So I’ve done a few articles looking at video games and story presentation, but how about writing in general? I just took something of an extended break from the site to finish writing a book in the Mage for Hire series, so with planning fresh in my mind, let’s have a peek at some of the ways in which I write stories.
For this first look, let’s start off with one particular method I use to begin writing a story – coming up with the finale first.
The book I just wrote was essentially done in this fashion. Mage for Hire started at the beginning and carried on from there, and City of Marr proceeded in a similar fashion, but that’s not always my preferred system. In order to explore how I go about writing from the end, let’s make up an example story for illustrative purposes.
Let’s imagine I’m sitting in a restaurant somewhere nice, say at a hotel just across from an airport. There’s some jazz music playing, I’m eating a pizza that’s several sizes too large for one person, and I’m being daring with a diet cola. Then I notice someone walk in leading their pet dog along, and an idle thought crosses my mind – what if the dog was the one controlling the man?
This might sound daft but that’s unfortunately how I spend a lot of time! (Having random thoughts, not eating pizza)
Anyhow, once I’ve become curious about the idea of a dog that might be some sort of secret controlling force, I might then ponder how this could work as a story twist.
- Is the dog an evil spirit?
- Is the dog a good spirit?
- Is the man good or evil? (or neutral, I’m not picky)
- And probably a ton more questions, but let’s not go too far with an example story!
So I might then decide to make it a double-bluff. The dog is indeed a spirit, but it’s a good spirit. The man, meanwhile, is possessed by an evil spirit, and the dog is there to keep him in check. This information will be kept a secret until the climactic events of the novel, at which point the protagonists will think that the dog is the one who is evil. They’ll set up a trap for the dog, only to find that – oh no – the man’s evil spirit is freed to go and do his villainy unrestricted. Let’s go with a happy end for the book and say that the protagonists are able to unite through the power of friendship and defeat the spirit before he can succeed.
And fine, they let the dog go and it’s alright! No tears at the end of this book.
Now, for this big reveal to work, I’ll need to make sure I have a few things in place:
- If there are spirits, then we have to establish the paranormal stuff in this world much earlier in the story (changing genre right at the end can be a risky business, and this example isn’t going to be risking much)
- The protagonists need a reason to be looking for spirits
- If there’s supposed to be a mystery to the evil spirit’s location or identity, then we need a line-up of suspects
Alright, so now we have the ending, and some work is going into the beginning. It’ll be important to have a setting for this story, so let’s place the story in a little town in Wiltshire that I’ll make up – Barwinston. And let’s give it a history of hauntings, because why not? Haunted houses are quite common, so let’s shake it up with a spooky burger bar where people claim to have had visions after ordering the Spicy Bean Surprise.
We can then use the burger bar as a hook for the protagonist, who I’m going to call Patty. She’s eager to stop at Barwinston because she’s a burger fanatic, and her friend August is obsessed with ghosts. They’ve both decided to visit Barwinston for different reasons, and they’re about to get more than they bargained for when they try the Spicy Bean Surprise. Later that night, both share a dream in which they are warned that an evil spirit is gaining power in Barwinston.
Now, Barwinston needs fleshing out, along with some personality, so let’s add in a few characters. There’s the burger bar manager, Kirsten, who hates talk of ghosts but wants to sell burgers, so she advertises ghost-related stuff grudgingly.
Let’s have a creepy old ghost shop in town as well that’s playing off the fame generated by the burger bar. We can pop another character in there – Terence the Ghost Hunter. To shake up the usual fanatic character, let’s make him incredibly bored by ghost hunting after doing it for so long. At one part of the story, he can take the protagonists on an unnerving ghost tour, during which he shows no enthusiasm even at the most frightful occurrences. Since we’ll want actual ghost activity for him to yawn at, this will probably come somewhere in the middle, or later, when we’ve established that there’s an evil spirit in town who’s causing problems.
Speaking of problems, we need our main antagonist. He’s possessing Jim, the barman at the Sheep’s Head, a local pub. Jim has a dog called Barkington, who’s the good spirit keeping him in check. But occasionally, Jim escapes, which is when he gets to spook the protagonists, such as on the ghost tour. We can use that to sell Barkington as the potential villain as well – when Barkington is out trying to find Jim and bring him back under control, Patty and August will see him and begin to get suspicious.
There can be a bunch of other characters too, but let’s not go overboard with the example!
So now we’ve answered the three questions above. We have the spirits established, we have the protagonists’ reason for looking for spirits, and we have a cast of suspects. With that done, the next step is sorting out the story’s full sequence of events. Let’s list what we already have:
- The protagonists visit the burger bar
- The protagonists have their vision dream
- For whatever reason, the protagonists go to Jim’s pub
- Visit to the ghost shop
- The ghost tour
- Showdown with Jim
Other ideas should start to come in naturally. For example, if you want to open with a spooky atmosphere, you could have some sort of sequence where someone gets haunted by Jim (without showing it’s Jim, of course). If you want to slowly lead into the story, then maybe join Patty and August as they take the bus to Barwinston. Or maybe, skip both and just open as they’re ordering at the burger bar!
The other parts should come together as you think of questions about the finale too. For example, I mentioned that Patty and August would defeat Jim (or the spirit possessing him), which then brings in the questions of how they accomplish that, and what happens to the evil spirit. The answers to both of these questions will likely give you plot points that need to be set up earlier in the story.
If they get a special magical prison trap to capture Jim’s spirit, then our protagonists will need to be introduced to it earlier (or readers will be irked with you when you spring that out of nowhere right at the end). Should that be the case, then a follow-on question would be why that trap was never used before? If such an easy solution is readily available, then there’s no need for Barkington to guard Jim, so it’s wise to cover that angle.
It can help to be extremely annoying and picky. Sit down with the plot for a bit and try to tear it apart. Question everything. Complain about each scene. If there are major problems with the story, then they could be blessings in disguise. Entire new characters could pop into existence just to remedy a plot hole. This part of the plotting is where I often find the story starts to take on a life of its own, beyond my own control.
But it’s important to make sure you do have control!
I don’t always write a chapter plan for books, but I usually find it’s quite an important part of writing a story (nb. Don’t feel restricted by chapters, not everyone uses them!). Writing out the basic outline from beginning to end is a great way to realise you’ve forgotten to foreshadow a major plot detail near the end.
It also works in the other direction. Perhaps Patty opened the book with a subplot about losing a pet. Maybe the idea was to tie that in to Barkington, who Patty initially liked, before fearing him as a possible evil spirit, but that idea was forgotten amidst everything else. On re-reading the chapter plan, I might then remember that it should be addressed later in the novel, with a proper conclusion.
So, I think that’s enough time spent in Barwinston. Hopefully that gives a general idea of what I mean when I talk about beginning at the end. In summary, if you have a conclusion already in mind, then you can use that to understand exactly what you need earlier in the story to pull it off.
There’s no one way to write a story, though, and everyone will approach it differently. As for myself, I need to go and plan my next major project!