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.
- 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.
- 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?Pin It