Ending First: Smart Structure or Writing Ass Backward?

MMMSecret asked on twitter:

Question for writers: Do you always know how your story is going to end before you start writing?

Being all curious, I clicked on the tweet to see what other said. Almost overwhelmingly the answer was NO, NO, NO. There were other things alongside, about how the story must reveal itself or the characters lead the way, etc. The thing is, those can be true, but not mutually exclusive to knowing the end.

Personally, I always know the end. I am open to it changing, and sometimes it does a little, but never a lot. The reason why is, unfortunately, not that sexy: story structure. Every great story has a good story structure, which in turn defines the conflict, which is both driven by (and drives) the characters.

The ending is the resolution of the conflict, but what is the conflict? The dark moment is the moment when all hope is lost, but what do the characters hope for? The middle is the point of no return, but what journey are they on?

If you don’t know what your character fears most, then I’d say you don’t know them well enough to write them. If you don’t know the conflict of your story, then you don’t know enough about your story to set it up properly.

I don’t even think this makes me a plotter. I don’t have detailed outlines. I don’t even necessarily write this stuff down. I just know it.

Another way of looking at it is follow through. If a reader sees a gun in Act 1, they expect it to be fired in Act III (thus you’re setting it up whether you intend to or not). Conversely, if a character fires a gun in Act III, they needed to see it in Act I otherwise it can feel contrived.

As for pantsers, I’ve seen some great books come out that way. And some not-so-great ones, but the great ones STILL follow good story structure. They have some super-awesome storytelling intuitive or intelligence (or whatever you want to call it) that allows them to build the structure without consciously doing so. But it still has to be there.

If you’re a writer, do you pants or plot or somewhere in between? What do you think of story structure – is it intuitive or is there one you follow? If you’re a reader, are you interested in the method of your favorite writers and have you noticed any trends?