Creative Writing Reality Check: Authors DON’T Know The Ending Ahead of Time

Photo on 2011-02-22 at 15.31_3Everyone, please welcome guest blogger and fellow author Katie Cross to crimsonleague.com today, to talk about her experiences with creative writing, characters, and novels.

A bit of background for this post: as you know, my writer’s handbook, “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction” releases July 31.

Part of the first chapter involves a description of what I consider the most common and most counterproductive misconceptions about writing a novel.

To help pump people up for the release, I asked Katie to write about what she considers one of the major misconceptions non-writers and beginning-writers have.

How much does an author REALLY know what’s going to happen to her characters???

I’ll let Katie take it from here:

When I was a little girl, I would have given up my softball mitt to know who my future husband would be.

I was convinced it was Devin, the first-grade hunk. He made my knees weak with his long hair, athletic tetherball prowess, and the cute way his cheeks turned red when he ran. He even wore hightop sneakers, and was the best tag player I’d ever met.

The thought of waiting twenty years for him to ask me to marry him was unbearable. I wanted to know now. There was competition to worry about. Whitney was a strawberry blonde with white skin and freckles, while I had frizzy brown hair that rarely left a ponytail. I needed some reassurance.

This plan is going to work out. I just know it.

For some of us, being a writer is a lot like being a lovestruck first-grader. We have a great idea and we want to make sure it’s going to work out the way we want it to. Outside influences be gone! The end is ours, and we own it.

(Insert obnoxious buzzer sound here.)

Wrong.

There’s a strange assumption in the world that writers always know the end of the story from the beginning. The odds of that happening are about the same as my odds for marrying Devin. Was there a chance? Yes, there was a chance. Some authors do know the end from the beginning.

But I’d say that most of the time, we don’t. Or if we do, it changes one or twenty times.

When I first started to take myself seriously as a writer, I thought I had to have the plot all planned out. Before I could get really serious about the story, I had to know the ending. I spent weeks drafting an outline, trying to figure out exactly how it was going to finish, and when. So much planning went into the story that I actually forgot to write. In the end, I was so frustrated that I didn’t have a perfect ending, I shoved the story into a closet and left it there for over a year.

And counting. (I still haven’t crept back to it.)

So I started another story called Miss Mabel’s School for Girls. It started itself as a short story for a contest, actually. It did so well, with so much feedback requesting the next chapter, that I realized I should keep going. So I did. I wrote like a maniac with no real plan in mind for the first ten chapters. Reviews poured in. “Excellent work. Give me more.”

Then I wrote chapter eleven without knowing what would happen in twelve.

And then up to fifteen.

And so on, to chapter sixty-six.

By chapter twenty, I had a vague idea how I wanted the story to end. Chapter thirty brought a stroke of genius. I knew exactly what I wanted at the end, and I plowed towards it like a bull in a pen. The suspense of the story built, and so did my love of this amazing finale. They are going to freak out! I thought, knowing my readers would melt. This plan is going to work out. I just know it.

Days and weeks of finger-blistering writing passed. When I got a few chapters away from the big scene, I stopped at a wall. A big, fat, brick wall. The ending was awful. It was out of line, didn’t fit with my characters, and my strategically placed snippets of foreshadowing were more restricting than helpful.

What? All my plans? It was a flashback to first grade. Am I going to marry Devin?

So after banging my head against the wall, I caved and wrote a different ending. Then I put it away for a week, and slipped into mourning. I wouldn’t marry Devin after all!

A week later, I pulled the scene back out and skimmed it. Then I doubled back and skimmed it again. Then I read it. Then I poured into it.

What was happening? I loved this scene! But… how could I give my allegiance to something other than my original idea, my first love? Wasn’t that disloyal?

Actually, it was quite easy. More than that, it was liberating! Allowing the story to unfold on its own is part of the excitement in writing. Admit it- we don’t get a lot of confetti or applause, holed up in our office, or kitchen, or closet. But the rush of finding a new place in our world, or a new character, or slipping in a scene that fits just right is almost as exciting.

Although he was the first boy to have my heart, and not even know it, Devin disappeared after first grade and I never saw him again. We didn’t get married. Looking back on the last twenty years, I can see that an ending with Devin wasn’t the best ending after all.

