Monday, 27 January 2014

Where Is Your Story Headed?



When asked if he knew the ending when he started a story, E. L. Doctorow said of his process:

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Taken in isolation that quote can seem very freewheeling and unfettered. The romantic idea of novel writing often has this sort of outlook: just set off and every time you come to a fork in the road just choose whichever path seems most appealing.

Sounds great but this is a somewhat disingenuous view of storytelling that can lead to dead-ends and pointless detours. Even the most improvisational of writers usually know the ending they’re aiming for (even if they’re not always consciously aware of it).

It’s not often you get in your car without having a destination in mind.

But at the same time, just because you know where you want to go doesn’t mean you know what you’re going to find when you get there. What it give you, though, is a framework to help create a cohesive narrative rather than a random sequence of events that might come together through happenstance and good luck.

When I talk about knowing what you’re aiming for I don’t mean a specific event. If you’re the kind of writer who has an image in mind of how your story will end (say, two men fighting with bamboo sticks on a cliff-edge in a fog) that’s okay, but having that kind of moment in time fixed in your head it isn’t an essential part of knowing where you’re going.

Equally, if you don’t have any idea of how the plot will be resolved, no idea where the final scene takes place or who will be in that scene, that’s okay too; none of that is important here either.

So, what do I mean? Let’s take as an example a story about a man who invents a hat that when you wear it you become super-intelligent. Where is this story going to end up?

Well, let’s say I’m into action-adventure, thriller type stories and I see this as evil government agency trying to get hold of the hat for their own nefarious purposes and eventually there will be a confrontation between our hero and the men in black suits.

Once I decide that a showdown is what I’m aiming for (and bear in mind I don’t know where or how it will take place) then I can write the story (planned in detail or totally freestyle) with a clear idea of whether I’m getting closer to the goal or not, and adjust accordingly.

This doesn’t mean a particular type of story has to have a particular type of ending (e.g. a thriller must have a showdown), you can choose any type of climax to your story. The important part is to choose an end point that you consider worth pursuing since you’re the one who will be pursuing it for the next 100, 000 words or so.

If, for example, I was interested in a more cerebral thriller and “The Man with the Hat” was about ethical dilemmas—our hero is offered a lot of money for his invention by some shady company and he takes the deal—then perhaps the end point for this story would be a realisation of the cost of his abdication of responsibility.

So scenes of him enjoying the fruits of his labour and having a great time would eventually lead him to facing the harm done by those same labours.

On the other hand, maybe I want to write a story about him meeting the girl of his dreams while wearing the hat and her falling for him as the smart guy. He has to find excuses to wear the hat whenever they’re together so she won’t fall out of love with the normal, average him. Where is this story going? Perhaps the discovery of his subterfuge and the resulting fallout of who (or what) she’s really in love with.

I want to make it clear though that my examples are just one of an infinite range of possibilities. I know it can seem like the set-ups I’m proposing can only have the one outcome, but that’s just the nature of hearing other people’s ideas.

I could have the romantic version of the story end with him learning that there’s more to life than knowing everything.  So the ending might involve her falling for someone else who is much stupider but much nicer/richer/taller than him. A different type of story completely.

Or maybe it’s about him becoming so smart that he realises she would be happier with some other guy and using all of his augmented brainpower to convince her of that. Eventually he will have to choose between his brain and his heart.

None of these ideas are particularly brilliant, but my point is there are a lot of them (and plenty more where they came from). As you can see I’m not providing specifics or settings or known outcomes. I’m not saying you can’t have those things in mind—some writers make a point of working out all of those—but it isn’t necessary.

The important thing is to have an idea of where you’re headed that you find interesting enough to want to figure out, and once you have that, it will shape and influence the scenes leading up to it, even those that are seeming unrelated.

In addition, it will also make it a lot easier to gauge whether scenes are driving the narrative in the right direction, or if you veer off into a sub-plot how to steer things back on course.

Although it can feel tempting to go in with no idea of how things will turn out it’s a hazardous way of working. If you’re willing to risk find yourself down a dead-end and start over then there’s no reason why you can’t produce a good story... eventually.

But if you have a destination in mind then every time you come to a split in the road you will have a much stronger inclination about which path to take.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.

40 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I always envision my endings first and then plot a way to get there. Even once I begin writing, new ideas will come along, but they are still driving to that final goal.

mooderino said...

@Alex - i think it's important to be open to new (better) ideas that occur as you write. I think that's true no matter how you approach writing.

Casi Nerina said...

