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Beginning At The End

One of the best writing tips I’ve heard for novelists goes something like this: “Know the ending before you start.”

I love that. It just makes sense. That’s not to say there isn’t other ways to write a novel. I know many authors take the “go where the characters lead” approach. But it just seems much easier to know where you’re going before you start.

With A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh took that approach, which he explained in an interview with The Paris Review in 1962.

INTERVIEWER

Have you found that the inspiration or starting point of each of your novels has been different? Do you sometimes start with a character, sometimes with an event or circumstance? Did you, for example, think of the ramifications of an aristocratic divorce as the center of A Handful of Dust, or was it the character of Tony and his ultimate fate which you started from?

WAUGH

I wrote a story called The Man Who Liked Dickens, which is identical to the final part of the book. About two years after I had written it, I became interested in the circumstances which might have produced this character; in his delirium there were hints of what he might have been like in his former life, so I followed them up.

As I’m still reading the book, I obviously don’t know the ending, but it sounds like things don’t go well for Tony.

He ends up in bad shape and Waugh took on the task of determining how a wealthy aristocrat from Britain can wind up half delirious and nearly dead in a Brazilian jungle.

Sounds like a pretty good story, eh?

The TV show Lost did a great job of this a few years ago. After season three (by far the worst season), the directors came out and said the show would end after season six.

Lost had an expiration date, and I think that helped them move the plot forward, though some of you might disagree with whether it had a good ending or not.

Anyway, if you’re a writer, I think it’s a great idea to follow Waugh’s approach.

Begin at the end.

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve written both ways — knowing the ending and just letting the characters lead me. I have to say I enjoy the latter way better, for myself. I enjoy reading books that surprise me and not ones with the predictable ending. I guess this is why I would rather write and let the characters tell me where we are going.

    Like

    November 1, 2012
    • Very cool. Do you have a sense of where the novel is going and how long it will take to get there?

      Like

      November 1, 2012
      • Not really. I’m not in “novel” territory yet by any stretch of the imagination. Some of my short stories have gone longer than planned simply because I didn’t feel like the character was “finished”.

        Like

        November 1, 2012
  2. When I started my first book (still in-progress but close to done), I was a pure “pantser,” just following my characters around…which meant that after 300+ pages I STILL had no idea where the story was going! The story came together only after I decided how it would end. So now I’m outlining book #2 and guess what my notes to myself include? “Still need a real climax.” Arrrgh! But no worries: it’s early yet. I’ll figure out that ending and the rest will fall into place (until I get to the actual writing and the characters refuse to do what’s been plotted out for them!). 😉

    Like

    November 1, 2012
  3. This is so interesting to me. I love reading what authors are thinking about probably more than what they dream up and write. Who they are, can make what they write about, that much more interesting.

    Like

    November 1, 2012
  4. Actually, I agree with both approaches. I think you should let the character lead the way while having a good idea of where you want the story to go. Otherwise, you could end up 60k words into your novel with no idea of what the story is about. (undisciplined characters sometimes make huge plots which are almost impossible to get out of) The next thing you know, your novel has been living in your laptop unfinished for an entire year…or more. So I say, let your characters do the walking, but every now and again, when they start to go astray, giv’em a little nudge to set’em back on the path.

    Like

    November 1, 2012
    • I like this idea. I am currently writing a story and just letting the character lead me. In the past, I have tried to know the end. When I do that, I end up planning the middle too. Then I get bored and never finish. So for me right now, letting the character lead is giving new life to my writing. I will be remembering this as I let her lead though. Thanks!

      Like

      November 2, 2012
  5. Rob #

    I remember an interview where John Irving said he never starts a novel until he knows the final sentence, and that so far that sentence has never changed on him in the final version.

    Like

    November 1, 2012
  6. John Irving is indeed one of my favorite authors as well, and you are right. He is very clear about ending before beginning. I’m working on a novel, and following Irving’s example, my last line is: Who knew openmindedness could be so sexy? (please don’t be tempted to life my little gem of a sentence–it’s all I’ve got to hang my hat on right now).

    On my blog, I just did a blog titled, The End, Begin Again, about reincarnation in the movie “Cloud Atlas.” Check it out if you get a chance. http://www.michaelanson.wordpress.com

    Like

    November 2, 2012
  7. joeafiala #

    Interesting. I’ll have to try this approach for my next short story. I always seem to change my approach throughout the course of writing. Perhaps having a definitive ending would help with that.

    Like

    November 2, 2012
  8. Write4Publish #

    I think I use a mixture of forward planning and letting the characters lead the way. I might try your suggestion with a short story.

    Like

    November 3, 2012
  9. Interesting tactic. I’m going to change my approach to writing. I tried to write a novel without the ending in mind before I started. The results were less than desirable. I will try this approach.

    Like

    November 4, 2012

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  2. Start With The Ending | 101 Books

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