Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Writing Your Novel Backward Might Be the Secret to Success

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It’s hard to plot a novel if you don’t know what problem it’s trying to solve.

Creating plots has always been easy for me, but endings are my nemesis. I usually have a general sense of what they are before I start a novel, but far too often, I have no clue about the specifics on how my conflict is resolved. My outline might say, Nya needs to “stop the bad guy using her shifting ability.” Grace needs to “find her father.” Chip needs to “solve the murder.”

Vague as they are, my endings at least give me a direction to work toward, which is sometimes all you need to start writing. I might not know how my protagonist solves their problem, but I know what generally needs to be done and where the plot is headed.

Not all writers are this lucky. Some—maybe even you—have no idea where their story is going, because they don’t know what “the end” looks like.

If you don’t know what your protagonist has to do to win in the end, you’ll likely struggle with your plot.

I see this a lot in character-driven stories, where the character arc is the point of the book. A man needs to deal with the pain of losing his sister, or a woman faces disillusionment after she’s laid off at work. The problems are internal, and you can’t plot with internal problems (they help with it, but in different ways).

There’s nothing to do to “get over grief,” because we all know that’s not so simple. You don’t just “get over” a loss. There’s a process, and usually something driving or triggering you to work through that process.

Until you as the author decide what “getting over grief” means for that specific character, you won’t know what form your plot ending will take.

Is it starting therapy? Getting out of the house and returning to work? Being mentally healthy enough to attend his niece’s wedding? Each of these endings would create a different plot.

Because a plot is what a character does to solve their problem.

It’s external. It’s the action in the story and it’s specific. With a plot-driven novel, this is a lot easier to identify because the conflict is also external—stop the evil wizard. Catch the killer. Get the promotion. When the wizard is stopped, the killer caught, the promotion obtained, the story is over.

(Here’s more with Is Your Plot Going Somewhere Readers Will Follow?)

Let’s look at ways to find you ending and find your plot:

Start with your problem. 

This is what the book is about. This is the core conflict and what has to be resolved by the end of the book. At this stage, it’s okay if your problem is internal, because that at least tells you what issue the character is facing. You can figure out what that means next.

For character-driven problems, there’s an extra step. You’ll need to figure out how the internal problem is creating external trouble. Ask:
  • What does (insert your own issue) mean for that character?
  • What external action represents that internal problem?
  • What problem can help the protagonist work through their issues?
  • What is something the protagonist wants that they can’t have due to their internal struggle?

Remember to think externally. You want the problem to be something the character can physically act to solve, because that’s what’s going to create the plot.

(Here’s more with Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts)

Identify the external win. 

When this happens, the book is over. This is what the character has been working toward the entire story. Maybe it’s something they need to do, or maybe it’s something they need to prevent.

This is why knowing the specifics of the problem is critical. If the problem is something like “getting over his grief,” what external action or event signifies the character has “gotten over his grief?” What is the end result of them working through the process of grieving that shows they’ve made the progress they needed?

(Here’s more with Does Your Novel Just…Stop? What Makes a Good Ending)

Once you know what the problem is and what the win looks like, you can explore how your protagonist might get there.

Let’s say aliens have invaded and your protagonist has to stop the alien invasion and save the world.

The problem: Aliens have invaded.

The win: The protagonist stops the invasion and the aliens are defeated.

Questions to define the ending:
  • What will the protagonist physically do to stop the invasion?
  • How is the invasion going to happen (what are the aliens doing to take over the world)?
  • How might the alien plan be thwarted?
  • How might the protagonist figure that out?

Now let’s look at the harder, internal conflict problem (with a different story idea).

The problem: Mark needs to get past the death of his sister.

The win: Mark will give away his niece at her wedding.

Questions to define the ending:
  • What will the protagonist physically do to face and process his grief?
  • How might he learn how to do that?
  • How might his friends and family try to help him?

(Here’s more with It’s Over: Getting Readers to the End and Making Them Glad They Came)

Next, identify the steps you can take to reach that ending—especially the one that must happen or the story fails.

Let’s say (blatantly stealing from Independence Day) your protagonist is a skilled computer tech who designs a virus to disrupt the alien ships’ shields so human weapons will reach them. All he needs to do is upload it into the mothership.

