Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Start at the end

By Joe Moore

A topic I’ve mentioned here in the past is Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules of writing fiction. They’re worth reviewing and taking to heart. But his rule number 5 is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Rule number 5 is: Start your story as close to the end as possible. This is relevant for both the entire book or a single chapter. We often hear that the most common mistake of a new writer is starting the story in the wrong place.

Well, it happens to published writers, too. Lynn Sholes and I are guilty of writing whole chapters that either occurred in the wrong place, or worse, weren’t even needed. Usually they turn out to be backstory information for us, not the reader. We go to the trouble of writing a chapter only to find it’s to confirm what we need to know, not what the reader needs to know.

So if we apply Vonnegut’s rule number 5, how do we know if we’ve started close enough to the end? Easy: we must know the destination before we begin the journey. We must know the ending first. To me, this is critical. How can we get there if we don't know where we're going? And once we know how our story will end, we can then apply what I call my top of the mountain technique. In my former career in the television postproduction industry, it’s called backtiming—starting at the place where something ends and working your way to the place where you want it to begin.

7691695But before I explain top of the mountain, let’s look at the bottom of the mountain approach—the way most stories are written. You stand at the foot of an imposing mountain (the task of writing your next 100K-word novel), look up at the huge mass of what you are going to be faced with over the next 12 or so months, and wonder what it will take to get to the top (or end).

You start climbing, get tired, fall back, take a side trip, climb some more, hope inspiration strikes, get distracted, curse, fight fatigue, take the wrong route, fall again, paint yourself into a corner—and if you’re lucky, finally make it to the top. This method will work, but it’s a tough, painful way to go.

Now, let’s discuss the top of the mountain technique. As you begin to plan your book, even before you start your first draft, Imagine that you’re standing on 9944522the mountain peak looking out over a grand, breathtaking view feeling invigorated, strong, and fulfilled. Imagine that the journey is over, your book is done. Look down the side of the mountain at the massive task you have just accomplished and ask yourself what series of events took place to get you to the top? Start with the last event, make a general note as to how you envision it. Then imagine what the second to the last event was that led up to the end, then the third from the last . . . you get the idea. It’s sort of like outlining in reverse.

This takes it a step further than Vonnegut’s rule number 5 by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning while you’re still in the planning stage. Guess what happens? By the time you are actually at the beginning, you will have started as close to the end as possible. And you will see the logic and benefit of rule number 5.

Naturally, your plan can and probably will change. Your ending will get tweaked and reshaped as you approach it for real. But wouldn’t it be great to have a general destination in mind even from the first word on page one of your first draft?

Do you know your ending before you start writing? Or do you have a general idea for the story and just wing it? Remember that there’s no right or wrong answer here. But what works for you?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Alexandra Sokoloff, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.


  1. I'm feeling oxygen deprived. Must be all the mountain climbing.

    I'm a "winging it" guy, although the caveat to that statement is I typically have spent enough time thinking about the novel before I start that I not only have a good idea how it's going to end, but I have an idea of high points, ie.,set pieces or scenes I want to write, some character interactions, and if possible, even a plot twist or two. Also, by the middle of a novel I often find I have to write a brief outline of the rest of it to make sure I've got all the plot points and threads wrapped up in my head.

    I interviewed John Sandford once and he told me the best writing advice he ever got was from Lawrence Block, which was to flip chapter 1 with chapter 2. Meaning the same thing as Vonnegut, that too often a writer's first chapter is exposition that really gets going in chapter 2, so flip them so your story gets going then explain whatever you need to explain later.

    Now, where are my crampons?

  2. "the best writing advice he ever got was from Lawrence Block, which was to flip chapter 1 with chapter 2."

    Excellent advice, Mark. I've actually done this a couple of times and it made all the difference in the world. And don't forget that oxygen is highly underrated. :-)

  3. I press not only the Chapter 2 switcheroo all the time with new writers, but I'll go as far into the manuscript as it takes to get to the spot where a real scene is taking place. It does work wonders.

