Vonnegut’s Rule #5

By Joe Moore

A topic I’ve seen on forums and blogs is Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules of writing fiction. They’re worth reviewing and taking to heart. But his rule number 5 is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Rule number 5 is: Start your story as close to the end as possible. This is relevant for both the entire book and a single chapter. We often hear that the most common mistake of a new writer is starting the story in the wrong place.

Well, it happens to published writers, too. Lynn Sholes and I are guilty of drafting whole chapters that either occurred in the wrong place, or worse, weren’t even needed. Usually they turn out to be backstory information for us, not the reader. We go to the trouble of drafting a chapter only to find it’s to confirm what we need to know, not what the reader needs to know.

So if we apply Vonnegut’s rule number 5, how do we know if we’ve started close enough to the end? Easy: we must know the destination before we begin the journey. We must know the ending first.

To me, this is critical. How can we get there if we don’t know where we’re going? And once we know how our story will end, we can then apply what I call my top of the mountain technique. In my former career in the television postproduction industry, it’s called backtiming—starting at the place where something ends and working your way to the place where you want it to begin.

But before I explain top of the mountain, let’s look at the bottom of the mountain approach—the way most stories are written. You find yourself standing at the foot of an imposing mountain (the task of writing your next 100K-word novel), look up at the huge mass of what you are going to be faced with over the next 12 or so months, and wonder what it will take to get to the top (or end).

You start climbing, get tired, fall back, take a side trip, climb some more, hope inspiration strikes, get distracted, curse, fight fatigue, take the wrong route, fall again, paint yourself into a corner—and if you’re lucky, finally make it to the top. This method will work, but it’s a tough, painful way to go.

Now, let’s discuss the top of the mountain technique. As you begin to plan your book, even before you start your first draft, imagine that you’re standing on the mountain peak looking out over a grand, breathtaking view feeling invigorated, strong, and fulfilled. Imagine that the journey is over, your book is done. Look down the side of the mountain at the massive task you have just accomplished and ask yourself what series of events took place to get you to the top? Start with the last event—the grand finale— make a general note as to how you envision it. Then imagine what the second to the last event was that led up to the end, then the third from the last . . . you get the idea. It’s sort of like outlining in reverse.

This takes it a step further than Vonnegut’s rule number 5 by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning while you’re still in the planning stage. Guess what happens? By the time you’re actually at the beginning, you will have started as close to the end as possible. And you will see the logic and benefit of rule number 5.

Naturally, your plan can and probably will change. Your ending will get tweaked and reshaped as you approach it for real. But wouldn’t it be great to have a general destination in mind even from the first word on page one of your first draft?


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32 thoughts on “Vonnegut’s Rule #5

  1. This is so important–especially for a thriller writer. I also like to keep in mind James Scott Bell’s Middle Moment. What’s the character thinking before all hell breaks loose?

    • Nancy, the top of the mountain plan works great for plotting a thriller. And Jim’s middle moment is another great tool in the writer’s arsenal.

  2. I like the idea of starting at the end and working backwards to the beginning as you plan. Maybe that’s what I need to do with a story idea that has been giving me fits and starts….

    • Working your story back from the beginning is a great idea, I think.

      I would like to remind of James Scott Bell’s idea–it can be found in the search feature of The Kill Zone as well as his book on the subject, available at Amazon–of starting from the mirror moment of the story. The mirror moment is the mid-point. I have started using his idea combined with K.M. Weiland’s outlining ideas.

      Mr. Scott’s idea was a revelation to me.

  3. Joe, Thanks for the reminder about Vonnegut’s rules–I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with them. I’m going to check them out, especially number five. I appreciate the post.

  4. Vonnegut’s rule always makes me think of Stephen King. He says he never knows the ending when he starts. I assume he has some way to get to the top of the mountain that doesn’t involve the grief that you describe.

    Working backward also seems to me to be the only way to build in the story’s structure with some degree of confidence. And, while building that structure, you can also begin to build in those myriad craft details without which your story will lack richness.

    Finally, working forward involves almost endless re-writes,trying to make sure plot and structure and character and details all hang together. Doesn’t sound like fun to me.

    • Stephen, I think an additional takeaway from #5 is to cut out all the fluff and backstory up front and cut to the chase. So if you start at the top of the mountain, it’s easier to do so.

  5. Yes, Brother Brooks and I have something to say about Mr. King’s advice. In his book he says not to worry about it, you’ll find an ending somehow.

    Well, as the old 1940s detective used to say to the guy under the hot lights, “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

    Some people **coughPANTSERScough** prefer the hard way, thinking it gets them the most “organic” and satisfying ending. That’s ONE way to do it, sure, but I’ve found having at least a destination IN MIND is better, and of course it is subject to “change without notice.”

    Also, thanks to Nancy for mentioning the mirror moment. For me that’s the big beacon, and with it you can shine a light on Joe’s mountaintop. It’s always nice when you’re climbing to know what route to take!

