July 17, 2014

Building a Character Arc: Start at the End

Train tracks ending on a beach with text: Want a Strong Arc? Start at The End

One technique I teach in my Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story workshop is to figure out the end of the story first. This might seem counter-intuitive when we first hear the idea, but keep reading and it will all make sense. Trust me. *smile*

As I mentioned with the John Truby worksheet I shared last week, it’s often easier to work backward when we’re framing our story. At the very least, knowing the ending often makes it easier to see our character’s arc.

I write by the seat of my pants, so my idea of the ending is usually pretty vague. And by “pretty vague,” I mean really vague:

Um, it’s a romance, so these characters will have a happy ending. *whew* Mark that to-do off the list.

But even that duh statement of the ending is enough to figure out one aspect of the beginning. Let’s take a look at how that works.

Stage 1 Arc Development: Establish a Basic Contrast

If we’re writing a story with a character arc (not all stories contain character arcs, but most do), we want our characters to change from point A (the beginning) to point B (the ending). That means we need to show contrast between point A and point B.

For my example, if point B is happy, point A must be… (all together now) …sad or unfulfilled in some way. In other words, simply by knowing the “status” of the characters at the end, we know to make their beginning status different somehow.

If we’re writing a positive ending, we know we need a scene in the beginning of the story that shows how things aren’t good for the characters. Maybe they know what they want and they’re stymied in how to make it happen. Maybe they know of plot events heading toward them that will make things worse. Or maybe they don’t know what they want, but something’s missing from their lives or they’re going through the motions and feeling unfulfilled.

Stage 2 Arc Development: Establish a Change in Beliefs

The Climax scene at the end of the story typically shows the characters facing the main conflict. In non-tragedies, we’d see the characters overcome the obstacles and “win.”

But overcoming the obstacles shouldn’t be easy. After all, if it was easy, they would have done it back in chapter one (or before the story even started).

In stories with strong character arcs, the Climax often includes a choice the characters must make. This choice is the theme.

Think of choices like: loyalty vs. justice, love vs. survival, advancement vs. compassion, etc. (Here’s a big list of values for ideas of those two ideals to choose between.) In other words, these are two good options. If one was good and the other bad, the choice would be too easy. *smile*

Step 1: Identify the Theme

There’s no wrong answer for our characters (remember, both options are “good”), but their choice does illustrate the theme of the story. For example, if we look at the “loyalty vs. justice” choice:

  • A buddy heist movie along the lines of Ocean’s Eleven might choose loyalty by ending with the characters helping each other escape, even if that means losing the “prize” to the bad guy who screwed them over.
  • A buddy detective movie along the lines of Training Day might choose justice by ending with one character turning in their partner for corruption, even though that means being disloyal to their friend.

In one case, we-the-author are imparting the message that to live a good life, we need to value people over objects. In the second case, we’re sharing the message that to live a good life, we might need to sacrifice friendship for the greater good. That choice is our theme.

Step 2: Identify the Choice

If we know what kind of story we want to tell theme-wise (at least on a basic level), we can think about how we’ll force the characters to make a choice between two good options during the Climax. Often, one option is the point of the story (the way they’re going to choose) and the other option is something else they’d be likely to choose (especially at the beginning of the story).

Being a pantser, I won’t know the specifics of the choice, but I’ll usually have some ideas for the “versus” statement. Maybe it’ll be a “love vs. survival” story, and at the end, the hero or heroine must choose between saving themselves and saving the one they’ve realized they love. That idea is sufficiently vague enough to not stress out my muse. *smile*

Step 3: Identify the Change

To create an emotional impact with our characters’ arc and the story theme, that second good option at the Climax choice should be what the characters would choose if they faced the main conflict at the beginning of the story.

Remember that we want to show contrast between Point A and Point B. So our characters’ beliefs, attitudes, values, etc. at the beginning of the story should point them to pick the second option.

Both options are “good,” so this difference in their choice doesn’t make them “bad.” This is simply how we show the biggest change in their character. The difference shows how their values and beliefs have changed.

Maybe their beliefs changed because they’re no longer operating under a false belief. Maybe they’ve gone through so many life experiences during the story that they’re now more capable. Maybe the plot events have showed them what really matters.

The important thing is that the characters are now willing to do something they weren’t willing to do before. Our story’s “plot” is simply the events that challenge their beliefs/values and the action that forces them to face the choice at the Climax.

Stage 3 Arc Development: Establish the Self-Revelation

Everything that happens in our story should have a trigger. Every effect should have a cause. So something needs to happen that forces our characters to change.

In many stories, the characters change a little bit at a time, but they won’t really change—deep down where it counts (and where it will stick)—until they realize how their beliefs are false. This revelation often happens all at once, right as they’re facing the biggest obstacle during the Climax. This self-revelation gives them the information they need to overcome their fatal flaw and/or solve the conflict.

