That’s true of stories, anyway, and it’s something I’ve known about them for a long time. In fact, when I first assemble a story I always have a few basic things in place: the story problem, the character who will struggle to resolve the problem, other characters who will assist or create more difficulty along the way, the incident that starts the story off and . . . the ending. I won’t necessarily know how my main character is going to resolve her problem, but I will understand, like a shiver that reaches to the soles of my feet, exactly what a resolution will feel like.
It’s the feeling that is key, and knowing that, feeling it, will also let me know what my story means, will reveal what English teachers refer to as my story’s theme. When I’m writing I never put that meaning into words, though. My story has to work by making the reader feel, not through handing out lessons.
I have always been intrigued with writers who tell me that they sail into a story without knowing the ending. I’ve even heard some say, “If I knew the ending, I wouldn’t write the story. I write in order to find out how it will turn out.” And though I would never argue with anyone else’s method of working—if it works for you, it works—I don’t understand how such a journey is possible.
To me, setting off to write a story without knowing where it is going would be very much like starting a road trip without deciding whether my destination is going to be California or New York. If I were driving, I would end up circling endlessly somewhere in Indiana.
This is something I’ve known about my own writing for a long time. And yet it’s something, every now and then, I find myself having to discover again. And I’ve just bumped into this simple truth about the way I work once more.
And bumped hard.
This winter after breaking my elbow and finding myself unable to keyboard, I began writing by dictating through voice-recognition software. At the time, I was working on Blue-Eyed Wolf, a long-suffering young-adult novel, but after dictating a couple of new scenes I grew distrustful of the process. Writing through dictation seemed to be altering my style, not a good thing halfway through a long novel
And so I decided to take a leap—eyes practically closed—into a new verse novella similar to Little Dog, Lost, which I especially enjoyed writing. Verse seemed a medium more conducive to dictation. The story I landed in is about a calico cat, and, at least for now, it’s called Patches. (Often my titles come last.) And so I began writing, that is dictating, with an idea half formed. I did, however, have a general kind of ending in mind. It wasn’t the definitive moment of strong feeling I usually rely on, but at least I knew where everyone would be by the last scene.
I wrote the whole story or nearly the whole story. I discovered various interesting events as I proceeded, as I always do. But when I got to the end I encountered a problem. The conclusion I’d been aiming toward was too vague. And when I stepped into the squishy territory of this vague ending, I discovered that I could go on and on and on, writing more and more events. But I absolutely could not draw what was supposed to be a small, simple story to a conclusion, because no conclusion I could imagine felt right, nothing I tried meant anything.
A story doesn’t end because the characters have finally arrived at some defined place. You end your story when you’ve revealed your heart’s truth, especially to yourself. And if your heart’s truth—the reason you began writing to start with—is going to mean anything to us when we encounter it, the story must be aimed at that truth from the first lines. That’s what makes it truth when we get there, that we’ve known it all along.
As I write this, though, I still have a story without an ending. So . . . what’s to be done? Go back to the beginning, of course. Find out why I entered this story at all. And then set my compass again.
California, here I come. Or will it be New York?
All I know is I’ve got to get out of Indiana!