One of the Rules of writing indicates that knowing the end before the beginning is critical to writing. Which I find odd, because in my writing (early days, probably doing it wrong), one of the best things is that I don't actually know what the end is on my first run through. I think this gives my writing some of its dynamism, because the author is as unsure of where this will end up as the characters.

Now, just for clarification, I have something of an idea of what is going to happen, some sense of what is being worked towards, but - critically - until I get there, I cannot say what the interactions will be, and so how the story will end.

Obviously, on a secondary rewrite, I do know where it is going, and I make sure that I put pointers and indicators in at that stage, but I see this more as adding items that the characters didn't notice the first time, but can see with hindsight.

So the question is, how important is this rule? Is my way of writing breaking it, or actually fulfilling it (by the rework)? As a new author, I want to understand whether I am getting things right or not.

  • Have updated the title so it'll be clearer what the question is about at a glance, does it work for you as well? Commented May 9, 2012 at 22:31
  • love your handle. Hope you let something of your knowledge in other realms figure into your writing, not necessarily in a sci-fi kind of way (though thats great too), but fiction informed by ideas like the uncertainty principle. Thinking along the lines of Pynchon or DFW Commented May 10, 2012 at 2:36
  • @NeilFein that's fine. I wanted to quote the original rule, so people knew where I was coming from. But the question has moved on a little since then, so this fits better. Commented May 10, 2012 at 8:00
  • @jon_darkstar My writing is sci-fi - see my profile for my published story. And the surreal nature of quantum mechanics features quite heavily in that one. My latest is sci-fi too, because that takes it out of the normal. Commented May 10, 2012 at 8:03
  • looks cool, you've sparked my interest and i'd love to read something of yours. The only thing is that my "novels queue" is a little long; it would probably be a while. do you have a short story you can point me towards for the meantime? Commented May 11, 2012 at 13:38

7 Answers 7


You give rules too much credit ;)

None of these rules should be treated as being one of the Commandments. In your mind you have to add a "... but think for yourself" to each rule, because maybe for your current situation it is best to break/ignore the rule.

You can see that also at the comments to this particular rule. To cite Standback here:

A good modification to this would be: once you know the ending, fix up the beginning to match.

The good thing of knowing the ending is having an aim. People tend to have it easier writing when they see their goal in front of them. Also it is useful to keep the consistency in your story. But you can fix consistency afterward. It's just more work.

That does not mean you can save work if you follow this rule. Because if a known ending is blocking your creativity and you are not able to write something, then the rule is not helping, it's sabotaging your work.

So do whatever works for you. The most important aspect of writing is (you would never have guessed that) writing. If you can write your story the way you are doing it now, then keep going. Don't ponder, write!

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    And some of us don't even follow the Commandments, so the "rules" are even less important than that... :) Commented May 8, 2012 at 12:12
  • @Lauren: I thought about adding "(when you are the pope)", but decided against it :) Commented May 8, 2012 at 12:32
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    As a rule, in life, I am not one for following rules, but I realise that they are there for a reason. "show don't tell" I have found useful, so I am not wanting to throw out rules without first knowing why. Commented May 8, 2012 at 17:26
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    Exactly. You can't break the rules until you learn the rules. Commented May 8, 2012 at 18:44

Like all rules, this can be broken if the end result is what you want.

Some people are "discovery writers" (aka "pants writers"). They just sit down to write, and watch the story unfold as if they were watching TV. Some people have to have everything structured and sketched out before they begin.

There's no wrong way to do it. If you get to the end, decide you like it, and then rework the rest to fit the end, congratulations: you did it right. If you get to the end, decide you hate it, and change it, congratulations: you did it right.

As long as the finished, edited story works so that all the pieces throughout point to the end, or don't, as you intend, it doesn't matter how you arrived at the end, or any piece in between, on any draft.

  • My problem is that there is a wrong way to do it, which is the way that produces a bad story. Ways to guide me so that I don't get this result I want to listen to. And know when I should adjust my style, and when I should adjust the rules. Commented May 8, 2012 at 20:28
  • Ah, but remember, when you finish the first draft, you aren't done writing your story. Editing is part of the writing process. You must go back and edit and rewrite. So it doesn't matter how you get to the end of the first draft, which is where pantsing can take you. What matters is improving your "bad story" with "good editing." I personally abhor pantsing; I spend months creating characters, world-building, and fine-tuning my detailed outline. But that's not the only "right" way to do a novel. Pantsing is perfectly fine as long as you go back and fix whatever went wonky. Commented May 8, 2012 at 23:55
  • Yes definately - editing its a part of the writing process. But by that point, the core plot is already set up. My re-editing is about pulling the entire story together, making the plot believable, making sure the characters are consistent ( all of which is normally a complete re-write ). But always when editing, you know where it is going. I am clearly a discovery writer by nature. Commented May 9, 2012 at 8:04
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    Well, then you have a decision to make. Either come to terms with being a discovery writer and accept that it means that you may have to rewrite huge sections of your story, repeatedly, to make it good enough for yourself, or teach/force yourself to work out plot/character/world before you start writing. There is no magic bullet to assure that you will blunder your way into a solid plot and great characters. At some point they have to be thought about and worked on. Where in the process you do that is up to you. Commented May 9, 2012 at 12:38
  • I would guess that if one has a reasonably strong conception/intuition of the main characters and the starting setting, the story would tend to flow well from that base. Even with the end known at the start of writing, some consistency editing and tuning is very likely to be useful. I think I would compare pantsing more to role playing in a game than watching TV.
    – user5232
    Commented Jul 6, 2014 at 13:05

At the risk of redundancy, I'm answering to strengthen Lauren Ipsum's point because I think he/she's correct, but I sense some resistance. Like you I'm a struggling writer, but I've been a member of two writing groups; so I've watched many different writers (with different approaches) struggle. I have also seen that there are indeed two writer types (planners and explorers) who both suffer different advantages and disadvantages.

