked in)

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 much 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:

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...

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)

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 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?


Katey said...

And that's what I mean about knowing what you're doing. Perfect!

Man, sometimes I start a story without really knowing where it's going, but then once I figure it out I invariably go back and re-write everything before I figured it out. Anything before that it just a writing exercise.

Anonymous said...

I start with endings the majority of the time. For me, endings are usually the most important part of a story (when I'm reading anyway), and if a book or story ends badly, than it taints the rest of it for me. I just have a hard time writing, if I don't know where it's going. This isn't to say that my endings turn out like anything that I had planned, just that I did in fact, have one planned in the first place.

Aaron Polson said...

Katey - I think some writers "fall down" because they don't go back and rewrite to fit where the story went. Make sense?

Samantha - I've heard some editors gripe that short story writers are notorious for lousy endings. I'm glad to hear others care about these things, too.

Barry Napier said...

The novel that made me write the post, Broken Skies, began with the ending. It took me forever to come up with a beginning, actually...

Alan W. Davidson said...

When I'm running with my initial idea for a story I try to get the entire thing in point form on a single page (yes, the ending too).

I am in agreement with Samantha that the story often ends differently than the initial plan.

Cate Gardner said...

Sometimes I have an ending and sometimes I don't. I prefer it when I do. I wrote an entire book where I didn't know how it was going to end and boy was that ending bad, bad, bad.

Jamie Eyberg said...

Many of my short stories have no ending in mind, but because I work from a very rough outline for longer works I know where they are going.

Although, sometime the best laid plans are soon foiled by a surprise that you can't foresee.

Fox Lee said...

Nine times out of ten, I start with a character. By figuring out their personality and interpersonal relationships, I map out the story in my head. When everything else is done (mentally) I ask myself, "And where is this going?" Based on my conclusion, I either write the story or move on to another idea.

For example: "Relentless Sodomy: The Musical!" is based on a picture of a guy holding a broom.

L.R. Bonehill said...

I usually have the last line in my head right from the off, hopefully something with a strong impact. The difficult part is then building towards that with some kind of cohesion.

I’ll also have key phrases or images that I try to use as anchor points for the rest of the story.

It’s definitely all about a strong ending though.

K.C. Shaw said...

I'm bad about not knowing where a story is going when I start it. With novels, there's lots of time to work the plot out as I go (although usually I have a pretty good idea of how I want it to end), but with stories I have to know right away or the end isn't so much an end as a stop. Those are the stories that get retired before they see a slushpile, usually.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

Good advice...I often get stuck at the "OK, what happens at the end" part. I could definitely work on my ending skills.

Jodi Lee (Morrighan) said...

Most of the time, when I sit down to write I've got nothing but a title, or a single character in mind. Everything goes from there.

I'm thinking I should take one of my shelved projects and try working it backwards. Maybe that'll help!

Thanks, Aaron!

Katey said...

Makes perfect sense!

Also, I do the same thing Natalie. Starts with a character before anything else. Neat!

Danielle Birch said...

I usually have something in mind and its interesting because I started a story recently without an ending in mind and still have no idea how to finish it.

Robert said...

With novels, I think it's good to know where you're going. Harlan Coben once said it's like taking a cross-country drive -- you know where you're starting and where you want to end up, but you don't know how you'll get there and what will happen along the way.

Now with short stories ... Charles D'Ambrosio once said that if he knows how a story will end, he'll stop writing or try to take it a different direction. Mostly because if he knows how the story is going to end, he'll start leading his characters in that direction and the whole thing becomes inorganic. Or something like that.

So ... different strokes for different folks.

Carrie Harris said...

I start with a beginning and a general idea of the ending, but mostly I do character work. I figure that if I've got a compelling voice to start with, half the battle is done. What happens to that voice can be jiggled and niggled until it's interesting.

I just like saying 'niggled.'