Your ending outline might look like this:
  • Create the virus
  • Find a way to get to the mothership
  • Bypass the alien computers and any security protecting the ship
  • Get out before getting killed

Of all of these steps, one stands out as a pretty clear plot point—getting to the mothership. If this doesn’t happen, nothing can move forward.

Now brainstorm possible actions to complete that all-important plot-point step. 

How does the protagonist get to (or get the virus to) the mothership?
  • He steals an alien craft
  • He flies up in a space shuttle
  • He finds an alien computer terminal on the ground with access to the mothership
  • He kidnaps an alien and forces it to take him

Any of these could work, but let’s go with stealing an alien ship. You’ve already established that these ships have shields, so getting one is going to be a challenge. You’d have multiple obstacles to overcome, and any of them could be a strong goal and plot point.
  • Find a way past the shields
  • Find someone to fly the ship
  • Find a ship on the ground to steal

Each of these can spawn several options and things to try. You can even work in subplots at this point.

Maybe the only pilot he knows who’s willing to try this crazy plan is an ex-wife he never got over (or who never got over him–awkward).

Maybe there’s a government program the crazy kook he met in chapter three used to belong to, or knows about in some way. But to get them to help, the protagonist has to risk something even worse than alien enslavement.

(Here’s more with Story Structure: How the Climax Works in a Novel)

See how easy it is to come up with potential ideas and plot points?

Naturally, not every idea will be worth pursuing, but you can brainstorm as much as you’d like. If you only need to figure out two or three major moments near the end, just do that. If you’re having fun and want to plot all the way back to page one, go for it. Adapt this technique to your process and make it work for you.

Knowing where you’re going is sometimes all it takes to find the right path to getting there.

Just having a better sense of what the story problem is can often get you past your sticking point and back to writing. You might even have a blast working backward and coming up with all kinds of ideas you’d never have thought of otherwise.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your ending. Is there a clear goal—even if it’s still underdeveloped—for you to plot toward? Do you know what a win means for your protagonist? Is the ending an external problem to solve?

Do you know your ending before you start writing, or does it come to you as you write?

*Originally published on Jami Gold’s blog, August 2016. Updated and reposted June 2024.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Hello ma'am, i have been reading your blogs. They are very useful. Could you recommend some books to improve grammar, sentence restructing, syntax etc?

    1. It's not something I've researched recently, but I have two books on my shelves I used when I was starting out. "Rules of Thumb, a Guide for Writers" by Silverman, Hughes and Weinbroer, and "The Art of Styling Sentences" by Longknife and Sullivan.

      You might try searching for books on Amazon as well. Just use what you wrote here as a search term.

    2. Thank you ma'am.

  2. And furthermore, if you plot from the end, the plot wil automagically be logical, cause-and-effect chain. So many benefits for the price of one.

  3. Hi, Janice. I have a problem with the ending if my current WIP. It's not, in fact, a win. The story is set in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings, and the protagonist is a thegn--a lower ranked noble.
    Fact: William the Conqueror became king of England. He took lands from the English nobility and put his own men there.
    In the story, the protagonist is removed and ends up living as a serf. (This has to happen as it's a series, and in the next book, the family are serfs. It's about how a family rises and falls throughout history.)
    Getting to this is difficult, and I wonder how readers will take such an ending. The truth is that this happened in reality. I suppose that's one of the problems with historical fiction.

    1. You have one of the exceptions :) Historical novels with accurate facts can't really ignore those facts. And if it's a series, then readers will expect that family rise in the next book.

      You still want the ending to be satisfying for readers, whatever "satisfying" means to them. Will they feel they got their money's worth from the story? Will they be glad they read it? Will they be eager to read the book to see how the protagonist and their family deals with this? If so, you're good.

      But if your ending leaves readers unhappy and feeling cheated, that's bad. You'll probably want to look for a way to tweak the ending so even though it ends with a loss, there's something there that makes them glad they read the book.

      Beta readers can help you figure out which type of ending you have if you're unsure. If they're excited and shocked, and want more, then it's working. If they're unhappy and don't like it, time to tweak :)