On Writing: From C to A and Back to B
Updated: Jan 7, 2021
Often, when I’m discussing my current and future projects with my most trusted prereaders, we come upon certain points in the plot where the story could very well go in a vastly different direction.
A long-time in-joke with my brother, for example, is the idea that in a prospective story about a man who studies to be a butcher, he could end up accidentally knocking out a health inspector who wanders into his shop. From here, his life can take two paths: he can wake the man up, explain what happened, and hope for the best, perhaps becoming a successful meat shop owner a few decades down the line.
Alternatively, our hero could panic, take the unconscious man out back, cut him up, and sell his meat to get rid of the evidence. Turns out people love his new “mystery meat” and so he’s “forced” to keep on getting more, leading an increasingly dangerous double life as his meat empire grows.
It’s as gross as it is silly, but it goes to show what different ways you can take a simple idea.
When you’re writing a story, you’re a bit of a god. You exist outside of time and space. You see all these branching streams of many different histories, each likely to be as unique and compelling to you as the others, but you’ll have to pick just one.
Being a god has a few advantages, such as not being limited by the linearity of time. Being a god, you can start at the end. I think you should.
The way I see it, if you don’t have an ending, you don’t really have a story. One of my biggest pet peeves, indeed, is when a story or series just... keeps... going... and refuses to end. I like stories that are neatly tied up. I don’t mind long stories, per se, but the writer – and me! – need to have an ending in sight at all times for me to care.
This is not the only way to write a book, but it is my way.
I’ve heard people starting stories based on specific scenes or characters that come to them. So far, that hasn’t been the case for me. For me, my stories have always started with a vague idea or a concept that I wanted to explore, to be populated after the fact by petty things like “plot” and “characters”. The core of a story, to me, is not something that exists “inside” the story, not something that “happens”, but rather it’s something overarching that informs the entire story. For Seven-Point Star, for example, that idea was “what if magic existed, but we actually used it sensibly?” whilst for What a Time to be Alice!, that concept was “can I make a vision of the future that’s at once realistic AND optimistic?”
From there, I don’t usually struggle to come up with characters. If anything, I tend to come up with too many of them and end up combining and cutting several. For Star, I always knew the protagonist had to be some kind of underdog. The decision to make her a thief came relatively late in development, in fact, and chosen mostly at a whim just so I could finally start making that elusive first draft. Other contenders were making her the player of some sort of blood sport, like magical-gladiator combat or so, or a rent-a-cop.
What I’m trying to show here is that ideas don’t need to be very exact or specific to start working on them. Don’t be one of those people that spend more time thinking about writing than actually writing. If you want to write, write.
Now you can look at the above example and say, hey, magical gladiator? Security guard? Thief? Those sound like vastly different characters! How can you be so callous about that decision?!
The answer is simple: because I start at the end, not the beginning. In the end, it really, really doesn’t matter who Raina was. All that matters to me is what she will become. Regardless of her prior life, I’d have found a way to somehow disgrace the protagonist of Star. I’d have had her arrested, her magic taken away, and dragged to the flying city, one way or another. The backstory is retrofitted to fit the story’s ending. I don’t try to contrive a story out of a backstory.
To return to Star, once I had my basic concept and an idea for the most important characters, I jumped right to the end. This way, before writing a single line, I already knew where I wanted them to end up: in the control room of the flying city, hurt and broken, bargaining with the godlike magical entity as the city crashes around them. In my mind, from the moment I started actually writing Seven-Point Star, the underdog hero, the unfortunate young sidekick, and the evil, angelic magus-villain were always there, in that room. This was a vision I never deviated from, even if I left it plenty of room for interpretation.
Once I had that ending in mind, then I could write.
When you have a good idea for your ending, I find that the rest of the story tends to write itself. So, I needed Star’s protagonist to end up in the control room of the magical flying city. Naturally, I needed a way to get her into the city in the first place.
She could’ve just been living there already – but no, then I’d have deprived the audience of going to the flying city for the first time with the protagonist. She had to be an outsider.
Now hold on, I thought, this is actually a great way to showcase the contrast between the world on the ground versus the world in the sky, wonderful! Well, if we’re going for contrast, why not make the protagonist come from an especially poor family, and then force her to make do in the world of rich wizards and magnates? I could even tie it into her backstory: she’s acutely aware of everything she could have but doesn’t, this makes her bitter and resentful of those rich wizards. Hey, maybe this is why she became a thief? That so works!
Okay, but why would she be taken to the flying city? They probably wouldn’t bother bringing her there just to put her in jail, probably. So it must be part of some greater plot. A conspiracy? What is it about her that makes her important enough that they’d go to such trouble to “acquire” her? Maybe she has some sort of gift. And thus, the idea for the magical “sixth sense” was born.
Remember when I said that I don’t usually write a story out of a backstory, but rather retrofit each character’s life and personality such that it fits the ending I want to get to? This is it.
In fact, as I’m sitting here trying to explain my writing process, I’m finding it difficult to put into words just how easy it is. They say that every writer has their own way of writing, and it rings true; me, I’ve never known any other way. I always start at the end, circle back to the beginning, and then simply connect the two. To me, this comes naturally, instinctively, and it has never failed me.
See, if I start with the idea of a practising butcher and try to extrapolate, I could take his life to the absolutely mundane or grossly outrageous. If I start with the idea of a butcher’s empire that sells human meat, I can only go one way. It is simple, it is obvious, it is clear.
So if you’re agonising over getting your story started, maybe consider ending it first.