Writing Excuses 4.28: Brainstorming The End and Working Backwards

When Oscar Hammerstein wrote “Let’s start at the very beginning // A very good place to start” he was talking about teaching children to sing, not writing a novel. Sometimes the beginning is the very worst place to start, so in this ‘cast the Writing Excuses crew starts at the end.

Dan leads with a reminder that we should all watch his five-part lecture on story structure, and then hits a couple of the high points in his process. Brandon points out that he and Dan both start in the same way, even though Dan usually discovery-writes his way to the selected ending, and Brandon typically outlines towards it in advance of putting chapters down. Unsurprisingly, Howard starts in the same place.

So what are the problems with working backwards? How do we prevent those things from happening? What are some great things about working backwards? How can we ensure that those happen every time?

That’s the first half of the ‘cast. The second half is a right treat, as you get to listen to Brandon, Dan, and Howard attempt to brainstorm a great ending from which they can work backwards to a beginning. Producer Jordo provides a pair of headlines as prompts, including programmable matter, Harley Davidson motorcycles, and a thrown puppy.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Furies of Calderon: Codex Alera Book 1, by Jim Butcher — a book that Brandon tells us was written when somebody dared Jim Butcher to build epic fantasy around Pokémon.

Writing Prompt: What’s the character arc for our mathematical analyst biker dude? Yes, you’ll have to listen to the ‘cast in order to figure this prompt out.

Sound Effect of the Week: George Jetson’s Harley

Weekly Feature You Won’t See Every Week: Sound Effect of the Week.

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32 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.28: Brainstorming The End and Working Backwards”

  1. I’m surprised none of you went this route:

    There’s a bug in the central system where, for some reason, things aren’t coming out right. Have the twists, and all, but at the end, it’s just a bug in the system.

    You’re main character has to go all Robert Langdon. He has to figure out the pattern to the disturbances, but, because he’s being attacked by “sources unknown” (the company who doesn’t want their dirty laundry aired), he has to do it in a fast-paced “figure-out-what-to-call-for-to-get-a-knife” method.

    The boy with the puppy and the bulldozer was the first “assassin” sent after the main character.

  2. Of course, the protagonist figures it out while programming his computer to become an iPod in a soundproofed room. It works, but the moment he hits the play button the iPod turns into a shovel.

  3. Interesting that you guys prefer to start at the end plot wise and then work towards it.

    Personally I just come up with a plot point (I might start with a scene and then build from there, I might start from characters, it depends on the inspiration) and then figure out where it is in the story. USUALLY it’s going to either be the ending/climax, the first plot point, or sometimes the third plot point.

    Mind you if the end is not the first thing I come up with plot wise, I try to get to it sooner than later because I agree with the idea that the whole plot should be moving TOWARDS that ending, and everything that happens before then has to end up there, so you might as well start thinking about it that way from the start.

  4. I can’t say I’ve really tried this planning method before. I have a hard time not working chronologically when I brainstorm a story, and for the most part most of my thinking goes along the lines of: “Here is character A, B, C, D, and E. What are their goals and personal conflicts, and how will they interact with each other over the course of the story?” I’m usually writing the book once I have that figured out, and I figure out my ending as I’m working on it… Typically I have a good feel for the ending by the time I’m done with the first act, at least.

    I’ll have to see about giving this podcast’s method a try when I brainstorm some more for my next novel. I imagine it’d make for a much more streamlined first act, at the very least.

  5. For a while the brainstorming sounded very I, Robot movie-ish what with the central hub controling the individual units and causing them to go on the fritz. Personally, I would have expanded on the idea of reprogramming something after you’ve eaten it. Switching a normal object with a programable one so that you can change it into something else unexpectedly has huge possibilities.

  6. As always the podcast was informative and enjoyable. The best part was mention of Dan’s 5-part lecture on story structure (which ran about 3 times longer than the podcast)..

    It seems that Dan figured out that I’m not all THAT busy. But does this mean that Dan, by himself, is smarter than the three of you together?