Thank you!

I have been trying to figure out if I am a pantser or a planner, but this describes how I always feel when I get going with a novel and it feels "right." When I over plan it feels stale and rehearsed and when I don't plan at all I feel like I'm wailing around with nothing at all. This is exactly what I needed!

Ellie Garratt said...

I have a rough idea of where it might end and then go with the flow when I start writing. If I have anything to concrete in my mind I get bored or my writing becomes stilted. Great post!

Rusty Carl said...

Great job on this post. That 'only seeing as far as the headlights shine' might be the most appropriate comparison to how I write too. I might intend on my drive taking me all the way to Spain, but as the folks in Maine are famous for saying: You can't get there from here.

So it usually requires a lot of rework for me to have a route that makes sense. If I spent more time on the front end I'd probably save myself a lot of grief.

But, I do, usually, at least know what type of story I'm telling. Although I can be a bit bipolar in that regard too. Especially when I'm doing revisions years after I started writing. It's like I'm going over someone else's work.

Rick Watson said...

A great take on the process. Thanks.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I think you're really described how I write. I know that endpoint but I'm seeing only the short distance revealed by the headlights.

J E Oneil said...

The greatest downfall of metaphor is that as close as it comes to describing, it's never totally perfect. With writing, some headlights are more powerful than others as the writer make his/her way down the path (depending on story, or even the writer). Plus the path you take can be disjointed or out of order. But it truly is easier when the destination is firmly in mind.

Donna Hole said...

I usually know my ending even before I know my characters. I like writing my way towards that final step and not knowing what the journey will reveal. Nice analogies Moody.

......dhole

Lady Lilith said...

Nice metaphor. Thanks for sharing.

Cynthia said...

While I have an idea of where my story would lead to, it sometimes takes on a life of its own. Sometimes something I'd initially envisioned as an ending doesn't become the ending. Such is the roller coaster life of a writer! Thanks for sharing your examples. =)

mooderino said...

@Casi - glad to be of help!

@Ellie - I think there's room for the known and unknown in every process. Would be dull without one and shapeless without t'other.

@Rusty - like most of these sorts of encapsulations there's no real definitive way of doing anything. Sometimes you might actually get to Spain.

@Rick - cheers.

@SG/K - well, i have to give E.L. Doctorow some of the credit.

@JE - true, there are all sorts of car analogies I could make that would be true in some situations and not in other, but overall I'd say it's better to be the one driving the car than just a passenger.

@Donna - thanks. I just wish my own writing came to me as easily as these analogies.

@Lilith - cheers.

@Cynthia - Indeed, sometimes the ending is only the halfway point, or you come up with something else entirely.

Lynda R Young said...

I'm writing a story at the moment that requires a lot of outlining because I HAVE to know where I'm going. Such is the nature of this particular story.

Diane Carlisle said...

I have a beginning and an ending. My problem is filling in the middle. lol

mooderino said...

@Lynda - I often do that too, although things don't always go to plan. Many is the times I've had to redo the outline halfway through the story.

@Diane - See my last post about middles!

Emily Ever said...

Hey! Just found your blog and I'm loving it!

I like this post especially because I feel very strongly about endings. Writing 'just what you see in the shine of the headlights' can lead to some serious and unfortunate detours that you will probably end up deleting.

Like you said: "It’s not often you get in your car without having a destination in mind."

I find that giving that advice to a new writer is setting them up for stagnation and failure. I write my best when I know where I'm going. Even if I write myself into a corner, I can still skip a bit and take up the thread of the story, coming back to fix the bit I didn't understand later.

Thanks for the post! Very interesting!

mooderino said...

@Emily - thanks and great to have you here.

Cherie Reich said...

It's much easier to know where you're going, if you have an idea, or destination, in mind. Great post!

Samantha May said...

This was great!

You're right about not getting in a car without a destination in mind. Of course the path you take to get to said destination is entirely up to you :)

Writing Through College

WordsPoeticallyWorth said...

An interesting post that I enjoyed reading. Good luck to you.

Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

Jamie Beckett said...

Good points, all. At one time I fretted over not knowing how my article or column would end when I started it. My ignorance made me feel like a fraud. Yes, I was getting paid to write, but was this really writing? I was headed down a winding path to a known destination, but I only knew the starting point and had a rough expectation of the ending. What happened in the middle was as much a mystery to me as to my readers.

Thankfully, over time I learned to relax. I came to enjoy the mystery of the process and accepted that one storyteller might go about telling the tale one way, while an equally talented individual might use a completely different process to end up in the same place.

