Knowing My Endings…Or Not

A recent reader question went something like this:

Do you know your endings when you start books?

The short answer to that, Dear Reader, is: Yes, I sorta know my endings.

The longer, more accurate answer is: Yes, I have an ending in mind but it almost ALWAYS changes. And it usually changes significantly.

Let’s say I’m planning a vacation and I’ve decided to go to Germany. I have a general idea that I want to see Bavaria, so I know I’ll probably want to fly in to Munich…and then, after 2 weeks, I want to end back up in Munich so I can fly home. That’s a start and an ending, huzzah!

Now, if I was a total, 100% pantser (meaning I write entirely by the seat of my pants with no idea of what comes next), then I’d hop on that plane (Lufthansa, only, thanks very much) without too much concern for where I’ll stay once I hit Munich…or where I’ll go after Munich. I may stay in the city and never ever head back home (because, as a pantser, this ticket is one-way and I don’t know where I’m going next or when I’ll get there). Heck, I may road trip over to Paris or I may hike the Austrian Alps.

On the other hand, if I was a hardcore outliner, I’d plan every minute of this trip–from hotels to rentals to restaurants and travel times. Nothing would be left to chance, and even my packing would be properly planned.

But I’m not a pantser nor a hardcore outliner. I’m more of a headlights-outliner–I like to know what happens next (what’s in my headlights) and to head in a general direction toward a distant target, but it’s all quite vague.

Basically, in this travel analogy, I would plan where I’ll stay once I hit Munich. I would also plan on heading over to Neuschwanstein a few days later. I would even pick out one or two sights worth my time on the way to Neuschwanstein and back. But I wouldn’t be attached to any of my plans. If I spot a more interesting sight or town or group of people, I’ll reroute my trip to accomodate. (This is why none of my friends like to travel with me.)

Ultimately, I like to shoot for a vague target, but if, as I write, that target no longer fits, I’m willing to make up a new target.

I wasn’t always this way. I used to think that if I had planned something, I had to stick to it. I’m not sure why I was so attached to endings–or attached to anything in my bare-bones outline. I think it’s easy to BELIEVE our planned ending is cannon and that we can’t deviate. Personally, I find that I get so absorbed by my story and so focused on my target that I lose sight of all the possible strands and directions I could go. It’s like if, on my travels, I got so focused on seeing Neuschwanstein that I didn’t notice all the other amazing things I could visit on my way there–the other castles, the cathedrals, the restaurants, or the wonderful people.

Yet with every new book I write, the more in touch I get with my process and the better I am at letting go of what comes next. The better I am at spotting potential offshoots and story opportunities–and the better I am at spotting when something I’d planned just isn’t working.

And maybe this method will work for you too. Next time you’re stuck, remember that your outline or planned ending are NOT cannon–they can change, and maybe sometimes they should.

You tell me: Do YOU know your ending when you start to write a story?