With Devin gone, I was free to choose another scene. A more perfect character. Without letting my expectations for control go, I’d never have found this guy:

katie

What experiences have you had with writing an ending? Are you one of the chosen few who know the story exactly as you write it, before it’s ever on paper? Has your story ever taken you to totally different places?

 Katie Cross is an aspiring writer that loves to run in the mountains, eat vegetables, play with her dog, and tease her husband. She plans on having her first book Miss Mabel’s School for Girls e-published by the end of the year. Visit her website at www.kcrosswriting.com Or get frequent updates at www.facebook.com/katiecrosswriting and www.twitter.com/kcrosswriting

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65 responses to “Creative Writing Reality Check: Authors DON’T Know The Ending Ahead of Time

  1. Ann Marie Meek

    I love this post! I agree completely. I can only plan and outline to a certain point. The story has to reveal itself to me as I write it. That’s part of the fun! By the way, I think the guy with the pink wings is far superior to Devin. 😉

  2. This is great! I remember first hearing (I forget where) the wisdom ‘great writers don’t plan endings’ when I was thirteen. I promptly appropriated this idea as my own and spouted it when my English teacher asked how I had come up with my story. Precocious little bitch, I was…

    Nevertheless, this has always stuck with me. I never plan endings, I am unable to. I write without reading back and let the story tell the story, and sometimes even I am surprised at where the story has taken itself. And sometimes I am left with nothing but a sore back, bleary eyes and pages of rubbish to show for my efforts, but that’s ok too 🙂

    • Love what you say here: I write with the same plan (or lack of one) letting the story develop as it wants to. It’s crazy fun. And stressful at moments, especially when you realize you have to kill a character you really want to make it. But…. that’s writing! Seems like Katie, you, and me are 3 peas in a pod 🙂

  3. I so understand, when writing my trilogy, it started as one long book, got cut into two and the second expanded with a whole new development and over half way through the third did the “end” come flashing into mind. Much of the third book was not thought of even when the second was being written.
    Its a trust thing with your creativity, and it arrives when you need it, not necessarily when you want it

    • I originally planned to make my first novel a series. Then it ended up one book which I thought could be book one of a four or five part series. It ended up a trilogy. haha!

      I get you COMPLETELY. My experience was very similar.

  4. For my new book (I threw out the one I started for Camp NaNo April) I have a very good idea what the ending is going to be. But it’s a very sad ending, so I’m going to let my characters fight as hard as they can to prevent it and see if they might not just come up with a solution I missed. 🙂

  5. Ann Marie Meek

    By the way, I didn’t mean to like my own post, haha! It was an accident! ☺

  6. An interesting post. I would call myself a “pantser” — I just throw myself into a story with no outline or backstories written. I make it up as I go. HOWEVER… I DO know the ending of my book. Or at least, I should say, I have an ending in mind. I actually think it it’s a good thing to have an idea of how you want to end the book, because it helps — during those late and stressful writing sessions — to keep you going. You don’t lose focus. You think, “Is what I’m writing getting me to this ending?” Now, that is not to say that an ending can’t change. Although the last line of BABY GRAND is exactly as I envisioned it, many circumstances around that ending changed when I finally got to writing it. And so, for me, in terms of the writing process, knowing my ending helped me to get there.

    • what an insightful comment!!!! flexibility is the key, for sure! I definitely get why you like to have an idea for an ending in mind. I do too, in my way.

      The key, as you say, is being flexible and not being afraid to tweak and change things as you go and things become clearer. 🙂

      thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you enjoyed Katie’s post. I loved it when I read it!

  7. t h i n g s + f l e s h

    i never know when or how a song i’m writing is going to end. i do know it has a way of bending: the end of the beginning bends to the beginning of the end. it’s something that eludes formula and analysis. tony

    • that’s so amazing!!! i would never have thought to compare writing a song to writing fiction, but it makes total sense there would be similarities. Total sense.

      Thanks for stopping by, Tony!

  8. Thanks again for letting me guest post, Victoria! It was a blast, and it looks great! I’m glad so many people are liking it!

  9. I am one of those who has to know the ending before I can get a good handle on the beginning. I know where my characters will be, what time of day it is, what final “moment” they’ve come through there at the end to wrap up their tale. For me, this is imperative.

