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Start At The End (And Always Have Cheese Handy)

I was having a discussion on Twitter about revising your writing, and the person I was talking to said they had the ending of their story in mind, but not how they got there. I suggested something (maybe) radical: start with the ending.

For the reasoning, let’s talk about Monty Python’s “Cheese Shop” sketch. First, take a look at the classic, in case you’ve never seen it:

It’s a pretty straightforward list sketch, other than the typical Monty Python absurdist touches (most of the first minute, the ending, and the musicians, though they have their use in how the sketch plays out). A list sketch, bee tee dubs, is exactly what it sounds like: the joke is going through ludicrous lengths to drop a list of things, and the humor comes from the rhythm of the words in the list, as well as the reactions from the character not spewing the list. In this case, John Cleese is the straight man in the scene, running down the names of cheese in a cheese shop that doesn’t actually seem to have any cheese. Notice, if you didn’t already, how the sketch expertly varies the rhythms, with Palin breaking in after every cheese, then Cleese listing multiple cheeses, then the slight pauses he’ll put before launching back into his cheese list.

It also helps that the names of cheeses (some of them in the sketch are completely fabricated) are very funny.

But I don’t actually want to talk about the sketch, I want to talk about the writing of the sketch. As was related to me (and many other people, calm down) by John Cleese, the Pythons were driving back from a shoot, smushed into a car dressed in women’s clothing (natch) and Cleese started to feel sick. Graham Chapman asked him what would make him feel better, and Cleese suggested a piece of cheese. As Cleese said this, they passed by a pharmacy (chemist, for those of you in the UK), and Chapman suggested they should stop in there to get some cheese, which made them both laugh. So they tried to write it as a sketch.

The way the Pythons worked was this: they would lock themselves in a room for a few hours, with no distractions, and write. But try as Cleese and Chapman might, they couldn’t crack the idea of a man going into a pharmacy and asking for cheese. Around the two hour mark or so, Cleese asked the question: why did this man go to a pharmacy to get cheese? To which Chapman (if I remember correctly) answered, “Because there was no cheese at the cheese shop.”

So before they wrote the sketch depicting the man in the pharmacy, they wrote the sketch you watched above – or at least a draft of that sketch – with Cleese’s character going to a cheese shop to buy cheese, and discovering none there.

One of the most interesting things about this approach is that it flipped the dynamic: instead of a storekeeper reacting to a crazy man asking for cheese in his pharmacy, the storekeeper is crazy and the customer is straight.

And it works! By thinking about the origin of the sketch, they hit on the actual idea they should have (and did) write.

So how does this tie back to the conversation I was having on Twitter? Just like the “Cheese Shop” sketch, the thing you’re writing may not always be the thing you’re supposed to be writing. I always caution students not to get over-excited, and finish a draft of what they’re working on, first – if you get in the habit of not completing things, you’ll find it that much harder to complete things in general. But jot down that other idea, and that’s where you’ll often find the sparks flying.

It also helps to think about how and why your characters are doing the thing they’re doing. If you’ve got the ending, maybe that’s the most exciting place to start, and there’s more story after that. If you’re not sure how you got to the beginning, go back and figure that out, and you may be surprised to find that story works better than the one you started on.

Whatever it is you’re working on: a sketch, or a short story, or a movie, or… Anything, just make sure what you’re saying starts in a place of excitement, or absurdist humor, and only revs up from there.

And always have a piece of cheese handy.

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