By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 23, 2010
Last week we were talking about first drafts (Cover the Canvas, 6/9/10). The idea was to get Draft #1 done from beginning to end, no matter what, even if it wasn’t perfect. The reason? Because once we’ve got a first draft, we’re re-writing, not writing. Writing is too freakin’ hard.
The obvious next question (or maybe it’s the preceding question) is: “Okay, but how do we decide what’s in the first draft?”
Work from back to front
Here’s a principle that screenwriters use: Start at the end.
Begin with the climax, then work backwards.
I’m a big fan of this method. It works for anything–novels, plays, new-business pitches, music albums, choreography. It works if you’re Lady Gaga, it works if you’re Mother Teresa.
First figure out where you want to finish. Then work backwards from there.
Why does this work? Because it forces us to answer the real nut-busting questions: What is this story about? Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? When protagonist and antagonist clash in the climax, what does it mean? What do we really want to say?
Case study: “Rocky”
Remember the first Rocky? Let’s get inside Sylvester Stallone’s head (he wrote the script, as well as starring in the movie) and see how Starting At The End works.
Sly’s sitting at his typewriter. What, he asks himself, is the climax of this story? It can only be one thing: Rocky and Apollo Creed slug it out in the prize ring. Okay. But what actually happens in the ring?
Should Apollo wipe the floor with Rocky? No, too depressing–and the theme (a loser is always a loser) sucks.
How about if Rocky kayoes Apollo? Nah, unbelievable. And again the implied theme (a bum can become champ of the world) comes off like a fairy tale.
But wait, suppose Rocky gets the hell kicked out of him by Apollo (that’s certainly believable), but he somehow hangs so tough that the fight ends in a draw? In other words, Rocky can’t actually defeat the champ, but he can take the punishment. In doing that, he earns the respect of the boxing world–and of himself. That’s good! Sly perks up; he rolls a fresh sheet into the typewriter …
Sly writes what, to me, is the best scene in the movie: the Night Before the Big Fight scene.
Midnight: Rocky’s at home with Adrian in his hellhole apartment. He can’t sleep. He gets dressed and goes down to the arena. He walks in, alone. He sees the ring, the stands, the posters of Apollo, the gigantic American flag. It hits him: holy shit, this is real. He, a ham-and-egger from the streets, will be going toe-to-toe with the heavyweight champion of the world. Rocky exits, shattered.
Back home, with emotion, Rocky tells Adrian what he just saw and felt. He has no chance against Creed. He’s been kidding himself, even to entertain the thought. He’s gonna get massacred tomorrow; he’s going to look like a fool in front of the entire world.
Then: Rocky’s epiphany. He lets go of the dream of winning. Instead, he sets his aim–do or die–to last fifteen rounds. To take whatever punishment the champ dishes out–and to stay standing.
If I can do that … if I can go the distance with Creed … then I’m gonna know, for the first time in my life, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.
That’s it! That’s the theme. That’s Act One, that’s Act Two.
Working backward from the end, Sly the screenwriter has licked the story.
The end dictates the beginning
Act One and Act Two, Sly knows now, have to set up two elements:
First, that Rocky is a bum from the neighborhood–that everyone else believes this and that Rocky believes it too. Hence, Rocky’s job as a mob knee-breaker, his horrible apartment, “Take her to the zoo!”
Second, that within this man, whom the world sees as a bum, lies the potential to rise above his situation, to reclaim (or claim for the first time) his honor and self-respect. Hence, Mickey the trainer, the meat locker scene, the “Flying High Now” moment when Rocky races up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Once Sly figured out the climax, he had his theme. He knew what Rocky represented, what Apollo represented, what the fight, the neighborhood, what Adrian represented.
A principle of leadership
I’ve just finished a really interesting book, The Sinai Campaign by Moshe Dayan, the great Israeli general. Dayan, facing the Egyptian army in 1956, did the same thing Stallone did. He worked backwards from the end. He figured out what the Israeli Defense Forces needed to accomplish, politically as well as militarily, to extricate themselves from a dangerous situation (Egyptian terrorism, a blockade of the straits of Tiran, etc.) Then he figured out what actions were necessary to get to that place.
Another way to look at this principle is to think of it in terms of leadership. What service does a leader perform? A leader defines the goal. (In writing terms, he figures out the climax of the story; in biz terms, he articulates where the organization wants to go.) Then he turns to his colleagues and says, “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, figure out how to get us there.”
For us, as artists and entrepreneurs, we have to be the leader and the working stiffs. Part of us has to define the goal–what’s the finish? what’s the climax? where do we want this train to end up? The other part has to figure out what specific actions we need to take to get us there.
I’m not saying Start At The End is the only way to do this. But it’s a sound principle that applies across a whole range of disciplines. Work back-to-front. It works.