Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Going Backward

Recently I was talking to Walter Jon Williams and Ted Chiang about writing, a conversation which came about because Walter taught a one-day intensive workshop in Seattle called "Plotting Backwards." Both Walter and Ted said the same thing: They write the last sentence of their stories first. In Walter's case, this even includes his novels.

This astonished me. (I am perpetually being astonished by my fellow SF authors, but that's another context.) Both of these fine writers not only know the endings of their stories before they begin, they know the exact last sentence toward which they are writing. This makes a certain kind of sense -- you don't start out driving in your car without some idea of where you're headed -- but I can no more do it than I could fly. I just can't see that far ahead. I write scene by scene, hoping each will lead me to the next, less like someone driving to a destination than someone fleeing a bear through a forest. However, I think I'd like to try Walter's and Ted's method. When I'm through the current novelistic forest, I'm going to write a short story and experiment.

So if you have any great last lines you think I should write toward, send them on!


Ken Schneyer said...

John Irving works by the same method, not only in the book as a whole, but chapter-to-chapter as well. He writes [what he hopes will be] the last sentence of the chapter, and then "I write toward it, somewhat as a note in music." I find this particular analogy especially useful, as I have always thought of Irving's fiction as symphonic.

He says he sometimes finds a better ending along the way, but says, "I operate better, as a writer, under the illusion that I know how it's going to end."

Lou said...

"She turned her head and her mouth fell open. "Oh, it's you. How...unexpected."

Hee hee.


Andrew said...

I don't use that as a modus operandi, but I recently finished a short story for which that worked well.

I had a character, setting, and basic story arc that interested me but had committed no words to it. One day on the way to work, the final sentence(s) popped unbidden into my head, fully formed--and that suddenly crystal-clear ending point was the best starting point I could have had. I wrote the whole thing in a few days (which is very quick for me!).

Lou said...

"She looked once more at the letter, then up at the Earth hanging motionless on black velvet. She leaned forward and, with no hesitation, pushed the button, ending it all."

qiihoskeh said...

Writing the last sentence first strikes me as a good way to get a static, fatalistic, Chiang-type story. That said, I'll try to come up with an ending for you. Of course, there are the standard slush-pile endings:

1. "Eve," she said smiling.
3. "Whew! I gotta stop eating anchovy pizza before going to bed."
4. "

Andrew said...

I don't think this method necessarily produces static or fatalistic work. But I also don't think that "hey, give me an ending and I'll write a story that goes before it" will produce the best story. That seems gimmicky. Writing the last sentence first doesn't mean that sentence is your starting point for thinking about the story.

Lou's examples, for instance (for anyone but--possibly--Lou), were born as sentences without stories behind them. I wasn't present for the conversation, but I doubt that's what WJW and Chiang were talking about.

TheOFloinn said...

The last sentence gimmick can be fakey if it is a sentence out of a hat, something simply Out There in a void, and then you try to write toward it.

It can work well if you already know where the story is going in general and how it is going to end and all you need is a specific verbal end toward which to direct the writing.

I usually know which way the story is going. I even had the last line for Up Jim River long before I reached it. I even had the last scene rough-drafted. The current work, In the Lion's Mouth, has no such telos in sight; but it did and does have a sort of pivot point in mind for about the 2/3rds point (after which the story takes off in a different direction and format). I even had a killer last line for that scene - but I did not write it down, so now I've forgotten it. It will likely come to me when I am actually writing that scene.

gary gibson said...

Here's a last line for you:

'She looked down at the tiny, mewling thing for a long moment, then raised her foot and carefully crushed the life out of it.'

I never thought of working towards a specific *line*, but I do always know how stuff is going to actually end.

Joe Iriarte said...

I don't know what it means to call Chiang's stories "static," but I'd give my right pinkie to write like him, static or no.

qiihoskeh said...

In the words of another SF author, "Chiang writes like an angel," and I have to agree. But what I mean by static is that when the story's over, nothing has changed.

BTW, before donating, I'd make sure that Chiang's typing technique doesn't require the right pinkie. Nancy, on the other hand, has said she types using only her index fingers. :)

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Lyric writing can be from a title (Pete Townshend's method), an idea that won't let you rest 'til you finish, a collaboration (Lennon & McCartney or Lindner and Borg), or anything that works. It's what works.

Fiction is different. Harder.

Yes, her baby would live. Susan Mahler looked up at the uncountable stars.

Captain Blaster roared in triumph.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

"We'll give you another chance.
After all, the Old Ones who created us both would want it thus."

But, People of Earth--
How about them Mets?"

skyreiter said...

I can only think of Richard Brautigan's book (was it "Trout Fishing In America"?) that ended with: "I always wanted to end a book with the word 'mayonnaise'."

Joe Iriarte said...


How about my pinkie toe, then? (Say, what do you call that?)