  7. Twenty minutes long because a) inflation is a reality of life, and b) the podcast has become self aware and now makes its own decisions. Maybe it doesn’t want to be fifteen minutes long every week. Maybe it wants to be ninety minutes long in one week, and then five the next. Maybe it’s all a horrible foreshadowing of the big reveal where we find out who the real villain is, and Brandon, Dan, and Howard will be forced into a special-effects-crazy final battle with background music written by John Williams with Steven Spielberg directing, fighting a final boss who can do 9999 points of damage every round.

    How’s that for an ending?

  8. Loved this. This is ALWAYS how I plan my books. Often I think of a cool ending idea, then go back and work towards it. I’m of the opinion that the end of the book can be the most important, as it is the part everybody remembers, and also the part that is built up throughout the entire novel, so if it sucks…you let the reader down.

    Also, if I know how it ends first, it makes foreshadowing much easier. As a mostly-discovery writer, this saves my bacon in editing, because I don’t have to go back and drop as many hints as straight cold discovery writers would.

  9. If you try this brainstorming method again, you should have Jordo tell you three the climax/big reveal/moment of catharsis. This just felt like another “Brainstorming from the Headlines.”

    Still, a good podcast. I really liked the intro joke. I would like to hear your take on starting in the middle. In my current attempt at storytelling, I was inspired to write a scene that works best as a mid-story climax. How should I mix the advice from this podcast with advice from a “write from the beginning” podcast like S2E15?

  10. The problem with starting with the ending is that the ending might not be strong enough for the resulting build up. See “Phantoms” (The movie, I haven’t read the novel) or the more recent “Shadow Puppets” for examples. Once the ‘boogeyman’ in each movie had shown it’s face the movies fell flat.

    This is not today that the technique never works, of course. See “The Sixth Sense” for one that works.

  11. Thanks as always!

    I got a question. You mentioned dispelling the ‘hand waving trick’ at some point in the pod cast….but when does it happen in a book? 3/4 way into the book as the protagonist focus on the real issue? Or should that be saved until the ‘Big Reveal’ few pages before the book ends?

    Cuz, I’m thinking if I cut off loose-ends too soon, I might just make myself too predictable, but if I drag them too long, it might confuse the readers.

  12. I usually work from the end without realising it. I think up an end scene and then I build up characters backwards.
    I liked what you said about the “Aha moment”. I forget the actualy words you used but that’s just how I describe it. The best version of that I read was probably in A storm of swords. Anybody who haven’t read a song of ice and fire, don’t read this comment. I’ll be as vague as possible but it’ll probably ruin it for you.

    The scene was when you first met Mance Rayder. I was like “Aha” when Jon first described the people, but he of course picked the big wildling:P

    I think in A game of thrones the Aha moment was a bit annoying. Littlefinger and the gold cloaks. Hopefully that’s vague enough if anybody reading it. It’s just everybody knew what was about to happen but it took a good couple of pages for it to actually happen. That was probably just Ned’s character, you know he’s honorable so he plans for everybody to be honorable (pretty much the exact opposite of Sauron), but it annoyed me because it was just too long. God, he really should’ve joined Renly. Although he probably would’ve died anyway. Okay, sorry for big rant.

    I really like to see all of you’re thought patterns, it actually helps a lot whit plotting. Another good podcast. Perfect for doing random manual labour.

  13. There is a problem with this podcast on the Zune Marketplace. It’s only 16 seconds long. I’m not sure if it’s a Zune issue or an upload issue. I’m not sure if this is the proper area to post this, but I thought it was a good place. Hopefully someone will see it.

  14. 50/50

    That’s my take on the podcast.

    Sorry to say that the whole brainstorming part was lost on me. I know it was fun for you (podcasters) but I really didn’t derive as much from it as I did from the first part of the podcast.

    Mind you, I’m sure a lot of folks would get more of it than I did. That’s just the way is sometimes.

  15. The technical side: it worked great for me in Windows Media Player.

    The content: I found the whole process a great illustration of what the guys were talking about. Yet another great ‘cast.

  16. I’m definitely a work from the beginning type of person. What I usually do is think up an interesting premise, then I come up with some characters, then I come up with a good setting, and then I start building in conflicts, and I go back and forth between the three. After that, I start putting the characters in situations where the conflicts are exacerbated, and I figure out the ending when I get to be about 1/3rd of the way through the book. Kind of a bottom-up tpe of approach. I start by working on the details and I work my way up to the big picture.

