I recently had an avid discussion with a writer friend of mine about whether or not it is important to know your ending before you begin writing a story. My friend believes you can discover the ending organically by beginning a story and seeing where the characters take you.
Obviously there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to this, but for me, when I plan a story, I almost always begin with the ending and work backwards. The ending is what occurs to me first. Only then do I figure out how the characters got there and why.
My friend finds this method restrictive, claiming it forces characters into the narrative rather than allowing them to create it. But again, I dispute this. Working backwards from an ending means I devise characters that will realistically end up in that kind of situation. I will concede that it is possible to write a character biography and discover a story (including the ending) in doing so. But I simply cannot write a story with no idea where it is headed. I always have to know the ending.
For me the process is typically thus:
1) Think of an ending sufficiently amazing to justify the time and energy needed for everything that follows in the points below.
2) Write a brief plot outline explaining how this ending was reached.
3) Create character profiles of people who would find themselves in the kind of story outlined in point 2.
4) Research the subject.
5) Write a detailed chapter outline.
6) Write the novel.
7) Rewrite the novel (this step is repeated as much as necessary).
Sometimes 2) and 3) may switch round, but not that often. I have never discovered the ending of a novel by starting to write and seeing where the characters take me. I have occasionally tried this approach with short stories, but on those occasions the end product was rambling and aimless. Without a clear idea of what happens at the end, I get hopelessly lost.
In short, for me at least, it is absolutely essential to know my ending before I start writing.