Friday, May 20, 2011

Get Back! Working Backward to Flesh Out Your Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I’m a chronological kinda girl. I like to start at the beginning of my novel and write to the end. I like to know where my protagonist is at emotionally when they start a scene, and unless I know what happened to them to get to that scene, I won’t know their mental state. But sometimes, I reach a point where I can’t go forward until I go back.

I’m facing that right now with my new novel. I’ve reached my mid-points (yay!) and know where each POV character ends up for my big mid-point reversal. Problem is, when I looked back at the first half of the novel it felt…bleh. There just wasn’t enough tension or enough twists and turns. As much as I like the story, it needed more work to make me happy with the plot.

It was time to go back to page one and tweak the plot.

For me, it was all about getting my characters to the mid-points. I liked what happened there, but I discovered I hadn’t done enough groundwork to make getting to those good twists interesting enough. So I took a hard look at my mid-points and each plot and character arc and asked:

1. What was driving my characters to that mid-point? 

Plots can shift as you write. Stories can evolve. After 30K words, I had a much stronger understanding of who my characters were, so how they got there could be developed much better. Things I had originally planned didn’t work as well as I first thought. But other things appeared as I wrote were much more interesting and a lot cooler. I needed to:
  • Identify the steps my character took to get from page one to the mid-point.
  • Weed out the steps that didn’t advance the plot I wanted.
  • Strengthen the steps that did advance the plot I wanted.

2. How were their character arcs affected by this mid-point? 

A good mid-point reversal will hit the character hard in both their internal and external conflicts, often playing one off the other for the most impact. I knew where I wanted my characters to be emotionally, and how their inner conflict was going to throw them for a loop. I needed to go back and set it up so when this happened, it caused the most conflict and did the most “damage” (either real or metaphorically). So I:
  • Re-examined their emotional arcs and adjusted it so they were at their most vulnerable at the mid-point.
  • Looked for ways in which both POV’s emotional states and needs would conflict at the mid-point (causing further trouble and more surprise).
  • Looked for ways to scar them emotionally. (This allowed me to make them wary about things they’ll need later in the story, making upcoming obstacles all the more difficult to overcome).

3. How could I raise the overall tension and unpredictability so the mid-points were a major surprise? 

I had a few surprises in the rough draft, but not nearly as many as I wanted. The spy/mystery element is a big part of this novel, and I really want readers to feel like they have to pay attention to every detail, because so many things are hidden in plain sight, and any of them could be the key to something readers would want to know more about. But writing all that in the first draft? No way was I going to get that right in one pass. To achieve the desired complexity, it was going to take several passes. So I looked for:
  • Ways to mislead the reader without lying to them. (Red herrings)
  • Clues that were important, but not obvious until later when another piece was found.
  • Places where I could raise the stakes.
  • Places where I could connect already existing elements for greater impact.
  • Places where one POV’s goals and actions caused trouble for the other POV.
  • Places where I could take away information without muddying the story. (and thus upping the mystery)

It might sound like all this requires a lot of rewriting, but it really doesn’t. My scenes are still unfolding the way I originally wrote, and it’s only taking small changes and nudges here and there to shift a motivation or a goal to improve the scene. Plus, I’m not trying to make it perfect since it’s still a first draft. All I’m trying to do it get the story and plot down so when I move to the second half, I don’t have all these loose ends tripping me up. I’ll know where my characters are emotionally, what they’ve been through, and why it mattered so much to them. And after I turn their world upside down at the mid-point, I’ll have a much better understanding of how they’ll react and what they need to do to get out of the mess they’re in.

Sometimes you need to go back to move forward, so don’t worry that you’re not making progress if this happens to you. I could have just moved ahead and finished the first draft before making these changes, but I know that would have been more work than going back and fixing it now. It would have been like building a house on a foundation you know isn’t level. With tools you don’t have.