    • Hey, if it works for Mr. King, that’s great. But I’ve never met anyone who decides to take a trip without knowing where they’re going. You can do it, but you’re probably going to take a lot of time-wasting detours along the way.

      • Then there was Donald Westlake, who called his the “push method” (avoiding the word that’s become anathema to plotters). He supposedly said, “If I don’t know what’s coming next, how can the reader?” I’ll admit to being a “pusher,” but Jim Bell and others have taught me to have an ending in mind–a “killer” ending as JSB says.

  6. I think this is great advice, Joe, whether you are an outliner or a pantser. To riff a little on your mountain metaphor: On a trip to Vancouver years ago, my husband and I wanted to hike up Grouse Mountain. The trail is only 2 miles but it’s called Nature’s Stairmaster, meaning it is almost straight up. Well, we decided to take the tram up first and we sat up there and admired the view, then we said, “You know, it doesn’t look that hard.” Couple days later, we made the climb.

    So, yeah….take a tram up and look around and see if you can glimpse the end. Then go back and start at ground level.

    I wish I would take yours (and my own!) advice and do this with all my books. Because like Jim says, there’s a hard way and there’s an easier way. The books where I did have at least a notion of the ending always were quick-writes. The others were always a struggle. Including the present WIP…Kelly and I didn’t glimpse the ending until around page 200. The climb before that point was really fitful and discouraging.

    Thanks. I needed this today!

  7. I’ve read this advice before (here maybe?), and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued. However, it also baffles me. How do you envision a story backward? Are you planning your milestones in reverse order, or every scene? Because I gotta tell ya, that seems way harder to me. Perhaps it’s big picture thing. Hmm… I agree that we must know where we’re going in order to get there, but I can’t wrap my mind around “write backward”. Am I missing something here?

    • Sue, there’s something I avoided calling the top of the mountain plan because I didn’t want to start a debate. It’s really another method of outlining. I’m not advocating writing the book in reverse, only establishing individual milestones starting with the climax.

      Let’s say you’re writing a story about a football game. You decide who will win in advance. So what had to happen for your team to win? Was it a field goal, a Hail Mary pass, a run up the middle, a fumble, an interception? What was the score just before the win? If you know the answers, even in general, to those questions, you have your ending. Now back up a bit to the beginning of the third quarter. Did the quarterback get injured and your hero take over? If you keep following this plan, at some point, you are at the beginning of the story and you can start writing with each milestone clear and known. You always know where you’re going.

  8. I just typed “the end” on my current manuscript. Given it’s a romantic suspense, the ending is ‘easy.’ Hero and heroine will overcome whatever I’ve thrown at them and be ready for their happily ever after journey (I never give it to them, just show them they can have it if they’re willing to keep working at it). It’s figuring out all the ‘what can I throw at them?’ parts that have to come organically.

    And I will confess, that as a “plantser” since I knew how I wanted to wrap things up, I lost a lot of motivation to write it. Part of that’s because I hate to say goodbye to my characters, but part of it is because the writing becomes HARD when it’s only about the words and not about the ideas.

    As for starting too soon. I do that in every book. I know when I start writing that the first chapters are going to be for me, not the reader. I figure it’s the time others spend doing character sheets, or outlines. I prefer to dig in. (Plus, I’m thinking I can use these as bonus material/behind-the-scenes peeks at the book)

  9. Thanks for reminding us of Vonneguts’ rule, Joe. I outline, and before I start, I know the ending. But this gives me extra incentive to cut out extraneous details and back story.
    And count me in as someone who’d like to know what it’s like to write with a partner.

  10. All I can say, is why didn’t you give me this advice 40 years ago, Oh, I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway. Now, that I have taken writing seriously, and Indie’d my new stuff. The frustration, and heartache of self publishing results, make me reflect. If you are young. Pay your dues, and listen, and then act on our experienced professionals at The Kill Zone. It wouldn’t hurt, to read their work. Even though it may not be your preferred genre. Their techniques, have earned them the title, of professional story-tellers.

  11. I learn so much from posts here at TKZ! Thank you for this discussion of Vonnegut’s rule #5.

    It reminded me of the second habit in late Stephen Covey’s list: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
    Begin with the end in mind.
    I can’t think of anything to add to that.

  12. I’m nearing the finish of my 7th book and i’ve been stuck the last few days with how to end the story. I simply didn’t know where to go to end it. Yes as you might have guessed, i’m a flaming Pantser. I could never write in reverse. My current story is rich for all the things that happened to my character along the way, things that i just can’t predict at the start. I’d get an “F” in Mr. Vonnegut’s writing class.

    • Don’t dispare, Alec. Building a story from the end forward doesn’t have to include all those “rich things”. Those come from the writing process. But plotting is a different story, one that you can do without the actual writing process. Think of it as stepping stones you use to cross a pond or creek. The stones get you from point A to point B–the water is the story containing all the rich stuff. Good luck.

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