The Beginning of the End

The whole idea of writing a novel can be intimidating. Let’s face it, we all know that writing is work and writing a novel can be compared to building a skyscraper. It is a good idea to have some character sketches, outlines, plot ideas, and maybe some themes floating around in your brain before you start your novel. For me, it takes more than just a basic skeleton to begin writing. I never start writing a novel until I have an ending. I know, you might be saying – I don’t have a beginning, how am I going to come up with an ending? Don’t panic. Knowing the ending will help you develop convincing story and significant plot.


E. M. Forrester explains story as a linear tool or what happens next. The reader will then ask - what happens next? Plot is not based on time, but on characters. The reader will ask - why? The difference is time sequence verses character desires and motivations. Among the many constructs that an ending may provide for you in the beginning, these two elements are important. Yes, writing a novel is exploration. Yes, writing a novel will take a shell of a character and fill it up completely, so that they will actually begin to function outside your wishes and desires. And you should be listening intently. But, they can’t move blindly. We must make our characters move somewhere logically. That is why knowing your ending will strengthen story, plot and character motivation.

If you are writing historical fiction, memoirs, or non-fiction, you might have a series of factual events from research that dictates your plot and final scene selection. When I was writing the historical account of Harriet Quimby, the first woman pilot to gain her aviation license, I knew the ending – I just had to get there. When I wrote the second novel which was entirely fiction, like a vision, I saw the ending very clearly. Knowing exactly where I was going made the scenes and plot tangible, giving me room to think of some of the higher constructs of the novel, like theme, subplots and hidden conflicts. Let’s look at character, setting and writer comfort with this strategy of writing to a known ending in mind.

The importance of seeing that ending clearly gives your characters direct desire and motivation that relates to those final scenes. In fact, you may realize, as you write, that they have conflicting desires and motivations concerning the ending – but that is what makes clear and meaningful plot twists and good storytelling. It won’t happen automatically, but as you project an ending and move your characters to it – the novel will move toward a purpose. It is similar to imposing an unforeseen fate upon them. Be sure to develop your characters to fulfill the ending scene and see it through. In Moby Dick, Ahab is driven by his loss and revenge to face the white whale and we expect nothing less by the time we get there. Did we ever think that he wasn’t going to find the white whale? Of course not.
The next element that is set right by knowing the end of your novel is the structure of your setting. Knowing the end, you can begin to construct locations and significant detailing for this ending to play out on. If you are going to have a barn fire at the end of your novel – then you need a country side, a farm, and yes, a barn. By knowing this ahead of time – it helps you build these elements in as you write. Setting is more than just scenery in many great novels and writing. Knowing where and how you will get to the end will define the construction you will use. You have so much to do when you start a novel, explain characters, define time and setting, establish plot, have a decent voice, the right point-of-view - to name a few - that it is important to flush as many of these elements as possible and direct them to your established ending.

Defining a clear ending will help you mentally as a writer. Having a sense of the ending makes it clear in your mind where you are at any given time in your novel. If you are writing a normal novel of 300 pages and you get to page 100, you have completed a third of the novel. This is a time to check and make sure you are where you hoped to be when you wrote the first paragraph. This will keep you on track and give you some indicators as to your scope and time remaining. My first novel was a gluttonous 530 pages. It came from a lack of experience and an attempt to write two books when I only needed one. My second novel was a brilliant 252 pages and it was a perfect length. I knew the ending and went to it without changing course too often. Mentally, as a writer, you have to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I must say that this method works for me. In the early stages of writing a novel-length project, I have a very difficult time writing outlines and character sketches because I feel that I don’t know my characters and motivations well enough. However, having an overall novel concept and an ending helps me define the answer to the questions I am about to put to my characters. That’s not to say that once you get to know your characters that you won’t modify the ending a bit; you probably will to keep your character’s motivations and desires in proper order.

If you can’t see the ending or a series of scenes that would conclude your novel project, then perhaps you’re not ready to write just yet. Once you write a novel, you will start to think, like any other writing form, about how to make another one. I do it by discovering great characters and defining where they are at the end of the novel (which includes people who are dead, alive, angry, confused, happy, miserable, satisfied or triumphant) and writing to that moment. If that final scene inspires you, makes you cry, makes you angry, makes you feel alive: that’s when you’ve got it. You will write to it. Don’t forget, by the time you write your characters and story to the known end, it will be stronger, filled with emotion and meaning. You will know your characters and their desire, you will have defined a sequence and a strong plot. And that end, like fate, will draw your characters quickly along to the end, like it was meant to be. It always was.