“Begin at the start of the ending” is a writing aphorism. Open your story there and you set yourself up to easily carry through without losing the reader’s attention.
During a Twitter discussion on the use of literary devices, I said that I use flashback because I tend to start near the end and I need flashback to get at the history of the character and situation. One person assumed that if I’m starting near the end, then I know the ending before I begin writing. She was envious.
But I almost never know the ending when I start writing. I don’t even know what I’m writing about until much later. All I have is a situation and/or a character or just a character trait, or perhaps a technique to try or a restriction I want to play with.
My ability to craft prose has become quite decent and I can improvise off a small vision or idea for a few hundred words without difficulty. I do this by feeling around inside the situation hoping to find where it wants to go. Then I wait to see if the character or voice or situation inspires me to keep going. This I refer to as seeing if the story “has legs”.
So how am I starting near the end? When I don’t know the end?
I think it happens naturally. If the material has enough tension and cohesion to continue (ie. if the story has legs) then it doesn’t take too many words to write to the resolution of that tension.
These are 1,000 to 5,000 word stories, though in one case it became a 23,000 word novella. That one took 23,000 words because of the complexity of the situation. A lot of backstory and context was required — some flashback, some internal narrative, as well as the POV and narrative and interaction of multiple characters — before I could explain how this all came to be, even though the primary story timeline is only six or eight hours long. Still, the story from middle to end is the resolution of those opening tensions. When the story opens the endgame has just begun, only none of the characters realize this (and neither did I, when I was working on early drafts).
This is slightly different for novels. My novels open with tension and situation and voice but the material feels more open-ended. The tension for a novel is a fact of life for the character rather than the one-time event or limited applicability condition of a short story, and it’s gonna take an entire novel to explore the different situations that the tension will affect.
So in a short story, if you open with tension and work towards its resolution, you will have started near the end. If instead you explain the situation, describe the characters, and then write the history to get to the moment with the tension you might start far from the end. And if that set up lacks interest, you may lose your reader before you get to the important parts.
As a reader for a publication, I see this problem all too often in submissions. Yes, especially for science fiction we need to know the world that you’ve built, in historical fiction we need to know the time and place, but don’t bore the reader by dumping it all at the opening. Describe it in a fascinating way that whets the reader’s appetite, or hold on to parts and tuck in snippets at natural points in the narrative.