Friday, March 4, 2011

You're Out Of Order; or Writing The Ending First

I have another confession to make. (I seem to make them fairly frequently on this blog.)

I've already written the last scene of my current Work In Progress. Even though I have not yet finished all of the scenes that lead up to it. And in fact, I've just pasted two scenes into the story that I wrote a month ago, but hadn't added in because the story hadn't progressed that far yet.

This -- writing out of order -- is something I rarely do, and for a couple of reasons.

First, I usually find that when I know how a story is going to end, it's difficult to generate spontaneity in earlier sections. If I know I'm writing a character out at the end of Chapter 29, and I write her demise before I write everything else leading up to her demise, I'm likely to treat her differently than I would have otherwise. Perhaps I'll have her pull back from a relationship where she really should have moved ahead; or perhaps I'll make her take a foolish risk that she would never have taken in a million years.

And the second reason is that there is a risk that once you get to the section you wrote ahead of time, it just won't fit into the story anymore. Your characters may have grown in unexpected ways, or you might have found a way to fit the key parts of the scene into the story in another, better way. Though that also happened to me recently: Two of my characters had had a fight with each other, and I had a long, drawn-out, wordy reconciliation scene planned out for them, but at the end of the previous scene, it was just right for the two of them to say, "I'm sorry," and move on.

Of course, one school of thought says that you should outline the story you want to tell, and then just work on whatever section strikes your fancy on a given day. Unless you're a more thorough outliner than I am, though, this could be frustrating, as it might prove difficult to keep your characters consistent and to keep them moving along their arcs as they should. I did try this method once, back in my early writing days. It's probably worth noting that the story never did get finished, mostly because I never seemed to get around to writing "the boring bits": the scenes that filled in the background and provided transitions and held the story together. One might argue that if the missing parts really were that boring, perhaps they did not belong in the story at all; but it's just as likely that what they really needed was someone to write them who was better at incorporating necessary information into the story without getting all info-dumpy.

So if writing out of order is so problematic, why did I do it this time? Mostly, I'll confess, because I was otherwise stalled on one of the two main tracks of the story, and I hoped that if I pushed ahead on the other one, it would break things free on the first one. (And it did!)

But another reason was because there were certain character moments and certain turns of phrase that I wanted to make certain to capture while they were still in my mind. All too often, I think about a scene ahead of time, and work out just how the dialogue will go, until it's just perfect...only to have it completely disappear out of my head when it comes time to actually sit down and write that scene.

And the final reason, in this case, was the weather. I can see you wondering: What does the weather have to do with it? Well, we had some painfully cold weather here in January and early February (high temperatures that never got above 0 degrees F), and two of the scenes I wrote were set during cold weather. So I wanted to write them while my toes still ached from having been outside in that kind of weather. I wanted to capture the feeling of frigid air in my lungs while it was still fresh in my mind. I know that if I had waited until now to write those scenes (we've been having highs in the 50s and 60s F), it would have been more difficult to distill the essence of that kind of cold down to a few paragraphs.

So do other people always begin at the beginning of the story and write straight through to the end, or do you skip around, depending on how you feel on a given day?