Should You Think About Your Endings First?

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) begins November 1. During the month of November, participants will attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel (or about 1,667 words per day). There are many different approaches. Come November 1, some people have well-developed outlines, while others prefer to start with a completely blank slate. I definitely lean towards the first category. I like to plan things out to a certain degree, but I’m willing to make changes if it seems appropriate. So does this mean I plan out every little moment? Not hardly. I usually start with a particular scene in mind and build backwards or forwards from there. I like to refer to a E.L. Doctorow quote when outlining: “Writing is like driving the car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Instead of planning out everything in detail, I like to create landmarks that I want to hit during the course of the story.

Of course, that quote implies that you have a destination in mind when you start driving, so let’s think about endings. Yesterday, Taylor Houston published a great column on LitReactor.com. Houston considers the ending of a story to be the most important part of a story, so he advises writers to think about it first. He thinks this will help your ending become the payoff readers will want and deserve after working through your story. He created a list of questions writers need to answer when thinking about the ending to their story:

1. What is the tone of my story, and what mood do I want to leave the reader in when he/she puts the book down?
2. Do I want this story to have a moral or message? What is it?
3. Are my main characters going to live or die?
4. What is my plot twist?
5. What is the setting of the final scene or event?
6. What big pieces of the story will I need to tie up in the end?

I can hear those writers who prefer to write by the seat of their pants moaning in frustration, “If I take away all the surprises, my writing will fall flat.” Or perhaps they think, “My characters are so unique and well-developed that they will have trouble conforming to any plan I create.” Well, before you ignore the rest of this post, take another look at Houston’s questions. Sure, he’s asking you to resolve some big questions, but he’s not really asking you to come up with a concrete ending. It’s more about creating a feel or tone of the ending. He’s helping you add to that list of landmarks you’ll need when you begin your drive. Besides, if you take a moment to answer these questions, you won’t have to go back during your re-writes to insert foreshadowing or plant a Chekhov’s gun. These things will develop more naturally because you know what is needed, and you will have some idea of how they will come into play later.

Maybe it’s because Houston’s questions favor writers like me (with our stacks of notes and outlines), but I think these questions will not only help you have a better ending, but also a stronger setup. What do you think? Do you plan out your stories? How much of your ending do you know before you begin writing?