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.