Alexandre Philippe, One of the Lighthouse instructors at the week-long retreat I attended this summer conducted a session on narrative structure and at one point he said, in order to properly structure your story, you have to know the end. Ultimately, everything you write is leading up to that point – the entire payoff in a book is in the last chapter and in a movie, in the last ten or fifteen minutes. He allowed that it’s OK not to know the end in the beginning, but by the one hundred page mark, you’d better have it figured out.
I recently watched a movie called, The Hawk is Dying, starring Paul Giamatti. It was a film adaptation of a novel written by Southern gothic novelist, Harry Crews. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t nearly as interesting as the special features, which included a fairly lengthy segment with Crews talking about writing. I’d never heard of him, but he’s relatively well known and has written close to thirty novels. He was coming up with so many gems, I had to grab a notebook, stop the DVD and start it over so I could write some of them down. The following quotes are not verbatim, but they convey the gist of some of the things he said:
“I threw away half a novel this week because I’d made a wrong turn. The amateur, the coward, the non-writer will keep it and try to make it work, but the real artist puts it in the fire and does it again.”
“All art is metaphor. Fiction is about abstract nouns like love, pity, mercy and compassion. I don’t know if I agree with it or not, but my teacher once said that all fiction is about one of two things. It’s about love or the absence of love.”
“The writer’s job is to get naked, to hide nothing, to look away from nothing, not to be embarrassed by it or ashamed of it; to get to the blood and the bone.”
“Good writers don’t try to answer questions. I don’t have the answers to questions raised in my books – if I did, I’d be writing tracts, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“To the extent that I have any peace at all, it’s when I’m writing.”
“Having written a book is fun. Writing a book is agonizing.”
“I believe that writing a novel is the closest thing to childbirth that a man can experience.”
“Any piece of fiction that makes a point is bad because nobody knows what the f#*k the point is.”
He also quoted something he credited to Robert Penn Warren that really resonated with me. He said, “A good writer doesn’t have to know his story when he begins. All he has to do is trust his knowledge of craft and technique to discover the story. It’s all discovery.”
In my first attempt at writing a novel, I had the whole story outlined and pretty concrete ideas about how it would flow. Once I got a fair distance into it, I realized I’d made a number of wrong turns and I put it away.
I’ve been working on a new story since sometime in June or July. I have a pretty good idea what will happen, but as I move through the story, ideas and possibilities continue to materialize. It’s really pretty cool and it isn’t bothering me to improvise as much as I have been – if you know me at all, it should come as a huge surprise that I’m not freaking out at the idea that I don’t have total control over this. I know it’s because I’ve learned so much more about craft than I knew when I started that I’m not worried I’ll do something irreversibly wrong.
I’m about sixty double spaced pages in and now I’m wondering how much longer I’ll go on before I know for sure how it will end – which of the many options I’ve thought about that I’ll go with. In the meantime, I’ve been alternating between editing and tweaking the first couple of chapters and adding bursts of new material to move the story forward. My imaginary editor is starting to tap me on the shoulder and point at his watch, as if to tell me I have a little time left, but I need to lock this into place pretty soon.
Discussions about outliners and seat of the pants writers have come up many times before, but each time I find a post on it, I learn something new. Do you always know the end of your story when you start? Do you ever? Does it vary? If you don’t know the end when you begin, do you find it to be a process of discovery, as Robert Penn Warren noted? Is it fun and exciting to make these discoveries about your story and your characters, or does it fill you with anxiety until you nail it down?