Writing Your Last Page
If you’re having trouble putting a story together, try writing it backwards.
The question ‘What will happen next?’ occurs in even the most primitive stories - in fact, it forms the basis of the simplest story form. If a listener or audience member of reader knows what will happen next (unless some of the other characters in the story don’t know, and the tension is to do with if or when they will find out) then there isn’t much horsepower in that story. There are various technical reasons for this, but they could be summed up as ‘that which the audience doesn’t know is what creates forward motion’.
And that’s all very well for the reader, and perhaps for the writer too, on a first draft: but there will come a point in the writing of the story when the writer will know everything that there is to know about that particular tale. For the writer, at that point, there is no more forward motion: it’s finished. The writer’s job from there is to rebuild the story so that the reader doesn’t know things, in a line or sequence which leads the reader on to the end.
But writers sometimes struggle with this. In posing the constant question ‘What will happen next?’ to themselves, they can get into a wandering pattern, leading readers on and on through whatever adventure the narrative is about. Sufficient ‘unknowns’ are built up - ‘cliffhangers’, dramatic and exciting endings to episodes or scenes, leaving the audience in suspense and anxious not to miss the next episode, which make readers and audiences feel compelled to turn the page - but many writers begin eagerly, writing energetically, constructing scene after scene, crafting cliffhangers to hook the reader into the next part of the tale, only to peter out, losing focus and power as each unknown is devalued and deflated. Eventually, many stories wind down simply because the writer doesn’t know, or can no longer imagine any kind of answer to the question which makes sense within the context of the story.
If you’re in this situation, you could do worse than starting from the end.
Imagine that everything in your tale is resolved: all the characters have realised whatever it is that they are supposed to have realised, all the events have occurred, all the pieces are in the right places, sub-plots have been wrapped up, marriages have occurred, kingdoms have been conquered, or whatever is appropriate in your story. You’re writing the final few pages: hero/heroine triumphant, perhaps, or protagonist dead (if you’re writing a Tragedy) or things have spiralled into insanity (if you’re writing an Irony). What is your final ‘punchline’? What taste or flavour or image or thought do you want your reader to be left with? When your readers close that last page, or the curtain goes down, or the lights go up, what do you want them to be thinking or feeling? Sadness? Exhilaration? Amusement? Thoughtfulness?
Write that last page. Then work backwards.
How did that final scene come about? What issues were unresolved that finally got resolved? Which characters represented each side of those issues?
All of a sudden, the larger tapestry of your story becomes apparent: you see the underlying structure of it in the same way that Neo glimpses the ‘code’ behind his virtual reality world in the movie The Matrix. Everything in your story was building to that last page -or should have been.
Thoroughly understanding what your last page is all about and what effect it is there to create opens the door to writing a story that works. Now you can (if you wish) modify your tale so that every sentence is aimed at the bullseye of that last page. You can introduce foreshadowing, for example, because you know what you are foreshadowing; you can alter language so that each and every word echoes the final meaning of your tale; you can shape character arcs so that they fit into the overall scheme. You can do many things.
Some writers can’t work like this. They need to energy of the ‘What will happen next?’ question to fuel their writing, just as readers need it to fuel their reading. That’s fine, there are many ways to write. But writing backwards is a highly effective way of making sure that every element in your story serves its purpose, no more and no less.
You’ll soon see a difference.