14 March 2013

Where To Start? How About The End?

When a recent BoingBoing.net article about Pixar’s Rules for Storytelling floated through the Peevish Penman Twittersphere, one rule in particular hit home especially as I've been thinking about springtime and New Beginnings:

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

The article also reminded me of a TED Talks presentation about storytelling delivered by Andrew Stanton, a Pixar writer who worked on mega-ultra-hits like Toy Story and Finding Nemo. In his speech, Stanton says very simply, “Storytelling is joke telling. It's knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you're saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings.”

Is that my time in that bag?
He’s right. Having a solid and well crafted ending will ensure that your entire story means something and your audience will be engaged throughout, just like telling a joke. We've all been the victim of a horrible joke teller who goes through a long, drawn-out set-up only to bomb at the end. Not only is everyone in the room suddenly uncomfortable, but you've all lost precious minutes of your lives. It’s thievery, I tell you! Well Writers, I hate to dump this on you, but we’re just as guilty of Grand Theft Time when we pull people into a story only to disappoint with a lackluster finish. Never fear! The brilliant minds at Pixar are guiding us to the answer. 

Start at The End.

Just as Andrew Stanton says, everything you write has to move you closer to a certain point, so why not start by establishing that destination? If I know I want my character to have a major cathartic moment at the end of my story, I can better determine who he or she is at the beginning. While I usually have no problem coming up with some basic traits of my characters (snarky, charming, naive, etc.), I often start writing them a bit wishy-washy because I’m too timid about where the characters may or may not go as the story proceeds. Long story short, I don’t have the cajones to push the envelope because I don’t have a clue where the story is going. By establishing where I want to see the character and/or situation end up, I can feel okay with getting a little crazy as I write.

A perfect example (and the one that’s imprinted in my brain now, thanks to my son) is Lightning McQueen from the Pixar movie Cars. If you haven’t seen this flick for a while, or ever, find it. It’s not bad. It’s not my favorite Pixar movie (see The Incredibles) but I've warmed to it after about a hundred viewings. In fact, watching the movie several times helped me see this strategy come to life.

Of course, I probably could have figured it out with just 3 or 4, but I think it really hit home after 89 or so.

Anyway, watch Cars a couple times start to finish, then skip ahead and just watch the last half-hour before going back to watch the beginning. You’ll see the vast difference between the brash, arrogant, and selfish Lighting McQueen in the opening scenes and the humble and considerate McQueen that has learned the value of friendship and teamwork.

Yeah, it’s hokey, but this is Disney we’re talking about. I’m sure your writing will be a bit more edgy and a little less “Barney and Friends.” Regardless, the lesson is still the same. Pixar could have been much more conservative in how they presented Lightning at the beginning of the movie, especially considering he’s the protagonist that the audience is supposed to adore. As we know, it’s hard to make your hero a jerk, but they knew where he was going. They knew he’d be making a dramatic shift that would bring the audience on board. This knowledge gave them the confidence to make Lightning a pretty distasteful dude for nearly all of the movie. He doesn't totally reveal his character change until just minutes before the film ends, when he helps the veteran racer cross the finish line, giving up fame and fortune in the process. Starting at the end has helped Pixar make movies that engage adults as much as our children, if not more, because they can present truly dynamic characters in a way we’re not used to seeing in traditional family movies. Billions of dollars in sales proves that it’s a solid storytelling device.

Convinced? If not, here’s another benefit to starting at the end. How many times have you started writing a story, only to get frustrated because you hit a wall and can’t figure out where it’s going?

1...2...3...4... Sorry, I was counting the times that’s happened to me, but I don’t have time to count them all so I’ll continue my thought.

If you’re able to write your ending first (even it needs to change later) you don’t have that burden hanging over your head later. You have a goal and you’re simply pushing closer to that ending with every page. Even writing this paragraph just made me feel better.

Feeling giddy yet? I know I am. When I think about the freedom of writing a story with an ending waiting for me, it makes me so much more excited about the writing process. As long as I keep moving closer to that destination, I can take fun and exciting risks along the way, and isn't that why we all love writing in the first place?

The End
(or is it the beginning?)


  1. My endings always sneak up on me, and then I look back and realize that, usually, I've laid everything out so the ending makes sense, so I suppose my endings are with me at all times. They just don't pipe up and announce themselves until I'm sweating bullets, the jerks.

    It's funny, though, because I know the ending to three or four projects I'm working on, but I'm still waiting for the middle to show itself. It's a tricky business, however you roll with it.

  2. Ha, yeah those endings can be real a-holes sometimes. I would agree that a lot of writers already do this subconsciously, and I think that's a big reason for their success.

    By the way, by success I simply mean the fact that they're able to get stuff written (see Carrie's previous post). Not having that ending either in text or in your mind adds a serious level of difficulty in finishing a piece.

    I envy you Gayle! Knowing your ending, at least in general terms, should make the middle part more fun. Now you can write whatever you want as long as it's getting you closer to the end. Go nuts! We are writers, after all, so we're already halfway there.

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  5. I'm trying to decide whether I should write the last few chapters of my story and then try to connect the middle to the end. Has anyone tried this?

    1. hmm. no. i have found some stories begging me to end them already. i have found that works best for me. but your "ending" might give way to an entirely new direction. might it be worth it?

    2. I've got my whole story sort of already plotted out, but I seem to keep getting my laptop stolen or files deleted somewhere in the middle, which means I've re-written about 20k words of the middle three times and I'd rather get onto something new... :)

  6. I feel a little like Seinfeld in these situations: better to stop when you're at a more realistic point, or one in which the true ending is decades down the road (i.e., the fiction i've written weekly since january -- the last installment feels like the ultimate installment, but then they tend to occasionally feel that way; i feel trapped at times) than try to wrap it all up in a nice red satin bow.

    but i will try your way, rob: writing from the end, the "act as if" scheme... who knows? maybe it will work for me! :)

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