    I outline, but I don’t make up character sheets or any of that. I just have to know where I’m going.

    • that makes perfect sense, Sandi! Every writer is different, gets different things out of writing, and needs different levels of planning and control to feel confident and secure. Thanks for providing the planner point of view!

  10. Wonderful post! I’m so glad to know I’m not alone!

    • you’re definitely not! 🙂 Like Katie, I’m always surprised by how my novels end! I think I know what’s coming but I’m usually wrong where at least one major aspect is concerned.

  11. What a relief to read this – The only ‘notes’ I make is for characters – I get the idea, and then set down to learn my characters – to listen to the story they are telling me – – I’ve been plowing through so many writer’s websites/blogs, I was starting to think I’d never be a successful fiction writer, because doing outlines and plots lands me nowhere.
    😀 Thanks for re-inspiring me!

    • Katie and I both have learned it can be useful to write by the seat of our pants 🙂 There’s nothing wrong with that style of process, if it works for you and inspires and motivates you rather than confuses and stresses you out.

      Many, many writers don’t use outlines and develop their stories as they go. As long as you have a concept and you know your characters, you can definitely have success 🙂

    • TamrahJo- you just do your own thing. Forget the ‘how-to’s’ or authors blogs. Seriously.

      Write. That. Story. 😉 You’ll figure the rest out in the meantime.

  12. Pingback: Creative Writing Reality Check: Authors DON’T Know The Ending Ahead of Time | Creative Writing with the Crimson League | Misadventures of a Would-Be Writer

  13. Awesome…..

  14. Can’t even describe how much I love this post! I’m guilty of the you-must- plan-every-detail-before-you-can-write-a-single-word thing. This has inspired me to just WRITE the darn thing! Thanks! 🙂

  15. Reblogged this on Brainstorm and commented:
    Fantastic post about something I personally struggle with as a writer as well. Take a look! 😀

  16. Katie is so spot-on in this post. I agree with EVERYTHING she says (especially the part about Devin). I rarely know how my stories are going to end. For me, not knowing is part of the excitement. I might put in a “false” ending to have something to work toward, but when I get there, I’m free to drop it, revise it, or keep as it. Writing is a process, not a blueprint. Thanks, Victoria and Katie!

  17. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Great post on whether writers do (and should) know the ending of their stories ahead of time.

  18. Pingback: Creative Writing Reality Check: Authors DON’T Know The Ending Ahead of Time | Glitter Writer

  19. Reblogged this on Glitter Writer and commented:
    Great post – validates what I’ve always struggled with…not knowing the ending to a story is OK!

  20. So true! I often have a vague idea of how I want the story to end (I do write romances after all, so a certain expectation is there), but the exact how of what’s going to happen is always a little uncertain. And I like it that way. I love the excitement of following my characters, and seeing how it plays out.

  21. Hee hee!!! Love that picture with the tu-tus and fairy wings. Great post. I have to laugh, because I often don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of a book until I’m at least a third of the way through it it or sometimes even halfway through it. And then the ending might change, based on later chapters. My current WiP is the only book where I knew the ending early on (a third of the way through), and that ending stayed the same for the most part.

    • I’m the same way. Most definitely. I’ve had to kill characters I didn’t realize halfway through the draft were doomed. SO. HARD. :-/

      Also, I really enjoyed Katie’s fairy pic as well! She definitely made the right choice, it seems, letting her grade school crush go!

  22. Is that man wearing pinky transulcent wings? That kind of devotion is hard to find.

    On topic, the unpredictability of ending is why one should focus on character development instead of plot. That way the characters do the work for you.

  23. Too true but maybe we shouldn’t tell the readers?!

  24. I used to think I needed an ending, otherwise how could I possibly begin? Needless to say this was unproductive. I truly believe that stories are told to a writer in a particular way for a reason, so if an ending isn’t coming to you at the beginning, you probably need to write the story first. Great post, thanks.

  25. Thank you so very much for this post, and all the input from some darn good writers. I am starting a writers class, after 10 years of trying to write, and one BA in literature/writing. So sad to work so hard and end up totally frustrated. I need all the encouragement I can get…reading what other hopeful writers do helps a lot.
    A Big Thanks to ALL.

