7th September 2012

Every end has a beginning

When we started writing our contemporary adult novel in February this year, me and my co-author had quite a clear idea of how the novel would, or could, end, and we had a vague idea of how it would begin.  We knew that our main concern would be the protagonist’s journey.  We knew who the two central characters would be.  We knew that there needed to be conflict between them, that the protagonist had to change in some way and that pivotal events would enable this to happen.  BUT, we had no idea how the conflict would arise and we hadn’t got a clue what the pivotal, life-changing, events would be.  BUT, we had the ending, which got me thinking about the way this novel has been written and why.

It seems natural to me to think of the end at the beginning.  I wondered why, and came to the conclusion that it’s all to do with the journey of the central character and that this can be paralleled to a literal journey… after all, if you are going on holiday, you know where you’re going don’t you?  I would imagine that most people don’t just randomly get on a train, board a plane or jump in their car and head off for ‘somewhere’.  So by having the destination in our minds we can then work out how to get there.

The middle bit of the novel could be paralleled to the things you will need to get you to your destination and the things that could occur on route.  If you are going to Wales (as we often do) you need to take waterproofs and sturdy shoes and you can more or less guarantee getting stuck in Stockport and every single traffic light turning to red on your approach, the affects of which will mean you will need to make an extra stop because everyone in the car is busting for a pee!  If you are going to Turkey (as we once did – and boy, was it hot!) you need oodles of high factor sun lotion and sun hats, will want to chew your arm off in the airport lounge out of sheer frustration and boredom and may end up eating a double cheeseburger and feeling sick, just because.

My point is, if you know your destination, you know what tools you need to arm yourself with, and may have an idea of the pivotal events that could occur – although they are more likely to unfold as you make the journey, exactly as they would do in a literal journey.  If you know the ending, you can begin to work out how to get there. Even if you don’t plan thoroughly (see my Plot Planner post of 9th February) you at least know if you are going to fly… drive… walk… camel (not sure camel is a verb, but oh well) and whether you’re heading north or south… etc.  So, it makes sense, doesn’t it?  Your end gives you a starting point.

But here’s an interesting thing.  Once you have been carried along in this direction, have waded through the terrifying ‘middle bit’, have built up your momentum for the final quarter (or third, depending how you work) things may have changed a tad.  This is exactly what has happened with our novel.  Suddenly, with six chapters left, and the fourth and fifth already written, these two chapters didn’t feel right.  The protagonist’s journey had progressed so far that he would no longer do the things we had thought he would do when we started the book.  The end had to change!  Although momentarily terrifying, this was also reassuring – change is vital in your protagonist’s journey.  So, with six chapters left, I re-plotted.  The two chapters were removed and six became four, with some of the ideas from one of the removed chapters being used in relation to another character in the fourth from last chapter, a chapter which had been flumoxing me.  The original ending was discarded for something else.  Suddenly, it worked, and it worked a whole lot better than the original idea.

Whatever our intentions were at the beginning, the themes and twists and turns didn’t become apparent until later… a bit like the traffic lights in Stockport! It’s only possible to see these twists and turns of your journey at a later point.  And it doesn’t matter that these changes are made.  What is important is that we have an idea of ending – this gives us the momentum to write our story and a point to be driven towards.  It’s like walking through a tree tunnel ~ you can see the end in sight but you don’t always know exactly what will greet you.  Ideas aren’t set in stone.  Plots aren’t set in stone.  They can’t be.  By their very nature they need to be fluid.  They have to grow in unexpected ways and we have to allow those wild, crazy, creative moments to swoop down and carry us some place else, and when they do we have to go with it, even if it disrupts our original idea.  Because the new idea will be a much better one!  While our protagonist makes a journey, we as writers make one too, and should always expect the unexpected.

Do you know your ending at the beginning?

About Abi Burlingham

I write children's books and paint pictures inspired by nature, animals, trees etc, mostly in acrylics. I am a crisp addict.
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21 Responses to 7th September 2012

  1. Martin Day says:

    I guess you must have been a little disconcerted for a while three, Abi – and a couple of sleepless nights, I’ll bet.

    Personally, I suspect that it is all too common for the end not to be know at the beginning. I’m sure that this is why so many movies have such unsatisfactory endings. After all, unless a story ends in death, life goes on, even if they do live-happily-ever-after. So I think it’s great that you have the ending in sight. For me I’m often so focussed by the journey of discovery that the ending is a necessary irritation (but that’s my problem). With my musical (WIP) I struggled to find a satisfactory ending. As you will appropriate, something like a musical cannot have an ending that’s too subtle – it needs some very deliberate punctuation (cue the jazz hands!). In the end (although, like your experience, it may yet prove premature) I decided on the technique of telling most of the story in flash-back so that the final scene brings the story full circle back to the opening scene. It’s definitely a device to create a suitably punctuated ending. I’m hoping will work for me … but then, to take your point, it’s not finished yet…

  2. I like that idea of using flashbacks and moving full circle. Have you read John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’? His closing scene / chapter parallels the first really closely and I do like that technique. I have kind of done that partly with this novel… am saying no more though 😉 Good luck with the musical, Martin. It sounds as if progress is being made, and that can only be good!

