Starting Backwards

This is how most writers get themselves in trouble. They start off with an interesting idea and keep writing until they run out of ideas. With a screenplay or a novel, that usually means getting about halfway through and not knowing how to finish it. At this point, writers often plow ahead and then the story feels convoluted and rushed to a sudden ending that leaves the audience unsatisfied.

The problem with starting at the beginning and working towards the end is that you don’t know where you’re going. How many people plan a vacation by hopping in their car and driving until they get to where they want to go? If they don’t know where they want to go, they’ll waste time aimlessly driving around with no direction whatsoever, and that’s exactly how most people approach writing.

Instead, start with the ending. What’s the emotional feeling you want the audience to experience at the end? If you don’t know that final emotional experience, it’s time to find out now before you start writing yourself into a dead end.

Once you know that final emotional moment, then it’s time to decide how to create that moment. For example, let’s suppose our story is a romantic comedy. The ending should have the lovers finally together. The question is how do they get together? On the top of the Empire State Building like “Sleepless in Seattle”? With the man climbing a fire escape to rescue the woman in “Pretty Woman”? The details are less important than the emotional experience, but once you know the details, you start working backwards.

In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the lovers finally meet at the top of the Empire State Building, so now you work backwards and set this idea up. Through that movie, there are multiple references to an older movie where two lovers meet at the top of the Empire State Building, son now you know you must sprinkle this reference in the story from the beginning to the end. In “Pretty Woman,” the hero is afraid of heights so climbing the fire escape is his way of overcoming his fear to find true love. Thus the story hints of his fear of heights earlier.

Once you know how your story ends, then you can layer in the emotions to make that ending more impactful. When you have characters talking about the happy moment in an older movie where two people find love at the top of the Empire State building, that primes the audience to hope that the current movie characters will also find love at the top of the Empire State Building.

Working backwards works for all types of stories. In “Terminator 2,” the ending is where the hero (the good Terminator) voluntarily destroys himself to save the human race. The emotional experience is that the hero (the good Terminator) finally understands why people cry and learns the importance of a human life.

Knowing your ending means knowing the theme you want to present. Knowing that the good Terminator learned why people cry and the value of a human life, working backwards means the hero must start out not knowing the value of a human life by trying to kill to solve his problems. First the hero learns that killing is wrong. Then the hero learns that he can solve problems by not killing people. Finally we get to the ending when the hero learns the value of a human life.

Working backwards forces you to fully understand your theme and ending before you start writing. Now you have a target to hit. Without a target, you’ll risk wandering aimlessly discovering irrelevant facts and story lines that have nothing to do with your ultimate message which is your theme. That’s why exercises that have you write about your hero’s childhood can be a waste because it forces you to think about things that have no bearing on your story. Knowing about your hero can help you write a complete character, but 99% of what you know will never show up in your story, so don’t waste time focusing on irrelevant details when you can focus more time on crafting your ending by knowing the emotional impact at the end and then the details for how it ends.

The details for how your story ends can always change, but once you know your ending, you automatically know your beginning, and once you know your beginning and ending, you know the parts in between. In comparison, if all you know is your beginning, you’ll be lucky if you ever discover the middle and the ending.

Start backwards. Then you’ll be in a far more powerful position to craft an interesting story from the beginning.

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