I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.
“‘You write a script front to back but you re-write it back to front.’ And he [Coppola] proceeds to furiously scrawl the key plot events in reverse order. “If it’s not directly tied to these things, it goes.’”
― Francis Ford Coppola in a live interview with DB Sweeney*
This is really solid advice, as well as a bit of a clever “trick,” but before I unpack it, let’s note that Coppola and Sweeney are talking about screenplays, which might be the most rigid narrative long-form going. Novels are more flexible, but from my perspective they follow the same overall framework, whether it’s three-act structure or five.
The truth is there are writers who successfully work out their entire novel beat-by-beat before diving in to write it. I don’t do this, though I do try to figure out the major turning points that shape the book. And there’s one writing theorist who wrote a top selling how-to book who recommends writing the last scene before beginning the novel so you know what you’re heading toward. I could never do that, because though I recommend you have a light in the distance you’re traveling toward (I often say you need to know the city in the distance which has the ballpark containing your ending, but not exactly where home plate is in that ballpark), it’s hard to imagine knowing precisely how a 300-page novel I’m writing will end exactly until I write the whole thing out and land upon it, or at least in its vicinity. (And of course, from there you adjust.) I just know if I wrote out that final scene beforehand it would limit the flexibility I’d need along the way as I headed toward it. After all, as I got closer I might discover that the light in the distance had to shift a few miles over.
Still, one has to assume people do this—write out the last scene of a book first, then continue—successfully. As always, the advice I give comes from my own personal experience, the experience of the many writers I’ve read discussing writing, and from working with so many writers at every level. When I recommend something, it’s because on average this is the most successful way forward I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way. You have to be your own writer and follow your own path.
But back to Coppola, he’s giving us a pretty straightforward technique for revision. Like him, I have to head for that light I mentioned, and once I’m there and find my ending and set the manuscript aside, the question comes up, what now? How the hell do you start revising this big thing you’ve cranked out, and not on a line level, but on a structural level (which is where you should begin). How do you view this whole massive canvas clearly enough so you can see what entire pieces you might need to pull out, while rearranging the order of others? How do you know when an entire character should go? Because, unlike a short story, you cannot possibly read an entire novel in a single sitting and understand it well enough to see how all the individual pieces work together. You have to step back and look at it structurally. Examine how it breaks down in units. Call up any tricks you can to begin redesigning its shape.
So this trick—seeing where your ending is, then going backward through the plot turns of your book and checking to see if they do in fact lead toward that final conclusion, that they’re connected almost like numbers in an equation, is a very good test. If there’s a fascinating scene with a cool character doing an exciting action, but it’s really not connected to where the story’s heading, then you know you’ll have to seriously consider pulling that out.
Alternatively, if that scene, even though it feels a bit clipped on, carries a lot of story content you’re drawn to, you might look at the ending you’ve written and see if that needs to be adjusted so that the clipped-on scene will drop organically into the body of the story. You can go back and forth like this over and over.
So that’s why I believe you need a little flexibility with your ending. After writing your way to it you might stick it absolutely and then go back and revise the book to better drive everything toward it, or adjust the ending so that something important that happens earlier drives to it. Further, approaching your work in reverse can snap you out of the trance of your work so that you might see the big picture. And that’s a blessing in and of itself.
This technique—checking all your plot moves in reverse to make sure they’re heading toward your ending—can be so useful. As much as I love (and write) literary fiction, I find such books too often come up short in this area.
It’s worth noting that amazing endings are less often amazing because of what happens there, than because what happens there seems the logical conclusion of everything that came before it. And how do you produce such a thrilling sense of satisfaction from your reader at your story’s end? By going through the entire work and adjusting each step along the way to lead toward what will be experienced as its inevitable conclusion. You do this right it will seem like the story could’ve ended no other way.
Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.