Now I'm comfortable with the process. And to think, it only took a decade or two for me to settle in and start to really enjoy the process of writing. Ahhhh, that's better. The process becomes so much more satisfying once you stop beating yourself up for doing it wrong - which you can't do because there is no right way. There is only your way.

Good luck all around.

Missy said...

I have the destination in sight, but I tend to rush there and forget to include the subtleties of the journey.

John L. Monk said...

One thing I say to writers when I critique their work is "know what you're trying to write."

Whenever I find myself in trouble, it always comes back to the question, "Do you know what you wanted from that paragraph? That sentence? Do you know where you're going?"

Love the examples.

LD Masterson said...

I'm one of those people who has to know my ending before I start writing. I may change how I get there but I rarely change where I end up.

mooderino said...

@Cherie - certainly makes it easier to recognise if you happen to drive past.

@Samantha - still plenty of room for discovery.

@Andrew - thanks.

@Jamie - I'd agree with that.Always helps to figure out works best for you, not what books tell you is the "right" way.

@Missy - I can find myself doing that too. Helps to make the destination a little difficult to reach.

@John - cheers.

@LD - I tend to spend a lot of time trying to get the ending to feel worth reaching before i start writing. I get very frustrated with weak endings to stories (of which there are an awful lot).


Misha Gericke said...

I agree. I at least have some sort of idea about where I'm going when I start writing.

By the time I do a rewrite, I know EXACTLY where I'm going. :-)

Christine Rains said...

Excellent post. I'm a pantser, but I do know I want the protagonist to do by the end. Rarely do I know how she's going to do it, but I love it when I can take the windy back roads. :)

Lexa Cain said...

I always enjoy your posts so much! The driving metaphor is perfect. I want that intelligence-inducing hat -- maybe it will help me get my "car" to where it's supposed to go. :)

Shannon Lawrence said...

I like the comparison to the distance headlights shine. For me, most often, I get flashes of ideas, of where I want to go, much like headlights sweeping over the brush as you make a turn.

The Warrior Muse

cleemckenzie said...

I can't imagine starting a story if I don't see the whole first. I know the end before I know how I'll start or how I'll get there. Great post as always.

mooderino said...

@Misha - we tend to have a better idea of how to get there once we've been at least once.

@Christine - There's always more than one route, some are quick, some are scenic and some are full of traffic that drives you mad (I may be taking this car analogy a little far).

@Lexa - I'm sure Apple are working on it.

@Shannon - Seeing something interesting in the distance always makes the journey more fun, I think.

mooderino said...

@lee - I'm the same. Leaving it to chance and hoping you end up somewhere interesting can work for some people but it's incredibly risky, and saps a lot of energy when it doesn't work out.

Shah Wharton said...

Great post. I never really know how my stories will end. I'm a panster (which I hate, but try as I might, I cannot plot past a rough outline). I wish I was like Alex, plotting to a known finishing line. Seems like a much more sensible route than mine, which is exciting, unexpected, usually as revelatory to me as my readers, but a pain to foresee, edit, re-write. Pro's and con's to both I guess. :)

mooderino said...

@Shah - in most cases a panster's first draft is the equivalent of a plotters outline, it provides the map for the journey. Both ways work it's just that writing an entire draft to figure out the story can be much more time consuming.Eventually we all have to write the next draft based on the previous one.

Pk Hrezo said...

I like to have a solid idea of my ending before I start writing, but like to figure out how to get there by pantsing it in the middle. It makes drafting more fun. I always do outlines before drafting tho or else I will veer off course.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I always get my endings first. And of course the beginings. Its what happens in between that saps me of my energy. The middle portion for me takes a lot of effort. I think I need to plot the middle portion a bit more in detail.

mooderino said...

@Pk - I think the middle always requires some improvising. Unlike the beginning and ending things are always changing and affecting other parts.

@Rachna - I think that's true for most people, the beginning is the big energy sapper (true for me anyway).

The Armchair Squid said...

There's also the matter of character to consider. What would the character do? Of course, if you set up the choice from the beginning, I suppose you already know what the character will do and can shape him/her accordingly.

Margo Berendsen said...

I cant get past the first chapter until I have a strong image of what the ending will be. The ending is my big motivator.

mooderino said...

@Squid - I think it works both ways. Knowing the ending gives the framework, but filling out the framework adapts it into a more interesting structure.

@Margo - I think there's a definite lift you get when you can see the goal,both in writing and in life.

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