This post originally appeared on Medium in February 2021.
I wanted to title this article “begin with the end in mind,” one of Steven Covey’s trademarked 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But alas, that phrase was already taken. It’s all about setting goals, about deciding ahead of time who you want to be and what you want to do. It’s about being outcome-oriented.
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Within the context of writing a single story, this phrase reminds me of the value of knowing where you are going.
One of the things I see so often in young writers is that they start a story, and the events wind over the river and through the woods and up and down mountains and around the globe and into outer space and then… they run out of ideas so they stop. The end.
While adult writers are perhaps a little more restrained, this tendency to let a story go off the rails can still rise up. We get so many ideas…what if this happens? What if that happens? I need to go back and explain this, or that. Before we know it our story has gone wildly off-course.
This is a completely preventable problem. Making the decision ahead of time about where your story is going to end is a crucial element to keeping a story moving forward.
When a reader starts reading, we expect that we are going to get an ending, that all of these events and emotional change in the protagonist are going to lead somewhere satisfying. Whether it’s an ending with all the loose ends tied up in a bow, or one that leaves the reader with some questions, you as the writer need to know where this sucker is going to end up.
And I want to be clear: I mean actually, logistically, physically and emotionally end up. Not some vague sense of resolution, and an actual ending. Where, when, why, and how?
Knowing the end in advance gives you a target to aim at as you write.
I want you to imagine a large, old deciduous tree, one that has lost its leaves for the winter. At the base of the trunk is the start of your story. As you move up the trunk, you have large branches which you could follow. Choosing one, you follow it up to where it too begins to branch in multiple directions. Then those smaller branches divide, and so on.
At the bottom of the tree is a squirrel. He sees that a lone seed is still hanging up there. It is your chosen ending, but the squirrel doesn’t know that. He just knows that he wants to get up there, and trusts that the tree (the story, in this messy analogy) is going to get him there.
The squirrel is your reader. The tree is your story. And you are the one who is choosing where which branch the seed is on, thus illustrating the path to get to it.
There are two things you will want to keep in mind while you plan the ending of your story:
Remember the point of your story.
This is the promise that you made to your reader in the beginning, that the protagonist wants something and is going to work toward getting it (whether with positive or disastrous results.) Along the way, they are going to grow emotionally and realize something about themselves and the world. The ending needs to fulfill that promise. It is the seed that the squirrel is expecting to get, even though he might not know exactly how it will taste.
The ending can change.
You might plan your ending, then realize mid-first-draft that this story isn’t doing what you want it to do. But like with everything else you might change, this needs to be a conscious decision.
Danger lies in “shiny object syndrome,” the offhand thoughts that another track might be better for this protagonist or that redirecting the emotional growth is a smart choice. This is where your writing will go off onto a branch you didn’t intend, or perhaps fall off the tree altogether.
My suggestion is that if you have a sudden thought that a different ending is a great idea, write the thought down and sit on it for at least 24 hours. If it still feels like the right thing to do, then make that conscious decision. But if, after the thrill of a “better” idea has worn off, revisit your original plan for the ending and recommit to it.
It will save you time.
If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re likely going to take the wrong path more than once. You’ll get up one branch and then think, wait, I don’t like where this is heading. So you’ll have to back up and start up a new one. On that old tree you imagined, can you see how much potential for going the wrong way there is? This backing up and starting over is frustrating and damages our confidence in our ability to write. So why not give yourself the gift of a clear end point and a shorter path to getting there?
Much like Steven Covey’s second habit of highly effective people, this strategy of beginning with the end in mind is going to help you stay outcome-focused. But the outcome isn’t just finishing your story (although that will be a great perk!) The outcome is knowing exactly where your story is going from the very beginning, and believing in it with the determination with which you believe in the rest of your story.