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Start at the End

I used to live in Shanghai, China, and let me tell you - I got lost almost every day.

Shanghai is an incredible city, but it can leave a spatially challenged lady reeling. The city is made up of hundreds of small neighborhoods, many of which look identical. Signs are in Mandarin and mind-bending English with phrases like “Beautiful Snow Flower Eat You are Food.” Cab drivers don’t speak a word of English and love nothing more than to scream at dumb, blonde foreigners who have yet to learn Mandarin. It’s a lot.

But while there, I found some workarounds. The city had enough foreigners living and working there to warrant a translation hotline for English speakers. I called it daily to speak to my cab driver and tell him I needed to go the three blocks from my house to the Jing'an Temple metro station because I couldn't find it to save my life.

Maps but analog

Then, I got my first smartphone. Before you roll your eyes at me, it was 2013, when everyone started making the switch from brick to smart.

And on that smartphone, I had digital maps.

Once I discovered the magic of watching the slow-moving dot on a blue pathway that pointed me in the right direction, my life changed. No more hotline! No one-way fights with cab drivers or staring at confusing signs!

To make life even better, Shanghai’s metro system expanded from a few lines to a massive network across the city. Suddenly I could get to any neighborhood I wanted. I was unstoppable.

I used the combination of maps and metro for everything - an out-of-the-way skatepark, a new café, the latest sushi place, and even artsy underground clubs that could only hold six of us as it was so cramped and tragically hip. It made a fun city even better and I miss riding those trains while staring at a map on my phone to this day.

A destination changes everything

That same sense of relief translated right over to my writing once I started with an ending. Once I decided how my story would end and why it should end that way, I could write with an end goal in sight.

No more searching for a temple - I had directions straight to the EXACT temple I wanted. And it was glorious.

I also found the ending-first approach saved me from daydreaming about my name on the bestseller list or millions of dollars landing in my account. Rather than focusing on my stardom as the new literary darling, I stayed zeroed in on my plot. I can always daydream about my fabulous writing career after the book sells zillions of copies.

Here’s how to do it

Grab your outline and go to section two, How will my book end? Start with a simple question - happy or sad? A happy ending doesn’t necessarily mean everyone walks away unscathed, but rather that your main character completes his/her/their journey. I just read an incredible book, For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing, and was blown away by how much she set up the book for a certain ending, then made a hard left at the last possible moment. The book left me out of breath it was so good.

Like Downing, you have to ask yourself, happy for who? Which character gets what they want? In Downing’s book, a group of people all want their own version of freedom, but only one ends up truly free. I guarantee you she had that ending in sight long before she wrote chapter one.

But what about a sad ending?

You can absolutely do a dark, sad ending, but again ask yourself - who suffers? Also, remember that a sad ending has to serve the story. The reader has to get some kind of satisfaction from a tragic end. When I read Little Women, I hated seeing Jo get married after her many triumphs as a single woman. But, it also fits the story, (and the author’s own pressure to marry in real life). Jo lived in a time when single women struggled. Despite her hesitation, the smart decision is to take a husband who understands her rather than to go it alone.

After you decide on your ending’s emotion, then start to think about plot points. Do you need a big event at the end? Maybe a revelation or a teaser for the next book in your series? What will serve your story best?

Here’s mine

In issue one, I mentioned a story idea for a mother who feels afraid of her own baby. She becomes convinced her little one is a serial killer in the making.

So, how will this story end?

This story ends when the kid, Sammy, turns 17 and everything seems normal. He’s an armchair detective like his mom. Together, they watch crime shows and listen to endless true crime podcasts. Tess, the mom, has let her guard down and can finally enjoy her son’s company.

In the last paragraph, Sammy makes a comment about a recent murder. Something like, “That’s not how I would do it.” The final moment is Tess staring at her son, once again completely uncertain about her son and who he’ll become. This book is a standalone - no teaser.

I chose this ending because it serves the character. No one is better at convincing everyone around them of their innocence than a dangerous killer. I like the idea of the son seeing his mom as a case study on how to get others to trust him. Also, I think it’s a good payoff for the reader after all that setup.

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