Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Having Trouble Plotting Forward? Try Plotting Backward

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

For some writers, beginnings are a breeze. They know exactly where their story starts, but the plot gets a little fuzzy the closer it gets to the end.

Other writers know exactly how their story will end, but have trouble finding the right place to start to get them there. They slog through beginning after beginning until they stumble across the right one.

If your beginning is giving you plotting headaches, try jumping ahead and working backward.

Odds are you have one or two major plot points in mind already—key scenes, a big reveal moment, a dramatic turning point—the scenes you’re looking forward to writing. Try picking the strongest moment and think about how your protagonist ends up there in the story. Ask yourself:
  • What action caused this moment to happen?
  • Where did the protagonist start down this path?
  • What series of events led to this moment?
  • What chances did the protagonist have to avoid this moment that she failed to take?
  • What warning signs did she see or ignore?
  • Who is working to bring about this moment or situation?
For example, if you know your act one problem is that your protagonist is discovered standing over the dead body of her ex-husband, you know you have to get her into the wrong place at the wrong time for this to happen. But you might also know the real killer (her jealous “best friend”) is setting her up. So how would her so-called friend get her to this moment? What events and choices need to happen to lead the protagonist there?

(Here's more on working backward to flesh out your plot during revisions)

Or, you might know your fantasy heroine is destined to tap into her magical power and destroy the tides of demon hordes about to attack the city in the climactic scene. Problem is, she’s suffering from terrible amnesia and doesn’t remember who she is. Working backward, you know that at some point she’ll have to:
  • Get to the city
  • Realize who she is
  • Have an event that triggers this realization
  • Have an event that caused the amnesia in the first place
As you flesh out these moments, more and more of the plot will appear. You might decide she meets a mysterious soldier who may or may not be a good guy, and then explore how he fits into the overall storyline. There might be an evil overlord who’s working hard to keep her in the dark, and his actions will shape how her story unfolds.

Of course, don’t be afraid to plot forward when the muse hits you. Jumping back and forth through your story might be the best way for you to fully develop how that story will go. There’s no rule that says you have to plot (or even write) in chronological order. Feel free to work out the big turning points first, then jump around and flesh out the subplots and character arcs if that sparks your creativity the brightest. Or develop the character arc and find the plot that supports that.

(Here’s more on writing out of order)

Stories have a common structure, and that structure can work to your advantage, because it provides anchor points to guide you. You can fill in the plot blanks any way that works for you and develop the story toward or away from those points.

(Here’s more on different types of plotting structures)

The scenes that stand out the brightest in your mind might be the anchors you need to plot the story you envision. If traditional “beginning to ending” plotting isn’t working for you, try finding your own route between those two points.

How do you like to plot your stories? Do you prefer a chronological approach or a more organic process? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where 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, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Such a simple but great idea. My current WIP is 3/4 of the way done and I cannot connect it to the ending. I'll have to try this and see if I can finally get there!

  2. Thanks Janice. I do this intuitively in scenes (thinking about where I want it to end up) and a little bit with my book--but these are great ideas. Shared it with my students--of course!

  3. Superb advice, Janice. I often find myself stuck at the 3/4 point because that "gate" into Act III has squeaky hinges! Working backwards does work - I find it opens up more "what if" scenarios that I wouldn't have considered otherwise, and it gets the writing flowing again quickly. Thanks for sharing.

    1. That's a sticky point for sure. Almost as bad at the one right in the middle of the climax where things look darkest, then the protagonist turns it all around. Those are the ones that always need a ton of rewriting for me.