  3. Annette says:

    Like Martin, I like an end scene that has echoes of the opening scene. It seems…balanced. I also agree with you that it’s often not until after you’ve finished something – or are at least half way through – that the themes become apparent and you can nip back in, dropping symbols and references to reinforce them. In fact, the Master (Stephen King) recommends this in his ‘bible’ On Writing.
    Personally, I am a visual person and I often see a character in a situation for which I feel great empathy. Usually – but not always – this is the end scene and I know where I want to get to. It’s finding the start that I find the hardest!
    Interesting post again, Abi x

  4. I know exactly what you mean, Abi — it’s often after spending months with a character that I start to see and feel the things through his/her eyes and understand choices and directions that it makes sense the character would make and go. And I agree, plots (and ideas) are fluid by nature, as are ends and beginnings, too. And I would imagine working with a co-author makes things by definition even more fluid and open for questions.

    • We write in very similar ways I think, Julia, and yes, you’re write, co-writing does enhance that fluidity even more and take you in directions you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. It’s part of the magic of writing isn’t it?

  5. I think I have to get hold of the Stephen King book, Nettie. I’ve heard it mentioned a couple of times lately. I agree with you with the visual thing – this is exactly how my ending came to me, as a scene involving the two main characters. Although something fairly crucial has changed with this ending, the setting and visuals of the scene have remained. And the empathy thing… yes, that seems to be the driving force behind nearly everything I write. I guess that’s why my writing tends to be character driven… hmmm! I feel another blog post coming on! x

  6. lisashambrook says:

    That’s life isn’t it…things change! My current re-write/edit is in constant flux because a) it was written so long ago, b) my writing’s better and c) the themes are screaming out at me now and need exaggerating to say the least! I thought I knew the theme ten years ago when I first wrote it, but with fresh eyes the theme runs much deeper and stronger.
    By the way are you insinuating it rains a lot on Wales (mentioning packing waterproofs)? Oh, well I suppose I have to give you that… *stares at rain cloud…* and is that picture of you up on Mam Tor? Beautifully green and I love the foreboding clouds!

  7. I know what you mean about going back to older stuff – yes, that will definitely mean a lot of new changes, and all for the better I bet! We got soaked this year in Bangor – drenched to the skin… what more can I say? 😀 And yes, at the foot of Mam Tor. Pic taken c/o http://www.twistedimages.co.uk – an uber talented man!

  8. Jenny Alexander says:

    Great post Abi – and lovely pictures! That’s how I live my life – I have clear goals to give me a sense of direction, but I never attach to outcomes. So much of what we learn through writing is great learning for life 🙂

  9. How succinctly put, Jenny and you are so right! Thanks for that 😉

  10. Jo Carroll says:

    Oh heck – most people know where they’re going, have a view of the destination … *creeps into the minority corner* – to be fair, it’s taken a while to believe that the very best things can happen when you’re lost!

  11. Hee hee! I don’t think most people do know where they’re going, Jo. I quite often don’t have a clue either and bumble along happily! And you’re so right – getting lost makes us HAVE to come up with the goods and find our way home, doesn’t it?

  12. Emma Pass says:

    This is exactly what’s been happening with my WIP! *cue spooky music* And I’ve found it quite exciting, because it’s meant my characters have really come alive, and are dictating the direction they want their stories to take. It can be quite a scary process too, when you realise that the scene or scenes you’ve had in mind for so long are redundant… but that element of surprise is what being creative is all about – and what makes it so worthwhile and fun. Congrats on being so close to the end! 🙂

    P.S. – Does that graffiti on the fence say what I think it says…?

  13. Exactly, it’s all part of the journey isn’t it, and what makes the whole process so magical? I have absolutely no idea what the graffiti says 😀 Really can’t make it out at all… you may need to enlighten me!

  14. HAHAHAHA! Got it! Mwahahaha 😀

  15. Nadine says:

    If I ever make it to those places you mentioned, I’ll know how to prepare myself, lol. Seriously though, you’ve made some very insightful and helpful points. Thankfully, I know how my tale ends, and am open to change it if it should come to that. You’re right, too, that the protagonist’s journey parallels our own journey, as writers. Everything evolves. It’s so exciting! So glad that you’re nearing the end of this particular journey. What an adventure for you both!

  16. Thanks, Nadine. I think you’re so right about the ending. We have to be open to change as our story evolves don’t we? That said, why change a good thing if we don’t need too? It’s about being flexible isn’t it. Good luck with yours too! 🙂

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