By Carrie Conner
The end is the beginning.
– T.S. Eliot
A struggling young actor wrote himself a check for a cool $10 million for “acting services rendered,” and post-dated it, “Thanksgiving 1995.” When his father died in 1994, Jim Carrey was earning over $10 million in yearly income. He placed the check in his father’s casket.
“I always knew I’d be a millionaire by age 32,” said Oprah Winfrey in 1987. “In fact, I am going to be the richest black woman in America.” Not only did she become the richest black woman in America, but one of the richest people in the world.
Ansel Adams captured some of the most iconic nature photographs in history. He studied his subjects from different perspectives: in a variety of light, seasons, weather conditions and times of day. Before he even clicked the shutter, Adams had a clear image of the photo he would shoot.
The common thread in these stories is that each of these successful people began with a vivid image of the outcome.
If you don’t know where you’re going you might end up someplace else.
– Yogi Berra
When you set out on a trip, build a house or cook dinner, your goal is clear. However, when you start writing, unless you are one of those hyper-organized, outline-or-perish types, your ending may be a bit murky – or completely MIA. You end up fumbling around in the dark, like a teenager in the back seat of a car on prom night.
Screenplay writers and many novelists use a simple technique to keep storylines from skidding off track. They write the ending first. Knowing the end before you begin acts as a compass, guiding your writing as it unfolds into its inevitable conclusion.
John Irving (The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules), swears by this backward approach to writing. Irving begins a novel by creating the last lines first. Once he has his final lines, he types them up on postcards he sends off to close friends.
Margaret Mitchell wrote the final moments of grief and loss in Gone with the Wind first. “I left them to their ultimate fate,” she said of the conclusion.
J.K. Rowling said she always knew Harry Potter would be a seven-book series. She wrote the ending of her closing book before completing the first chapter of the opening novel.
See if thinking backward can help move your writing forward.
The first step involves only your imagination.
Close your eyes and visualize ways for your work of non-fiction, fiction or poetry to end. This is the time to explore different points of views and a range of outcomes. Allow it to unfold as if you are watching a movie.
Make your movie as vivid as possible.
Use all your senses to flesh out everything you or your character can see, feel, taste and smell in the scene.
Now work backward.
Ask yourself, “How did you/your character get here?” Consider every idea you get, however briefly. You are playing with possibility.
Next ask yourself, “And then what?”
Work backward. Keep asking the question.
Trust your gut.
You will know when you have hit the “right” path because you will feel it in your body.
Now put down your ending and everything you discovered from your exploratory “movie.”
Repeat the process as many times as you wish until you feel the connection of beginning to end.
This approach may uncover images or storylines you never expected, and give you the wisdom of hindsight in creating.
“You cannot connect the dots looking forward,” said Steve Jobs, “You can only connect them looking backward.”
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This prompt is the last of Carrie’s bi-monthly series. We warmly thank Carrie for her inspiring and creative prompts. We greatly appreciate her enriching the VoiceCatcher community website with her contributions. Thank you, Carrie!
– The Editors
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An Invitation from VoiceCatcher
Willing to share what this prompt inspires you to write? Each month we might publish some responses to the VoiceCatcher prompts. Contact us to submit the writing the prompt elicits from you.
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A friend once asked Carrie Conner why she writes. “Because I have to,” she said. “You mean like publish or perish?” he asked. “No,” she said, “It’s more like … breathing.” Carrie has spent 20 years as a staff and features journalist and freelance copywriter for a variety of publications and companies. One day, while interviewing an emerging novelist about her new book release, she realized she was done writing about other people’s accomplishments. She is currently putting together a yet-untitled collection of short stories and a screenplay.