    Endings are hard. By the time you get there, your book has life and there are going to be so many things you have to do to wrap up the story in a satisfying, yet unanticipated way. Scary, but it's the real kick in the whole thing.

    Joe, your metaphor is apt, even if we can't see the summit for the clouds. At least we'll know the basic direction, and can guess at the terrain. That's enough to get us going, even though we can't know exactly how it will look from the top.

    I try to "feel" the ending, who will be in it, and come up with a setting that isn't ordinary. That's usually enough for the vision thing, and I can start up the path.

  4. Great advice. The interesting thing about it, of course, is how hard it is to follow. You start thinking about a story in a certain place, but usually that is just back story, and you don't start there. The trick for me is to write plenty of drafts of the outline, and keep on chucking openings away until you find the right one.

    Incidentally, it applies to first pages as well. I was discussing 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' recently with Jeffrey Archer, and he said it has the wrong opening line. It should have started with Line 11. When I got home, I looked it up...and you know what, he's right.

  5. In all my books so far (except for the one that is coming out next October, interestingly), I've always known the ending of the story before the beginning. As a mystery writer, I have to know whodunnit, why they dunnit, and who was murdered; I usually have a dramatic final scene clearly in mind that the entire plot leads up to. From there, I "back time," laying in clues, red herrings, secondary characters, etc. Where I struggle the most is always, always with the very first chapter: That is, how do I best set the mystery engine in motion? I think in some ways mysteries are a bit easier to write than other genres because they are so ending-weighted by nature, although all stories rightfully should be so. Joe, you're right that we could start any story from the end and work our way backward - it doesn't apply just to mysteries.

  6. I've done this with short stories several times. I'll get to the middle and have no idea what should be there but since I know the end, I can start there and work to the middle.

    Great advice!

  7. I think compressing the timeline of the story helps too. At least in thrillers, you don't want an epic that spans generations. A couple days or a week at the most is my time line. You can't get too far afield if you only have a couple days to work with.

  8. I never know the ending until I'm writing it--I usually only know a chapter in advance, in fact. So far that's worked out for me.
    But currently I'm co-writing a screenplay with a friend, and for we've outlined the entire plot. There wasn't really any other way to divide up who was writing which scenes.
    It's been an interesting exercise for me, and really got me thinking about my process. I recommend (maybe not with a book, but with a short story) trying to write without knowing the ending for a change, or vice versa if you're a "pantser" like me.

  9. I'm in the same category as Michelle most of the time. Don't know the ending till it happens. I tried to put it all in outline form for my existing works a few times but discovered I could not make the story fit. It had to flow. But those, like Mark said, were week long timelines at the most.

    While pumping those stories out though I have been working on my opus gradually over the years as I learn to write. In the process of putting the pieces together of this historical fiction thriller it has grown into an entire outline, timeline, and full skeleton before the first actual word of prose has been written.

    The big difference I think is in how much ahead one has to think to keep the story fluid and ensure the path is being followed. It covers a period of a year or more as opposed to days in my other works.

    Like following a compass over terrain. If you get off kilter early in a 200 meter course its not too hard to correct, if you lose your way half way into a ten mile hike through the mountains you'll likely be lost forever if you don't have a huge landmark to reset your path.

  10. Thanks for all the comments. As I mentioned, there's no right or wrong answer. Whatever works for you is the way to approach writing. But I have found that not only in writing but in life, the best way to face a huge challenge is to envision yourself having completed the task, the ask the question: what series of events had to take place to make it happen. Looking from the top down rather than the bottom up does work. Try it.

  11. I agree. I write the last chapter first, leaving out some important details to make the reader hungry, and then call call it Chapter 1.

  12. "I write the last chapter first, leaving out some important details to make the reader hungry, and then call call it Chapter 1."


  13. Thanks Joe Moore. I am not going to plug my work here, and I hear many bad things about authors putting things on their website. But if you're interested, have a look at Chapter 1 on
    and tell me what you think. The last sentence of Chapter 1 is the last sentence of the book.