As a planner myself, I can see that explorers escape some of the stiffness that planners tend to suffer from. Explorer writing however, is a commitment to aggressive and fearless rewriting. By rewriting, I mean largely writing over. The first drafts of explorer writers must be considered prototypes - an alternate form of planning, not a short cut to writing. Thus these first drafts are throwaways.

When explorer writers get into trouble, it is because they attempt to salvage their first draft, most of which they wrote before they knew what they were going for. In screenwriting, they say that, "there are no 3rd act problems, only 1st act problems." This is because the first act sets up the entire story. If you don't know what your third act will be, it's darn near impossible to get the first act right, so you better be willing to completely rewrite your first and probably much of your second act.

  • An excellent elaboration of my point. (And I'm a lady-type person, for the record.) Commented May 14, 2012 at 14:46

It has been said that writers are different and all approaches are valid. Generally, writers fall into two categories (with many combining both approaches to different extents):

  1. There are writers that start with an outline. They know what they write towards, before they begin. This gives them more control and reduces the necessity for rewriting.

  2. There are other writers, who need or enjoy the feeling of exploring their story world so much that knowing the end would stifle their creativity. The drawback for them is that they will have to do more rewriting, because of plot holes and inconsistencies that happen along the way.

But if you really think about this, you'll notice that those aren't different approaches at all.

  • In both approaches there is a phase where you find your story by exploring your fantasy world. In one approach the writers uses writing to find the story, in the other the writer does the same thing in his or her head and just takes brief notes.

  • In both approaches there is a phase of rewriting. In one approach the writer actually writes the novel (or parts of it) a second or multiple times. In the other approach, again, the writer does this in his or her head, only adjusting the notes.

  • In both approaches there is a final phase, where you write the final version of the novel. For the one approach this is the first time the writer actually sits down to write. For the other it is the last revision.

From this the answer to your question follows naturally:

All writers know the end of their stories before they write the final version.

The only difference is how they do the pleasurable exploring: in text, or in notes.


I would just like to add an "it depends..." clause.

For short and shorter stories, I believe that freewriting is the way to go. Follow the story where it goes and chronicle events as they unfold. Sometimes you can get a little lost but, heck, that's what rewrites are for.

But novels are much larger and less agile beasts; it might be better to treat them like a loosely scripted improv. For weeks ahead of time, you can do all of the freewriting you want in your head or in little brainstorm bubbles or whatever works. But get at least a solid framework of rough sketches in place. Yes, you should know what happens in the end and you need to be prepared for it. So do your characters.

Then all you need to do is to take those rough sketches to sit down and plan out the framework. Then break each bite size chunk into chapters and give each chapter a set mission to accomplish: "In Chapter 3 Mark discovers his friend's dead body hanging from the rafters. It must have been suicide. Something isn't right but Mark just can't put his finger on it. The cops are called and the elderly neighbor lady refuses to leave, claiming it was 'them terrists'."

The 'rules', 'commandments' what have you are there for a reason -- they work. You can play them fast and loose. Just don't throw out the book.


I disagree strongly. Exploratory writing is defintely considered a good practice sometimes, and it's certainly not in keeping with "the rules of writing." Further, I think that any set of prescriptive rules for writing are ultimately only useful for the people who say them. I have my own set of rules for writing, and they don't look much like that. ;)


I think it was Abe Lincoln who said the last part of any book written is the beginning.

Okay, so you do not know how your story will end and this helps you write. Fair enough, but your story will have an end, won't it? Now that you know the end, know your whole story, I would think this could well affect your beginning. I recently wrote a novel and put it away for a few years. When I read it again, I realised the beginning has to be my best writing. It has to pull the reader in. I found I rewrote entirely 20 chapters of the novel and it became a trilogy.

There are no hard and fast rules except the book has to be readable and the reader must want to read the book through to the end. But most writers I know, including myself, agree on one thing: have at least a brief plot and an idea of how the story might end AND write the novel. THEN think about how to best rewrite it to maximise entertainment (publication).

Of course some authors simply write one chapter at a time and see where it leads. This can work if you are a good writer and each chapter encourages the reader to desperately want to read the next. But it is worth remembering that a book is a contract between author and reader. The reader will be expecting a satisfying end. I recently read A Thousands Suns by Alex Scarrow. Although I found I wanted to read each chapter I was disappointed that the climax was poor (at least for me). I won't be reading his other books as a result. Yes the beginning is the most important part of a book because it is the bait to catch the fish. But the ending is the bait for whether a reader will ever read another book by that author. If the said fish was not netted and released properly it will not bother to bite a similar bait again (poor metaphor, I know, but...)

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