Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Start At The End

By Joe Moore

Kurt Vonnegut once revealed his 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 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 writing our fourth book together and we still make that mistake once in a while. We’ve written 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 it only to find it’s to confirm what we 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 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 my top of the mountain technique. In my former career in the television industry, its called backtiming—starting at the place where something ends and working your way to the place where you want it to begin.

But before I explain top of the mountain, let’s look at the bottom of the mountain approach. 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 months or so, 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—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. Imagine that you’re standing on the 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, then the second to the last, then . . . you get the idea. This takes it a step further than Vonnegut’s rule number 5 by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning. Guess what happens? By the time you are actually at the beginning, you will have started as close to the end as possible. Rule #5 rules!

See you at top of the mountain!


kitty said...

It's possible that writer's block is sometimes not knowing specifically how the story/book will end.


Mark Combes said...


I've taken screenwriting classes that taught a similar theory - "start in the middle of the scene." That is, don't start with the guy walking down the hall looking at the door numbers, start with having him kicking in the door to number three.

I start a project with a beginning and an ending. Everything else is by the seat of my pants. Okay, I have a vague idea of scenes etc. but I'm constantly tweaking scenes along the way and that pushes the story in directions I'd never have guessed it would have gone. I hate writting rough drafts to begin with. If I didn't do this for myself I'd be bored to tears and I'd never finish the thing. I have to try to surprise myself - or I don't think I'll surprise the reader.

Julia Buckley said...

Gee, you make it sound so easy, Joe! :)

Joe Moore said...

Kitty--You're right. We can all avoid writer's block with some sort of an outline or synopsis on which to refer. I avoid writer's block by having a co-writer. If I'm stuck, Lynn Sholes usually has a solution and vise versa.

Mark--that's a variation on the "In medias res" (into the middle of things) theme. I firmly believe in it. There's another rule that says the first sentence should establish time, place and POV. And there's another starter rule that states to never start with a weather report. I think they're all good ones to keep in mind.

Julia--it is easy. Try it. :-)