Hardest Stuff First
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When I was in my twenties one of the ways I kept body and soul together was moving furniture. The first thing that experienced movers will tell a rookie is Take the Heaviest Stuff First. Why? Because if you wait till mid-afternoon before tackling that grand piano, you’ll be so tired you won’t be able to handle the weight and the cumbersomeness.
I have the same rule for writing.
Attack the hardest parts first.
What that means is that I don’t work on a story in sequence. I don’t start on Page One and push straight through to The End.
Here’s how I do it:
I’ll start with a Foolscap (a one-page snapshot of the whole work) and a broad-strokes outline (I usually name the file “Three Act Structure”) and I’ll add a more detailed Scene by Scene (sorta) outline. So I know where I’m going and the general contour of how I intend to get there.
But from there, I’ll work wildly out of order.
For instance, if I were writing Moby Dick, I might start with the climactic battle between the White Whale and the Pequod, just because it’s the hardest.
Why do it that way?
- Because once I’ve broken the back of that daunting sequence, I feel tremendously relieved knowing that that make-or-break part of the story can be done, even if I haven’t got it exactly the way I want it yet.
- Serendipity and happy accidents. I often find that when I tackle the hardest stuff first, really interesting ideas or plot twists or character notions will “pop out” spontaneously in the heat of the writing. This makes sense, because the toughest scenes will naturally hold the most difficult moments, story-wise and character-wise. (That’s why they’re tough.)
- The third reason for working this way is it’s the strongest posture to take against Resistance. Resistance wants us to piddle around on the margins and take on the easy stuff first. We get soft that way. Our resolve is not fortified by the way we’re working but attenuated by it. Always hanging over our head is the knowledge that we have to confront that Big Tough Scene sooner or later—and that we’ve allowed ourselves to be daunted by it so far.
- Setups and Payoffs. In a way, tackling the hardest stuff first is a subset of the principle, used all the time by screenwriters, of Start At The End.
The climax is likely to be the most difficult part of the story. Our own laziness and Resistance will make us want to put off facing it. “I’ll get to it when I get to it.”
But if we can lick it first, we can see (or discover spontaneously as we write it) what all, or most of, the payoffs of the story are.
If we know, for example, that Ishmael is going to be the sole survivor of the final battle (payoff), we can work backward and built into the story the instrument of his salvation— Queequeg’s airtight coffin, fabricated earlier by the ship’s carpenter, which bobs to the surface after the sinking of the Pequod (setup.)
But how will Ishmael survive (payoff), clinging in the middle of the Pacific to that fragile little ark? Ah, let’s have the Pequod encounter another whaling vessel, the Rachel, just before the final battle with Moby Dick (setup). And we’ll have the Rachel searching for a man overboard, the captain’s son (setup). That’s how she happens to be prowling the waters when she comes upon Ishmael (payoff.)
In terms of fatigue, the writing of a long-form project may not seem to be an exact analogy to moving furniture. On a writing job you’re working over a period of months or years, not a single day. But as anyone who’s done it can attest, you can get pretty damn tired working on a book. Six months in, or sixteen months, you can be weary to the bone.
Move that Steinway grand first, while you’ve still got the strength.
one excellent (as usual!), and very helpful article! thnx, steve !!!
Writing software is somehow the same: the solution to the hard problems will shape the entire architecture, and you want it to figure it out as early as possible. Still, it’s amazing how the moment I want to tackle the hard issues, all the totally unimportant things suddenly pop and beg for just a few minutes (each).
Yes! Thanks for this insight
Great article Steve. Thank you as always 🙂
Thank you for yet another gift this Holiday seadon. Your articles are priceless.
I purchased your bundle as my Christmas gift to myself.
This is great advice. I’m curious how you decide what the hardest places are going to be? Is it always the climax, or are there other elements and signals you look for to clue you in on where to dive in?
Think about each piece, and notice the one that makes you panic.
Write the part that scares you most. “Hard” in this context is mostly about fear, methinks.
Justin, I couldn’t have said it better than Joel just did. You KNOW which parts scare you the most.
P.S. Thinking about this post after I wrote it, I realize that I do sometimes start at the beginning and stick with it long enough to know I’ve found a way that works. In a way the beginning can be a really hard part too — and a part that scares me a lot.
The biggest turning points are the hardest ones. So… Climax… Act2 dark moment, midpoint turning point, act 1 turning point and inciting incident.
yes. yes. yes. I have The War of Art on my desk. I start every day with the hardest stuff. Because of your book. It’s changed my work completely. Thank you. And thank you for yet another reminder.
Wise advice! Thank you for reminding us of this important strategy.
Thanks Steve – good timing!
Six days ago I moved a Steinway Grand. The big guns were happy, but upon looking at the Steinway, they realized what they really wanted was a 50-piece orchestra with a harpsichord. Problem is, I’m still wiped out from moving the Steinway. In my weakened state, Resistance sidetracks me every which way. And I can’t just start putting the orchestra on stage since I have to decide first how it is to be structured. It’s back to the proverbial foolscap. Brute force I could do in this state of mind, but not refined thinking.
I’ll stop now before I lose everyone down the metaphorical rabbit hole.
Having just moved house this post really spoke to me. Thanks!Also reminds me an experiment my daughter did at school. They had a bunch of rocks, pebbles, sand and water. They tried various ways to put them in a vase and eventually came to the conclusion that the only way to get everything in, is to start with the rocks first and then in descending order. This way the sand and rocks are force to move and absorb into the smallest of spaces.
Thanks so much Steve. I begin everyday with a meditation on The War of Art.
I have been putting off the scene in my novel where the good guys confront the pirates and rescue the hostages, mostly because I can’t decide of both the hostages are alive or not or what the extent of their injuries (mental and physical) are. BUT then I read this post and thought, “Just start the assault phase and things will work out and become clear, just like in real combat. At the end some are hurt, some are Okay and some are dead. We won;t know which until the battle is over.”
Such a great insight! I’ve been doing it the opposite, trying to lure the muse in by doing the easiest part first. No wonder it is taking months to get an outline.
My belief has been that being tough and rigid and goal oriented is counterproductive. No?
Thanks so much for this. It is strangely comforting to have my temptation nailed — perhaps partly because I see it isn’t just me.
Yes! It takes a lot more energy to try to ignore the piano in the room! I think I’ve been stepping around my own creative instrument much of my life. Now that I am inching my first own book forward, I will consider you my foreman showing me the best way to navigate the big, awkward thing toward the window so it can finally sing. So thank you.