Shore up that foundation and build with confidence that your story will stand tall and strong.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. I found it surprising, working on my first book, how easy it can be to subtly push my MC to be under more pressure and raise the stakes. Most of the time it didn't require a full re-write of a scene so much as a change of how one character reacted to something he did, or to include a new scene where certain plot points and feelings get more development.

  2. Aha!
    I'm a pantser in the midst of methodical organizers. I felt kinda unprofessional as I kept leaving the middle of my story and going back to change, tweak and even uproot parts of my story. Thank you for shedding light on my unconscious process of 'fixing the foundation'. Feel loads better.

  3. Middle? I know the beginning and the end, and some scenes I'd like to see on the page. And they're all character-based scenes. I'm on chapter 3 of my newest WIP, and I keep telling myself, "make something bad happen" -- bad being relative, of course. Then I see where it takes me.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Great review of all those little threads that you can nudge and make a ms stronger! Perfect timing too, as I revise my novel. Thanks! Have a great weekend.

  5. Great post. That's an interesting method I might try sometime, because I am a linear-organic writer. I immerse so completely into the story that I'm turning the pages as I go as if I was the reader. If something like that crops up before it should be revealed, I jot it in a side file and keep on going.

    Knowing it happened changes what comes up though. The character gets a full-on flashback to a trauma when it's repeated, or even better, someone who was there reacts badly to it and the tension comes to the surface in its rightful place. There's usually a twist or two between these side files and the revelation.

  6. Paul: Is that's an awesome feeling? You can change so much with so little.

    Amelia: oh good :) And don't feel unprofessional at ALL. Everyone has their own way of working. There is no right way to write.

    Terry: I love making bad stuff happen. It's so much fun! Chapter three is usually when things go really wrong for my characters. Sounds like yours too. Such a cool moment.

    Carol: Most welcome. I love it when a post hits a writer at the right time.

    Robert: What a neat way of looking at it. There are times when I write like that and just make notes and move on, but this story is turning out a little differently. I usually like to get to the end before I revise because I like to see how it all unfolds. You too?

  7. Great tips - thanks for sharing this!

  8. Sometimes I don't even wait until I'm midway - once I reach the end of a chapter, I'll stop writing, and then I begin my next writing session by reviewing the chapter I wrote the day before. It reminds me what I wrote (saves continuity errors) and it means I can strengthen the events at the start of a chapter so they naturally lead to the end of a chapter. Working backwards is great!

  9. Icy: I actually start each writing session reading the previous day's work. It does help to get you back into the mindset and the story.

  10. I'm a pantser, too. (Pantsers of the World, Unite! Amelia, we aren't alone. LOL)

    I also don't focus much on character/plot arcs, altho my editorial team says I do it naturally. (And I did do all the charts and graphs back in the 90s when I was learning to write to the Romance Novel Formula. You have to know the rules before you can break them well.) One of my readers wrote me and said, "I love your books. I never know where the dark moment will be. I just turn the page and BAM!" I don't like predictability. :)

    As for character arcs, it sometimes takes more than one book for my couples to "arc" because I write realistic Romance where they may end with Happy For Now in one and not get to HEA for several more books. (Luckily, that has only happened once, tho. I like HEAs, even though I tell my readers that HEA is just the *beginning* of the real relationship, not the end. So readers now know that my characters will still have real-life problems to deal with when they come back in later books as either a subplot or even main characters in the series.)

    I can get all the way to the end of the first run-through before I go back and start tweaking things, but that process pretty much follows what you're doing at the mid-point in yours, Janice. I'm going to share this blog because a lot of people are inspired to write after reading my books (I guess I make it look easy! LOL), so I like to share writing tips with them.

    I'm in the going-back phase now. Sometimes I revealed something sooner than I wanted to (or without proper motivation or instigation). I was at 98000 words before I went back and by the time I add the missing scenes I couldn't envision until AFTER I wrote the ending, I am sure the book will be in the 120-140,000-word range. (I have a LOT more work to do!)

