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Start With The Ending

* This is a repost from 2012 when I was reading Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. As I’m now finishing up Brideshead Revisited, I thought it was still relevant. Great insight here from Waugh. 

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.


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?


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.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on oshriradhekrishnabole.


    May 28, 2015
  2. This is also true for John Irving. If you don’t know it on the first go ’round, you definitely know the ending when working on the second draft. At least, I hope you will.


    May 28, 2015
    • John Irving not only knows the ending of his books, he says he doesn’t even start writing the book until he has the final line. Which is kind of amazing.

      Liked by 2 people

      May 28, 2015
  3. Stephen McDaniel #

    Stephen King once collaborated with Irving and was startled when the first thing Irving did was to write the last line. King says he starts on a journey with the character and doesn’t know how it will end, but I think this is slightly misleading. He also describes having an inspiration for a story and sitting down to make about sixteen pages of notes. He may not have had the precise ending, but I think he must certainly have had a fully developed idea of the story he wanted to tell.

    Liked by 1 person

    May 28, 2015
  4. I believe JK Rowling does the same thing. It’s really a helpful tactic. I always feel like my brain is going to spontaneously combust with all the different ideas flowing through it while I’m writing when I have no idea where the story is going.


    May 28, 2015
  5. kaytechworld #

    Reblogged this on kaytechworld.


    May 29, 2015
  6. I keep coming back to Poe’s unity of effect. I have certain sentences/key ideas at the beginning and end of a story, as well as points in between, that serve as ‘guideposts’ to keep me in the right direction. While it is true that we can let the characters ‘roam’ a little, ultimately, this roaming must be integral to the work’s central idea. Otherwise what am I trying to say here? becomes meaningless and without meaning, what the hell is the story?


    June 24, 2015

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