In stories with strong, emotional Climaxes, this revelation can feel like a magical Hallelujah moment or an epiphany where the puzzle of the character’s life finally clicks into place. In other words, this is often the most dramatic moment of the story.

To make this intense moment work, we have to set it up earlier in the story. Readers should:

  • form the impression our characters would make a different choice at the beginning,
  • see evidence of our characters’ false beliefs, and
  • believe our characters are capable of figuring out their revelation.

As a pantser, I might have a vague idea of what that second option for the Climax choice would be (like “survival”), or I might not. For this stage, my muse often gives me elements to work into the story (that I don’t understand until I draft the ending and see how it all fits together), or I might need to layer it in during revisions. It’s okay to not know this ahead of time, but we can definitely think about it during revision.

…But What Triggers the Self-Revelation?

I sometimes call the self-revelation a “leap of faith” because it’s one time in our story where the cause doesn’t have to match the effect. Usually we want our characters’ emotional reactions to be proportional to the triggers. If they fly off the handle at the smallest thing, readers are going to think they’re hyper-emotional.

But for the revelation, it’s okay if the trigger is small. In a romance, maybe all it takes is the hero giving the heroine a smile at the right moment as they’re facing the big conflict. That small gesture could be enough to trigger a huge epiphany about how much she loves him—really loves him. And that realization can be enough to motivate her to make different choices.

Normally, a mere smile wouldn’t trigger a major epiphany and story-changing action. But the “leap of faith” moment of self-revelation is an exception—if we’ve established the earlier setup.

In fact, this disconnect can give the impression of the character rising to a moment of heroism and exceptional courage. If the epiphany seems like a given or too logically follows the trigger, our characters might not seem special for taking the leap.

Summing Up: Working from the Ending to the Beginning

Even if we’re the pants-iest pantser, we can still use this technique. After all, once we’ve completed the first draft, we know what the ending is, and if we’re happy with our story, that ending isn’t likely to change at the high level.

That means any changes to make a stronger arc need to come from the beginning. During revisions, we can go through these same stages to make sure the beginning is different enough to create a strong arc.

Create Contrast:

  • Ending: Know the “status” of the character(s) at the end (e.g. happy).
  • Beginning: Develop an opposing status for the beginning.

Change in Choice:

  • Ending: Identify what two good values they need to choose between at the end.
  • Beginning: Give clues for how they’d make the opposite choice at the beginning.

Show Self-Revelation:

  • Ending: Think about the epiphany they experience at the end.
  • Beginning: Hint at the false beliefs they have that they later realize are wrong.

Taken together, these elements of contrast, change in their choice, and self-revelation create the structure for character arcs. Along that structure, we can hang backstory wounds, fears, desires, goals, etc., but that basic Point A and Point B gives the arc its strength. Everything else is just details. *smile*

Have you planned stories from end-to-beginning before? Does that method work for you? If not, why not? How many of these elements can you plan in advance? Or do you need to layer them in later? Do you disagree with my theories on any of these story aspects?

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Interesting stuff! Especially the parts about end status and beginning status, and the two contrasting good values. Hmm, unfortunately I think I’m even more extreme on the pantser intensity scale than you are—-even knowing what the two big contrasting themes/ values are (e.g. love vs survival) is too much for my muse to take. XD. I seriously know THAT little, lol. Well I know some basic things about my ending, but they’re just plot events, not about character changes. To be honest, I’m not even sure that there WILL be any character changes at all! I do see clearly a lot of my characters’ different beliefs, and it’s possible that some of my characters’ beliefs will change afterwards, but I really don’t know. My character arcs/ changes, if any, will only appear to me when they choose to appear—I can’t decide on any changes in advance, lol. That’s how little control I have over my story, haha. But I guess this is fun because I get the pleasure of FINDING OUT what the character changes will be as the story progresses, if any changes occur at all. Also, I clearly see some flaws my characters have, especially in my hero. But I actually DON’T want him to change, because this flaw of his makes him entertaining. XDD. Do you have times when you don’t want your character to overcome their flaw, because their flaw is just so entertaining and it’d be such a shame if they lose that flaw? In…  — Read More »


I usually get a goal for the climax or end by the time I’m about 10% into a story. If I don’t have one, I have to sit down and figure it out, at about that point.

I might have no clue how I get to my goal—and the goals are often snippets, not fully fleshed-out scenes—but I’ve found that one surefire way to get the “Something’s wrong” vibe about my writing is to figure out that end goal…and then forget it while writing.

In my current WiP, the narrator is going to have a lot more changes at the end than I usually have, but it seems to be building organically. She’s a self-reliant loner who has a bunch of other problems, including PTSD that she’s ignored for >20 years and a deep-seated belief that she is not to be trusted with a child.

The story starts off with her pregnant, from a drunken/depressed “Oops.”

…and it gets worse from there.