  17. I find it impossible to know what my ending is until I know how I got there. I can only bare bones outline at most. If I try to force the issue my subconscious stops speaking with me and my characters and story flatten as a result. Even with my Cinderella novel I had no clue how it would end until I started writing the actual scene, and that plot comes with an ending. This way of doing things, I get my own Ah-ha! moment as I’m writing. If I figure it out the ending too soon in the process, it’s going to be the overly obvious ending and I need to make up a better one.

    Will you three be inviting someone on the show later who does the ending last so we can have that perspective as well? Normally at least one of you does things different, so I felt a little let down that there wasn’t some alternate view. For the first time I felt like I was being told this was the only way to do something, though I know that’s not what you meant. It’s always interesting to learn other methods, but I personally learn best from someone who does things the same way as I do.

  18. Just popping in to say, Dan’s lecture was probably the MOST helpful writing advice I have gotten in a long while. All of the sudden I am confident that what I’m looking at when I outline my stories IS plot.

  19. Thanks guys, good podcast.

    I am a 100% outliner as I have said before, and I always start writing near the end. I have to know what the major conflict is and how it resolves first. It makes the writing process so much easier for me.

    I found a couple videos on Youtube.com that might be helpful to some of you. One is the Seven Point System Dan Wells did, Search (Dan Wells on Story Structure) and a 12 part video by John Brown, search (How to Write a Story that Rock). I found these very informative.

  20. I agree with Nathan up there. “Writing from the end” is a method I’ve found that increases my word count and gives me a goal to hit. I run too so I’ll go with that way of thinking. A runner has to have a goal, a finish line. Otherwise, I would be running around town aimlessly all day long. Not only would I have incredibly strong and buff legs, but I would be tired and still have not really gotten anywhere.

    The finish needs to be grand giving the reader a huge payoff. If not thought out ahead of time, you can waste alot of time running around trying to discover what the ending is and not get the truly good payoff. I go ahead with a story idea only if the ending I stumble across (in my head) excites me.

  21. Notice though, in the brainstorming part of the podcast they didn’t start EXACTLY at the ending. They started with ideas, then conflict, then characters and setting. Once they had those ideas in mind there was an ending.
    Only after that, do I finely feel comfortable enough with a story to start writing. Otherwise, I start three chapters and have to set the whole thing aside until I find an end to work towards, then I canoutline the scenes I need to make it there.
    Honestly though, I don’t think it’s so much working backwards as simply having an ending point to work to. If something in the story changes, and you like that change, you can always fix the ending to match.

  22. Thanks so much, Dan, for that 5-part lecture! It was really helpful and I made lots of notes!

  23. Just catching up after vacation and the Zune feed version is still wrong…sixteen seconds long and features “George Jetson’s Harley”…ring any bells? Can you please fix? :)

  24. I don’t think it’s just the Zune feed (though I see the same issue) – when I look at the RSS feed itself in IE, there’s no podcast file linked, which is in stark contrast to the episosdes before it and after it. Instead, there is just a bit.ly link to the motorcyle file. I suspect any podcast app using the stock RSS feed will hit this issue.

  25. Hi guys

    I’ve been listening to the podcast for a while (and have downloaded all the back episodes), but I think this is the first time you’ve read my mind several weeks in a row! I’m working through the final stages of Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise Your Novel” online course (which is awesome, btw), and all the recent shows have been relevant – but this one in particular has really pushed me into analysing my final chapters and trying to make them better.

    Great stuff, and keep up the good work!

  26. The biker’s character arc is that he gets sucked into the problem when he is guarding a shipment of drugs that spontaneously turns into puppies. He wants to track down the source of the problem, and teams up with some unlikely companions who also want to know what is going on. Once they figure it out, he has an epic battle with a rival gang during which he DJs music for tactical effect, since he’s figured out the secret of the programmable matter. In the epilogue he has decided to focus on the DJ and martial arts aspect of his work, travelling the country to teach, instead of drug running. But he remains a Hell’s Angel, unless one of his companions’ character arcs has results that tug him in another direction.

    Or, at least, that’s what I came up with after listening to the show. That was one writing prompt that was hard to resist.

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