The Best Way to Finish a Story is to Not Begin

by Jeff Kitchen

Starting in writing on a new story can be daunting, and many people spend way too much time hung up on getting it kicked off right. They go over it time and again to make it smoother and more clever, tighter and more compelling, getting stuck in first gear as perfectionism grinds things to a halt. Of course your beginning has to kick major butt, but you don’t need to get all worked up over it when you’re only getting started. In fact, it’s radically easier to just skip the opening and walk around it, and start writing where you’re comfortable and it flows for you. If there’s a part early in the story where your writing flows, then start there. The beginning is a bit like frosting a cake—it comes last and makes everything look great and get started on the right foot.

Start writing where you have a comfortable flow

The fact is, the beginning will get reworked many times so there’s no reason to waste time trying to nail it at the start of your writing process. Often, you’ll discover a great opening as you craft the rest of the story, finding a fun way in through some particular quirk of the story, or a from discovering a cool payoff that needs a set up.  And because the beginning is so important, it’s more like a show piece than just a normal section of writing. It’s not. It’s the nose cone of the rocket and must perform complex multiple functions perfectly. The rest of the story is more normal storytelling, and you know the material by the time you sit down to write, so just go to the section where it flows and then come back later, fill in the beginning, and craft it to perfection. And of course, if you have a crystal-clear vision of your opening and have to get it down, then by all means do it. But don’t get stuck honing it for too long as it will probably evolve along with the story and need revision by the time you finish the whole thing.

You can always come back to the beginning

And by the time you’ve written the whole thing, you’re fluent in that story’s language, so the beginning’s now considerably easier to tackle, and you can better tailor the beginning to fit the whole story. This is true for any kind of writing actually, because getting it kicked off right can be really hard. The temptation is to not let it kick your butt, so you pound your head on it for too long and waste valuable time. And as we said, it will be revised so many times anyway, so why waste of time to start in on now. The best way to finish a story is to skip the beginning at first.

Work backwards from your ending

Another great trick for getting started is to know where you need to end up. By the time you sit down to write you generally know the story pretty well, so you know your ending. Visualizing where your story ends up helps give it a shape, an organic feel for the story. It’s one more way to get a grip on a living, amorphous story, and the more points of purchase you’ve got, the more you can sculpt the material, shape it, dramatize it, and help maximize its horsepower. Having a good clear mental image of your story, however that appears to you, can help you feel more in control as you surf this wave, this wall of energy that is an emerging story. Any kind of handle on the material can help, and several writer’s tools that can make crisp distinctions can help you frame your problems and solve them.

Chain back from each effect to its cause

And if you’re just not sure how to proceed even though you know the material well, you can articulate the ending in simple clear language. Then write what incident is the immediate cause of that and you now have the last two pieces of your story. State the cause of that incident and you’ve forged another link in the chain of events, starting at its end. By working backwards through the cause and effect, just sketching out the general events, the broad strokes, you quickly assemble the main building blocks of your story, such that the first causes the second which causes the third, all the way through to the end. It gives you a simple uncluttered outline of your story’s forward progression, with nothing extraneous. This enables you to write clearly and logically, making it easier to write and easier to read. And this simple backwards chain of events works great for any kind of writing, whether it’s a short story or an article, a blog or a complex essay. Having the basic stepping stones helps you move clearly ahead.  

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