I already know the scene where she’ll have her major revelations for some of it, and *grimace*. It’s gonna be pretty horrific…especially for someone who’s been tortured in the ways she was as a kid.

But I’m planting the seeds in the first draft over on Wattpad, and from reader comments, it’s working how I want. 🙂

Loni Townsend

I can usually get step 1! The other two, I’ll have to work on. But that’s some excellent guidance that I’m going to put to use.

Autumn Macarthur

This is excellent advice, thanks so much!

Hopefully just what I need to get my novella unstuck in the middle.

LOL, too many people who’d read the first few chapters told me they were good, so of course today I’m sitting at the laptop paralysed with self-doubt and fear of screwing it up!

Julie Musil

Jami, this is excellent advice. I have another release coming out next month, and I thought of the ending before I knew anything else. Actually the ending came about while watching the news. It was fun to create a whole novel around that one image from a news story.


I’m going to give this a try with my next story … usually I have no idea what the ending will be until I get there, or at least within hailing distance. This is gonna be fun! 🙂


I really like how you set this up!
I usually do have a pretty good idea of how my protagonist is broken at the beginning of the story, and a rough idea of how I intend to fix things as I write towards my ending.
What I might be missing though is how my protagonist plays an active role in determining his own fate. My aha moment came when I understood that to be a true hero, he must overcome his self-imposed obstacles–and thus complete his character arc.
For me, this is much easier said than done! 😉

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

The ending was one of the first things I thought of. My idea was initially inspired by something I read in a short Victorian ghost story which I found fascinating. I have no idea what made me think of the ending but once I did I built the specifics of the plot around the beginning and the end. I’ve found it difficult to apply the structure above and for a while I thought it was just me but then I stumbled upon the structure for a tragedy (my main character does not come out of this well) and my plot fits almost perfectly which was a great relief. There was something that my dad’s ex-girlfriend said that I’d like capture for my main character at the beginning, that there was a kind of sadness to my sister and I but how to show this in written form I’m not sure. As for the character arc, it’s downhill all the way after the catalyst which initially seems a harmless mystery but becomes an obsession for her. As the story progresses it drags her down further and further. I think a lot of people will be dissatisfied with the ending. The question which has been running through the whole story is answered, but is immediately followed by a “Hang on a minute” moment, which poses another question where the answer is entirely open to interpretation. The lack of resolution is going to bug some people but I would definitely love to read…  — Read More »

Sharla Rae

I’m a pantster too. I always know the ending but I think your ideas help with the middle and help with getting to that ending. Great blog Jami.

Laurie Evans

I have the hardest time with theme and character arcs. Thanks for this article! And thanks for reminding us that we can go BACK and revise and add this later.

Could you give a few more “versus” statements that might apply to romance stories?

I like the “loyalty vs. justice” example, but I was wondering if you could give a few more that are commonly used in romance. Thanks.

Deborah Makarios

Ooo! I can see I’ve got some more thinking to do before writing the ending of my WIP – and rewriting the whole thing 🙂
Very lucidly explained, thank you!

Marni Folsom
Marni Folsom

Jami, great post! I’m a plantser these days…a born pantser who’s learning to plot (at least roughly) with an eye on overall project schedule. I pound the keyboard in between the demands of two kids under four, so it’s all about efficiency these days….

I usually have the characters’ end goals in mind when I start Draft 1, and it’s pretty ironed out in detail by the time I get through Act 2. If that doesn’t happen organically, I take a break from writing to rework character arcs. That wasn’t always the case (she says with a bit of fondness …I love just writing, writing, writing!), but now that I’ve reformed a bit, I find that having the end in mind propels me through my sagging middle. Most of the time. 😉 I’m midway through my current WIP and working on character arcs. Your post gave me good food for thought on the protagonists’ choice shifts. Thank you!

I appreciate your articles on craft, Jami! I hope to meet you in San Antonio next week. 🙂


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I think I can totally use this. I’m a pantser, too, but I usually know how the story needs to end, I just don’t always know how I’m going to get there.

Thanks for writing this, I might be able to know a little more about how to get there. Also themes seem to show up in my stories without my realizing it. Is that normal?

S. Alex Martin
S. Alex Martin

Wow. I’ve written about character arcs before, but never *this* detailed. (Which is ironic, because the focus of my latest novel is all about character change, from negative to positive, and vice versa in the sequel). After reading through this though, I can definitely say my MC experiences each of the core steps. Base, check. Change in beliefs, check. Self-revelation, check. It’s weird to see it all explained just like I wrote the character to be XD

Thanks for a great blog post!

“How to Create a Magnificent Main Character”


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Carolyn Rae Williamson

I have copied your blogs on character arc, avoiding episodic writing and writing a forbidden story. They are all excellent and may help me write more novels that sell. Carolyn Rae Williamson, writing as Carolyn Rae, Romancing the Gold (MuseItUp, Sept. 2014)


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