    • you will definitely find encouragement here and on other writers’ blogs. 🙂 we are all in the same boat, feeling the same frustration and sense of going nowhere. It helps to talk about it and know we are not alone!

  26. I semi agree with this statement. When I had an idea for a novel I began writing it, knowing exactly how it was to end. My writing is just the events that lead to the ending. Now, the story does practically write itself. many revisions, but always the same ending.

    • that’s awesome, Lesly! I’ve never had that experience. MY ideas for the end have always shifted and changed to some degree over the course of a draft.

      • well, for me, its more like im telling a story and the ending is always the climax, so its pretty much set in stone for me.

        • that makes sense, for sure! i like the adventure of not knowing how things are going to turn out. I love seeing how different people write differently than I do! 🙂

        • Definitely! I can relate to that! Writing towards the ending, sometimes I’m surprised at what my characters will do, how events will turn out. Usually there is a new idea I want to bring in but I think that its meant to come in at a later time in the story when suddenly as I’m writing, I’m writing about this new thing and my character and i are both shocked!

        • those are the best moments EVER 🙂 I love those shocks that come from nowhere but you know, as soon as they hit, they are perfect for the story and it’s exactly where things were headed and what needs to happen.

        • Exactly! Like it’s just a moment where, “This is what was supposed to happen all along.” It’s the most giddy and rewarding feeling ever!

  27. I am one of those people who know the ending at the beginning. In fact, with my first novel, a magical fantasy, I had the first page and a last page. The last page was a one sentence: “So nice to meet you at last, Megan.” Everything else in the middle was like discovering a surprise on your birthday. Sometimes, I feel the book wrote itself and I was reading it for the first time.

    • Oh my gosh that sounds so AWESOME!!!!!!! I WISH I know how things were going to end. It would make me far less anxious, haha!!! I spend so much time worrying something awful will have to happen to my characters. And then it does and I pace the kitchen totally freaked out….haha 🙂 the joys of writing!

  28. I think it varies depending on the author. Take me: I am the one of those chosen few who outlines and plans out a story. I know the ending before I begin and I write to my outline for better or worse. When I write the fun for me is in discovering the details rather than figuring out where the plot takes me.

    Good post!

  29. I really do try to have at least the broad strokes of the entire story planned out ahead of time; I feel like it enables me to better pace the plot, make certain everything is consistent, and not end up meandering out into the wilderness. I used to be hardcore about the outline – that was the story, and that’s all there was to it. But eventually I realized that sometimes the idea that takes a story from good to great simply can’t be seen from the starting line.

    So my new motto is: “Always have a plan; always be willing to change the plan.” It’s working out pretty good so far :).

  30. Didn’t J K Rowling plot out the entire series of HP books before she started writing?

    • I believe she did! To a large extent though I have read interviews about her making tweaks as she went.

      Every writer is different. A vast majority of those I personally know don’t know where things are going or they make changes when they’d thought they’d known.

  31. Sometimes I know the ending of a story. Those are the ones I tend to write on fastest. But most of the time, I don’t arrive at those endings, because the story and characters have evolved on their own, and the ending just doesn’t fit any more! But because I had an ending in mind originally, I didn’t feel like I was writing without point or purpose.

    The stories that I don’t know the endings to are the stories which are best, because the entire story evolves on its own from start to finish, but these are also the ones I get stuck on most, because I’m not quite sure where I’m going with it. Until the point in time that I figure it out, I’m sort of… writing into the wind.

    But sometimes that feels best, because I can just let my fingers do the talking, instead of trying to head towards some pre-determined destiny.

    I’m not quite sure which one I like best, to be honest!

    • I’ve had that same thing happen to me: I think I know the ending but as I’m writing I realize I was wrong. It makes for some great adventures and fun surprises! And writing into the wind is my standard procedure…. requires lots of editing after the fact but I still love the process of figuring everything out.

  32. Many authors don’t know the ending…. and some authors know that, and only that.
    For instance, in my 2011 and 2013 NaNos, I knew how I wanted it to end (which could compare to you knowing you WANTED to marry Devin 😉 ) but I’m still figuring out how to get it there.

    But the way I see it, authors, very often, are discovering the story just as a reader would.
    The only difference is that we have insider information that lets us learn details in a… slightly different order.

    And outdated, but I thank you for checking out my blog and the couple of faves I dug up in my email.

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