Writers often find themselves stuck in the opening chapters of their novels. For some writers, the beginning is the end of their writing attempts. Why is that? Especially considering that many writers—creative and intelligent folks on the whole–have imagined a complete plot for their novel, and, in fact, may even “see” the entire story like a movie in their heads.
More often than not, the problem rests with the internal critic or internal editor voice. There’s a nagging perfectionist who sits next to us and groans every time we touch the keyboard. The critic voice urges us to make sure every word is perfect in the beginning.
Even when you’ve made it chapter two or three, the critic says, “Better go back to the beginning and make sure everything is just right before we move ahead.”
The critic’s justification may be that the opening of the story is the equivalent of a building’s foundation.
“If you put your story on a faulty foundation, it may collapse,” the critic says.
That’s sound advice. AFTER YOU’VE COMPLETED THE FIRST DRAFT! (I’m yelling at your inner critic, not at you.)
I understand: you want your novel to be perfect, but the number criteria for something to be a book is that is completed. If it’s not done, it’s not even a book.
It’s kind of like how pancakes aren’t pancakes until you have on the griddle for a minute. Before that it’s just batter that you keep over-stirring.
Pour that batter in the darn griddle!
The first draft is about getting your story out. Revision comes after that. Revision is when you can make space for your inner critic’s opinions.
When you find yourself returning to the same opening passages and honing and tweaking and polishing instead of moving forward, try this technique: write the ending. Literally.
Hit the return key a few times in your document or if you write longhand, turn to a blank page. Tell your inner critic to take a break for a couple hours and start writing the ending. Here are some prompt questions to help you get you rolling:
- What’s the very last image that your readers will see?
- What emotions do you want to leave with them?
- What is one unexpected thing you can weave into the ending?
- Are there any sound effects associated with your ending? (e.g. a waterfall, the clatter of keys in a lock, the whistling wind)
- If your story had a soundtrack what would the final song be?
(For a technique to help generate images for your final scene, consider incorporating Unstuck Tip #2: Snapshotting into this approach.)
I realize that some discovery writers (aka “pantsers”) may balk at this suggestion. A discovery writer may argue that they need to write from the beginning, through the middle, and discover the ending through a more linear process. I think that’s fantastic, and if you’re doing that and you’re already past the beginning in your first draft, then congratulations: this tip isn’t for you. But if you are stuck, no one will die (in real life) if you try this technique.
Here’s a secret: you may not keep this ending. It is not written in stone. (Well, unless you wrote it in stone.) You could repeat this technique more than once. You could write three endings, or six endings, or an entire novel comprised of nothing but endings.
Okay, maybe not six endings your first time out, but hopefully you get the point. By writing the ending, we’re cracking open the cage door so your creative mind can sniff the cheese of the ending and get out of the cage.
Remember: we gave your inner critic the morning off, so this isn’t an exercise where you will now begin to obsess about perfecting your ending. You’re not here to start polishing and wordsmithing. You’re only here to plant a flag on the mountain and then head back down to the village below and sherpa your plot up to the ending.
Uh oh, I think the inner critics are returning from coffee break. What are you going to tell them? Maybe you should give them the rest of the day off so you sherpa some batter all over your cheese.
Did I go too far mixing the metaphors?
Just try writing the ending. Now go write.
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