Do I Start the Story at the End?
In the last post, we discussed some of the disadvantages of starting your story at what seems like the natural beginning. So if the beginning has problems, the obvious question is What about starting the story at the end?
What is it?
Although this seems oxymoronic, it can be effective. Stories Told Backward? gives examples of novels which use this device.
Basically, your opening scene is the end of the novel or memoir. Where the protagonist triumphs or goes down to worthy defeat. Where the boy gets the girl or they part with a memory that lasts forever.
From there, you can start at the beginning of the story and unfold the story as you would normally. If you are really tricky, you can move backward in time so that the second scene is the event immediately prior to the ending, and the last scene is the introduction of the characters. If you can do this, more power to you. I’ve never been able to figure out how.
But there are downsides to starting with the end
I want to make a distinction between starting your initial writing with the end and, after much thought and editing on your final version, choosing to start with the ending. The latter may be an excellent decision but I’m discussing the first draft here.
You give away the end.
Obviously, the reader knows what’s coming. This can work if you can infuse the story with a sense of an impending and inevitable doom. Readers will keep reading even if, or perhaps especially if, they dread the outcome. However, if you can’t keep up that level of engagement, your readers may lose interest as they know (or think they know) where the story is going.
And of course, the resolution is no surprise. An exception would be if you are able to change the meaning of the ending. For example, when the reader experiences the ending as a first scene, they might conclude the main character is getting the comeuppance he deserves. Writing skillfully, you might weave the story so the reader realizes by the end that the protagonist has been wronged. The ending stays the same, but its meaning changes.
There may be an impatience to get to the end.
This can be true for you as well as the reader. Because you present the end first, you may be tempted to take a straight line route to it and thereby perhaps miss out on the interesting byways and character development which you might otherwise be open to.
It can have the same effect on the reader. Readers who don’t know how the novel will end are more likely to follow you wherever you want to go (within limits). But if they know what has to happen, they may be impatient with scenes which, at least on the surface, don’t seem to be building to that ending.
You pre-determine where you are going.
To my mind, this is the biggest drawback to this approach. I believe that a story which unfolds as the situation, characters, and your creativity dictates has a much better chance of being compelling than one where you go in with blinders on.
Next post: My preferred way to start a writing project