Alan Moore is one of the most original storytellers of the last forty years, so when I saw he’d done a course for the BBC Maestro series, I bought it. And it’s terrific.
One point Alan made that I’ve been thinking about this week is the importance of a writer knowing the ending of the story early in the writing of it. He made this point in relation to television writing — here’s an excerpt from the course notes:
This [television] is something that I have less experience of, although I did write a projected five-season television series which will almost certainly never be made. It did, however, give me some idea how you should lay these things out. Foremost was that I knew the ending before I started – what the last shot in the last episode of the last season was going to be.
I cannot underline how important this is. I have given up on boxsets where it becomes apparent that the writers are making it up as they go along. The shapeless narrative drift is a terrible experience for both the writer and for the viewer, having invested hours watching to discover that there wasn’t any meaningful ending. It is important in any medium to know your ending first, but in something as long form as television it is vital.
I think we all know what he means. So many successful television shows plod into a weary sense of bathos in their final seasons and episodes. Battlestar Galactica is the one that sticks with me, though I know many people cite Lost as the most egregious example (I’d given up on Lost long before that final season).
This is partly due to the inherent hazard of writing for television, which is that the show might get cancelled at any point. I’d guess, though I don’t know, that many television writers simply chuck a load of intriguing characters, plot threads and conflicts into the first season or two, and decide that they’ll worry about tying it all together when the fifth or sixth season gets commissioned.
It’s different for novel writers, I think. We have the luxury of going back through our manuscript before publication and adding foreshadowing or amending the plot to create a satisfying ending. Our story isn’t going to be cancelled halfway through its course, , unless we do that ourselves. That said, how important is it to know the ending when you start your first draft?
Of course, if you’re writing genre fiction, there may be conventions that determine the ending in a very broad sense. In a romance, the couple will get together at the end, whatever trials they have gone through. In a mystery, the sleuth will solve the crime. And in a thriller, the hero will foil the villain, though perhaps not permanently. But those broad endings don’t get you very far.
When you begin your story, you may know who the murderer is, but do you know how did they do it and why? In my own (limited) experience, the ending and the critical points leading up to it are never fully clear until I’ve written a good chunk of the first draft. And even then it can change, as the characters, plot, and themes clarify themselves in my mind. In contrast, I’ve read that some well-known crime writers don’t even know whodunnit until they’ve gotten a fair way into the writing process.
There are meticulous plotters who plan every scene of their story before they settle down to write. And there are those who, to use Dean Wesley Smith’s phrase, ‘write into the dark’. My writing experience so far has been somewhere on the midpoint between these two poles. And to be frank, I’ve created a lot of problems for myself by not planning enough. But as Mike Tyson once said, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’. I think Mike meant that literally. Figuratively, I think it’s fair to say that even the best novel plan is likely to be modified when the actual wordsmithing begins. Though I bet there’s a ton of bestselling authors who would beg to differ (I’m thinking particularly of Ken Follett here, if Albert Zuckerman’s book Writing the Blockbuster Novel is anything to go by).
Still, when I start my next novel, I’m going to try, as an experiment, constructing a detailed scene-by-scene plan before I start writing the thing. By that means, I should know, in necessary and sufficient detail, my ending.