    But I also will send it to two of my five (or is it six now?) paid editors on my team next week--the two who are best at goal/motivation/conflict and plot (nope--I don't chart that stuff either, I leave it to the professionals LOL). It also goes to the clinical psychologist who reads my stuff as a subject expert next week because I have learned I have a lot of readers using my books to fix things that are broken in their own lives and I don't like to give them information that might harm more than help--or just plain be unrealistic. When you deal with serious issues like PTSD, surviving incest and abuse, death of a spouse, this step is very important.

    Hopefully I'll have it all together by the promised release target (no later than mid September). But with my last book, I delayed three additional months because I couldn't get the ending to be HEA enough. (After all the hell I put readers and the characters through, I just HAD to have an over-the-top HEA, but couldn't believe it myself until I worked through some things in my head.)

    Luckily, I've written the ending to the current one. That was a HUGE relieve and I didn't even start talking release date guesses until then.

    I am so glad my friend Katherine Logan shared your blog on her Twitter feed! As Amelia said, it's validating to know there's method to a pantser's madness.

    Kallypso Masters

  11. Kallypso, I'm glad she did too, and welcome! Your process sounds great. I've tried pantsing and I just end up making a mess, lol. I admire writers who can wing it. I need my structure, though I do leave a lot of room to wing it myself :) I guess I'm really a bit of a mix.

    I totally think pantsers have a method to their madness :) Everyone's brain works a little differently, and some folks just need to pour everything out before they can make something out of it. I'd guess the things outliners do on paper you guys do in your heads. Same basic principles, but different approaches.

    Good luck on those edits!

  12. So glad you checked back. I didn't realize this was a 2011 blog when I posted. But writing advice is always timeless. One of my readers who is writing a book commented on it on Facebook then tagged a friend to check it out, too.

    The mention of outlines reminded me of high school and college English and writing classes. I always wrote the outline AFTER the essay or paper was written, if required, just to appease the teachers. I just couldn't do it before. I hated when teachers wanted the outline first, especially in a semester-long research paper class. That was harder than writing the paper, especially the one that was nearly 20000 words!

    My stories are totally character driven so if the characters don't come and speak to me, I don't write. And if i try to jot down ideas for where they should go, they laugh and remind me whose story it is. Takes me longer to write. I see writer friends putting out a book every month or two and am stumped and awed. It is now taking 9-12 months for me. (I used to say it was like having a baby when it took nine months for the last one, but yesterday when I shared that it might be like whatever animal has a one-year gestational period, a reader remarked, oh like a donkey or a whale. Another chimed in and said a horse, which sounded better to my way of thinking!

    My characters sometimes talk to my readers, too, if they can't get my attention! Lol Yesterday's new scenes had me bouncing between chapters six, eleven, and the last one. A question posed by a reader asking why this hero did a certain thing in back in book two spurred me to focus on explaining that. (I have multiple couples in the series, all of whom continue to come back when they feel like it to continue their romance journey, but this one was so closed off in his Romance novel that I just left him Happy For Now and moved to the next installment because the hero for the next book had already started telling his story (in the other guy's book!) and couldn't wait. Readers who skipped ahead missed a whole lot of Adam and Karla's story, but readers are catching on to my method now and advising those they tell about the series to read in order! Anyway, when the walls finally came down for Marc of book two, I had to give him another whole book and change the series lineup that id been promoting for a year. Luckily my PR campaign worked and my readers didn't ditch me for making them wait longer for two other books i promised. They knew I listen to my characters first and foremost.

    Well, back to it I go! All the best!


  13. Kally, I try to answer all comments :) I tweet from the archives since there's so much information here, and very little of it is time-specific.

    I actually write outlines before and after. And during, lol. I updated them as I write.

    It seems that most pansters are character driven, or at least the ones I know. Which makes a lot of sense. You have to travel with a person before you can know them.

    I'm like you, it takes me longer to write a book, though I'm always trying to find ways to speed up the process.

    If they're waiting breathlessly for the book, I think they'll forgive you almost anything ;)