If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or gotten advice from a fellow writer, you may have heard something like this:
“Just write what comes to you. Don’t think about it too much. Let the words flow naturally and just see what happens.”
There are some writers out there who can do this: just begin writing on a burst of inspiration, with no idea or plan of where they’re going with the plot, and churn out something brilliant and profound (if still unrefined on the first draft). But, personally, I am not one of those writers.
Writers debate over whether to write spontaneously in the above-described manner or to plan things out from the beginning and write with the end in mind. Of course, each writer is different and no one set formula works for everyone, so take everything I’m about to say with a healthy grain of salt. But, personally, I’m a thorough, meticulous individual and spontaneity doesn’t always work for me, so I almost always write stories with the end in mind. If you’re the opposite, then I’m afraid this post may not be of much use to you—unless you’re so spontaneous that you’re looking for more structure in your writing, and/or you want to be challenged to do things a different way from what you’re used to. In that case, I encourage you to read on.
Often when I’m writing a short story, or even tackling a longer novel, after coming up with the major characters and the central conflict, the ending is one of the first things I decide upon. I don’t know why that is. I don’t consciously seek to come up with an ending before everything else. I guess it’s just that, when I have an idea that I like, I know what kind of message or feeling I want it to convey to the audience, and so I can just automatically envision what kind of ending would successfully convey that impression. Do I want the audience to come away with an overall happy and hopeful impression? Then I know that I want the good guys to win at the end, followed by a touching conversation between the male and female leads about forgiveness and moving forward in life. What about a darker impression to ask tough questions drive the point home? I can picture in my mind a tense, dramatic scenario where the hero sticks to his principles but then is doomed because of it by forces outside of his control. And then I just have to ask myself, “Okay—now what needs to happen to get us up to this point?” Often I end up making an outline of events, of things that should or at least possibly might happen along the way so that the ending I have in mind makes sense. Then, as I write, I just go by the outline I’ve made and flesh it out more with details, dialogue, narration, and whatever else I need to make it a fully-fledged chapter in the story.
At times people have asked me things like, “But how can you write like that?” My answer is that I can write like this because I personally can’t write any other way. If I don’t have a plan in mind—maybe just a vague one sometimes, but at least some small idea of where I’m going—then I feel like I’m just floundering around, going nowhere, and that my story doesn’t mean anything.
I’ve also heard “Don’t you get bored with the writing if you already know where the story is going?” And yes, I’ll admit that sometimes I do. Having most of a story, or at least significant parts, already planned out means that I’ve rehearsed each scene repeatedly in my head before I actually get the chance to write it out. For more mundane or minor scenes, that can mean I don’t feel super-enthusiastic about actually writing them out, and I have to trudge through a slower part before getting to the rest. But it also means that, when I get to those crucial, dramatic scenes that really define the characters and the nature of the story, they’re still vibrant enough in my mind no matter how many times I mentally review them, and I experience a very satisfying sense of relief by finally giving tangible form to an idea that’s been burning inside of me for so long. In other words, if my story is good enough (or, at least, exciting to me), then I don’t get bored of the characters and the crucial plot points, even if I’ve already known them for a while. At times I might get tempted to write out of order and do the exciting scenes before the more mundane ones, but I force myself not to do this; writing out of order can be confusing, and I want to make sure I give the proper amount of attention to each scene, big or small.
As I’ve said, this advice and style is just what works for me personally and won’t necessarily be the same for everyone. Once, when my creative writing professor gave a lecture about just writing spontaneously whatever comes to you, I told him that I didn’t work like that, and he said that I should just do whatever works for me. Conversely, when I took a class on writing for the stage, a different professor emphasized the need for a dramatic ending and how everything else in the play should be working up to that point. Even though many elements were challenging to me in making the shift from prose to script, the idea of writing toward the dramatic ending was one I was still quite familiar and comfortable with.
And this strategy also worked for classic gothic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe. He believed in the “single effect” of a story, in a certain moment, action, or scene that every smaller element of a story should contribute toward in some way. Of course, Poe mostly dealt in short fiction, in which it’s easier to be concise and unified toward one effect than it may be in a longer novel. Still, the principle of writing a dramatic ending can work well for a short story, novel, or play, as long as you have a good idea and know how to plan other details around it.
So, if you already have a different strategy of writing that works for you, then by all means feel free to disregard this post. But if you want to try something different, or you’re not sure how to get started at all, then try thinking first of a dramatic, impactful, memorable ending for your characters and their conflict. Then just work backward. Ask yourself what had to happen to get them up to that point, and make sure you have the diligence as a writer to see the story through to its end. You may be surprised at what you come up with!