Start... at the End

by John Pellegrini

In our profession, we tend to have different concepts of what it is we do. We’re audio producers. We’re technical wizards. We’re funny, wacky creatives. All of these titles are secondary to our primary job: we are writers. Even if you don’t write copy at your station, you’re still a writer, because you edit the copy you are handed to make it flow better—at least you try to, except in the case of the two or three brain dead moron clients every single radio station seems to have, whose copy contains no adjectives or pronouns, yet is nothing short of the living word of God, dictated by them, and how dare you tamper with it! Nonetheless, we are all writers, first and foremost.

Now that we have agreed upon what it is we do, here’s a tip on how we can do it better, that is, how we can write more effectively. Have you ever found yourself coming to the end of a novel, or a movie, or a comedy sketch, or even a joke, and you find yourself amazingly disappointed? Have you ever found yourself reading a bit of commercial copy, especially if it’s a “skit” type spot, and it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere?

You bet you have. We all have. We’ve all been disappointed by books, movies, TV shows, and jokes. We’ve all had spots that started well, but finished poorly. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of being a creative person, the “Brilliant Idea That Went Nowhere” syndrome. Well, I’m going to give you a method to allow you to prevent this from ever happening again. This method was arrived at by me (though I did not invent it, I just finally figured out the obvious) through endless frustration and seeing large numbers of my own projects fail without explanation. The concept of preventing this syndrome is easy to master, and once you do so, you’ll always find yourself with a way out of any logjam you may encounter during your brainstorming. The concept is this: write your ending, first.

Write Your Ending First. Come up with the end of your story, skit, commercial, novel, movie, mini-series, whatever, before you begin your story. Then, figure out the cause of your ending. In other words, figure out what events and situations happened in order for your ending to occur. After you figure out those two elements, the rest is just detail work. Once you know how your spot, skit, story, novel, play, poem, opera, whatever, ends, you just work your way backwards. Your result occurs because of this reason, and in order for this to happen, these events must have occurred to set it up. Then, you can introduce conflicts that attempt to prevent your ending from happening, and viola, you have an interesting story, and you can start it from any point. If you know in advance what the conclusion or result is, everything becomes simple. All you have to do is put together a scenario to make it happen.

 The fact of the matter is, this is the way we all tell stories out loud. Think about it. How do you inform your friends of an event? Chances are, your conversation runs along these lines:

“Hey Bill, did you hear about the big accident on the freeway this morning?”

“No! What happened?”

“Well, some idiot in a Yugo cut off a Semi carrying a herd of cows….”

You see what you did? You started with the ending, and filled in the details. The ending, the result, was the accident. Everything comes after. Now, I don’t mean literally start your story at the end and work backwards. I mean you should know what your result is before you start to tell your story.

Joke writers (at least, the good ones) always start with a punch line, and write the joke around it. In sketch comedy, the idea is to end with your funniest joke. Lots of comedians don’t get this. Most of them start with their best joke. Saturday Night Live is full of this problem. They start their sketches with the funniest idea they can think of, and they all sort of fade away. That’s why the show is so damn lame.

I remember many moons ago, when I was living here in Chicago the first time, back in the mid 1980s, I had gone to see a friend of mine doing her stand up act at a local comedy club. She had a pretty good act, but the headliner was both amazing and a let down. Amazing because he had a great act. He did musical impersonations. He played guitar and did impersonations of famous musicians that were hilarious. His greatest bit featured him doing perfect impersonations of Paul McCartney and John Lennon as they would be today, with John talking to Paul from Heaven and both of them singing from their old songs to make their points. It was a brilliant concept, and he pulled it off beautifully. Had he ended his show with that, he would have received a standing ovation.

But he didn’t. He went on to do another twenty minutes that was nowhere near as good as the Lennon/McCartney bit, and he lost the audience. It was a total let down. He didn’t understand the concept of ending with your best bit. I have left out his name, not because I wanted to, but because I really don’t remember who he was, and I can guarantee you that you’ve never heard of him, either. The previous story should explain why.

So many times, I’ve seen comedians, performers, speakers, and politicians, who never bother to figure out what their ending should be. They just don’t seem to understand the concept of figuring out how to end before you start. Or, if they do, they don’t stick to it. Their ending goes better than planned, so they suddenly think that anything they say will be brilliant, and they rattle out some lame additional line or two that falls flat into dead silence. And they totally lose the audience. The worst part is, most of these people never realize the mistake they just made. All they remember is the big response they got, and if the last bit didn’t make it, no problem; that wasn’t the important part anyhow.

