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.”
John Irving knows exactly how his stories will end. He writes the last line of his novels first. The words are actually typed and sent as postcards to close friends, who have frequently noted that not even a punctuation mark changed from conception to publication. It’s a lovely ritual for author and reader. “I didn’t always know it was the last line,” Irving told NPR. “It didn’t become recognizable as a process until my sixth novel The Cider House Rules, at which point I just realized well I get endings first. And I should recognize that.” Irving writes toward his ending, as if it were “a piece of music [he] can hear — however many years ahead of [him] it is waiting.” Is his process illogical? Irving’s explanation seems perfectly rational: “You have to know what your voice sounds like at the end of the story, because it tells you how to sound when you begin.” His favorite final sentences in his own books contain the titles of the novels themselves: The World According to Garp and Last Night in Twisted River. The end of Cider House Rules is another favorite. “I like refrains or deliberate repetitions,” he shared with Goodreads. It’s another reference to the music only Irving hears, the notes of which he urgently composes even though they linger.
“So much of a novelist’s writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.”
“The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.”
Young adult novelist Richard Peck has trained himself to follow a very disciplined writing process. The A Year Down Yonder author only uses an electric typewriter. He types each page six times, stores the work in a three-ring binder bearing the logo of his alma mater DePauw University (a “talisman” for his writing journey), and edits his manuscript with a pen. Peck starts each book knowing how they will end. He explained to Publisher’s Weekly:
“After a year, I’ve come to the end. Then I’ll take this first chapter, and without rereading it, I’ll throw it away and write the chapter that goes at the beginning. Because the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.”
Edgar Allan Poe
Master short storyteller Edgar Allan Poe believed the greatest writers composed their work with an understanding of the story’s end and the effect it should have on readers. Poe didn’t enjoy reading novels. He felt the long form “[deprived] itself… of the immense force derivable from totality.” In Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the author’s only complete novel, he italicized a trail of phrases for the reader to follow, foreshadowing the final chapter. They create a conceptual short story and demonstrate that the end of Poe’s works always stayed in the forefront of his mind.
In 1990, while on a train, J.K. Rowling came up with the idea for a story about a “scrawny, little, black-haired, bespectacled boy” who became a wizard. She started to write the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that evening. Around the same time, Rowling wrote the last chapter of the seventh and final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “I’ve always planned seven books,” she told BBC in 2006. She reiterated her process in a 2005 interview with Owen Jones: “These books have been plotted for such a long time, and for six books now, that they’re all leading a certain direction.” What’s most impressive is that Rowling was able to keep the end of her series a secret for 17 years.
Crime fiction queen Agatha Christie had a different way of working on every novel. Even when she did write her books start to finish, she would work back through the manuscript to build the stories surrounding various characters. Christie would often figure out who the murderer was, their method, and their motive before anything else. She described it as “a book growing inside you, building up all the time.” One of the first chapters she wrote for her 1944 novel Absent in the Spring was the last one, which mirrors the character’s tale of reflection.