Writing isn’t necessarily a linear process. History shows that authors frequently composed their novels by writing or conceptualizing the final chapter or sentence first. Today marks the 77th anniversary of the publication of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. She famously wrote her best-selling story of the Old South backwards, penning the saddest parts of the Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara saga before figuring out the details of their tumultuous relationship. After the jump, we explore why eight different authors worked from end to start. May they inspire you to consider an alternative approach to your next narrative.
Georgia-born author Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone with the Wind after leaving her job as a reporter at the Atlanta Journal. She stayed home to nurse a rheumatic ankle and passed the time by starting a novel about the Civil War, which she insisted was for her own amusement. Editor Harold Latham persuaded her to let him have a peek and thought it had best-seller potential. The essence of the story was about survival. Mitchell wrote the book’s final moments of grief and loss first. “I left them to their ultimate fate,” she said of the conclusion.
“She knew at the very beginning that Rhett wasn’t going to care that much and that Scarlett was going to live for another day,” Joanna Arietta, director of historic houses for the Atlanta History Center and Margaret Mitchell House, told NPR in 2011. In a 1935 letter to Latham, Mitchell restated her approach to writing the end of Gone with the Wind. She said she had an “unfortunate habit of writing things backwards,” but it was important to leave the fate of her characters up to the reader:
“My own intention when I wrote it was to leave the ending open to the reader… My idea was that, through of several million chapters, the reader will have learned that both Pansy [Scarlett's original name] and Rhett are tough characters, both accustomed to having their own way. And at the last, both are determined to have their own ways and those ways are very far apart. And the reader can either decide that she got him or she didn’t.”
It was also a way for her to keep tabs on her characters’ storylines:
“I had every detail clear in my mind before I sat down to the typewriter. I believe… that is the best way to write a book — then your characters can’t get away from you and misbehave, and do things you didn’t intend them to do in the beginning.”