But the problem is, the only thing the audience remembers is your last point, because they remember you the same way a story is related, with the ending first. When they tell their friends about a performance, movie, play, book, or whatever, they tell the last part first. Why? Because that’s the part they saw or read most recently and is easiest to remember. Most people are not professional storytellers. They only tell what they remember, which is usually the ending. If you don’t end with a bang, or if your ending doesn’t make sense, no one is going to talk about you, because it becomes too difficult to explain. It’s not worth the effort.

Writing used to be a much more labored process, not just because everything had to be written down by hand, mind you. Writers, especially speechwriters, would take hours, days, even weeks, to compose, edit, revise, correct, improve, and reflect upon their words. That’s because there was no Internet. Many of England’s old political guard felt that Winston Churchill wouldn’t make it as a politician, because he seldom took more than a few hours to write any given speech. It was universally accepted then, that a speech of any significance must be written over a period of at the very least, two weeks. Think about that the next time you’re writing a commercial that goes on the air in less than an hour!

The most difficult book I’ve ever read is the unabridged version of Les Misreables, by Victor Hugo. You’ve no doubt seen the movies, or the musical, or perhaps read the more popular abridged version (on which the movies and the musical were based). Each of those is only one tenth of the entire unabridged novel. The unabridged version, the original tale that Hugo wrote, is over 1400 pages in length. To be honest, I think the book has to be the most undisciplined, sloppy novel ever written. Hugo just wanders all over the place, sometimes digressing from the plot for entire chapters with very interesting, but wholly unnecessary story telling that has nothing to do with the plot at hand. Nevertheless, I recommend this version of the book to everyone who’s looking for a good read. Why? Because the ending is spectacular. Oh, the ending is the same in the abridged version, and it’s great, but when you read the unabridged version, the ending is even better because you understand, to a greater degree, the pain and suffering and triumph that Jean Valjean and the other characters live through. Hugo clearly understood how his story would end, and with that, no matter how much he strayed from the plot, he could still make sense of it all in the end. It’s a marvelous bit of story telling.

So how does all this apply to a sixty-second spot? Simple, figure out what the result of your commercial or promo is supposed to be. Then figure out what will cause it to happen and write from there. That may sound easy enough, but I can name 50 commercials off the top of my head that I’ve seen on TV and heard on the radio where the ending had nothing to do with the purpose of the commercial or promo. Oh sure, they’re funny and cute, but they fail miserably in getting the audience to do anything related to what they’re promoting. When you consider the well known figure that the average human is exposed to 1800 commercial messages per day, having a spot or promo that doesn’t really reference the product or client or purpose, won’t make any results happen for the client. Maybe the spot will be remembered, but no one will remember the client in the spot. As one of the lizards in the Budweiser commercial said, “that’s great, but what does it have to do with selling beer?” Apparently, the Creative team from the agency even doubts their ability. Also, when you factor in the part about us remembering the ending first, does ending the spot suddenly take on a new importance? When you have clients who want their phone numbers in their commercials, make sure the phone number is the last thing in the spot.

Creativity is good. Creativity is fun. Creativity is fine for entertainment’s sake. But, if your client’s message is lost in all your creativity, you are failing as an advertising creative, which is the definition of our job. Remember, we are supposed to be promoting something other than our own genius. Our genius, in this job, is to make our client’s messages (whether it’s your station’s promos or the retail store’s big sales event) memorable.

You’ve heard the old phrase, “the end justifies the means.” Well, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Your spot, the means, justifies the result, the client’s message, and vice versa. If you know what the result is in advance, you’ll then know exactly what has to happen for the end to occur. Knowing what the end is, justifies the story you create to get there. Everything will then flow smoothly, and the real result is, you’ll have an entertaining promo or commercial that is memorable and effective. Trust me, no matter what kind of creative you are currently doing, whether it’s writing a promo, writing a commercial, writing a short story, writing a movie, or writing a novel, to ensure that you never suffer from writer’s block, to ensure that you never run out of creative steam, to ensure that your ideas will not get lost, to ensure that your concepts will remain memorable and everything flows smoothly, write your ending or result first. Then, tell the story of how your end, or result happened. That’s what I did with this article, by the way. It’s the easiest form of writing there is, and it will make everything you do much more memorable, which is exactly what every writer should strive for. Happy trails to you!