October 15th, 2018

Plot Backward to Move Forward with Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

plotting your storyUnless you're playing with a non-chronological story structure, plot unfolds as time marches on in a novel. It starts when the problem is discovered (more or less), and ends when the problem is resolved. But just because the story is in chronological order, doesn't mean we need to plot it that way.

I'm currently working on the outline for a novel a bit outside my normal genre. It's still science fiction, but it's a detective novel at heart, with all the twist and turns and plot requirements that entails. Information needs to be revealed in the right way, otherwise my plot might feel too rushed or too slow, and some of the logic leaps my detective has might not make sense. This holds true of most stories, regardless of their genres.

Luckily, there are pinch points I know I'm going to have, such as finding the body, uncovering the killer, revealing key secrets and clues. These clear moments are "destination points" for me to plot toward.

Pantsers just write their way there and see what happens, but I'm a plotter, and I need to have a solid outline in place before I begin a novel. When I can't find my way forward, I skip to the end and go backward. Because of those destination points, I know exactly where I need to be.

With a genre as structured as a mystery, this is even easier. For example, I know my detective will discover the killer's identity at a certain point. So I start there--what specifically reveals this? What clue leads him to this discovery? How does he find that clue? What is he doing when he discovers this clue? At each point, I figure out what had to have happened to get him there.

Let's look a little closer.

Say I'm working on a major plot point where a clue is found in an abandoned car. I'll brainstorm how my detective happened across that car. I might ask:

  • Was he looking for the car, or something that led to this car?
  • Did he expect to find this clue there or was he looking for something else?
  • Did someone tell him about the car, or did another lead get him here?

These questions let me backtrack and create scenes that would allow these events and reveals to happen.  Let's flesh one of these out:

Was he looking for the car, or something that led to this car?

He was looking for the car. So that leads to my next question...how did he know to look for it? I might ask:

How did he find the car? A witness remembered seeing a dark blue van nearly hit a mailbox on the day of the crime.

What was he looking for when he found this clue? He was trying to determine how the suspects fled the crime scene and decided to go back and re-interview witnesses.

With these answers, I might decide I need a scene where my detective is interviewing the witnesses from the crime. Maybe he missed something or someone might remember something new. Perhaps he has additional clues he can use to jostle their memories. I add the scene, and then work backward again, this time knowing I need a reason for him to return to the witnesses.

Why did he talk to them again? He hit a dead end with his current evidence.

Why did he miss this the first time? One of the witnesses had to leave to go pick up her child from school.

This naturally leads to, "How did he know he missed a witness?" and that will lead to another scene, all the way back to the moment he hit that dead end and had to look for new leads.

Just like you can get stuck while plotting forward, going backward can also leave you stumped and hitting your own dead ends. I do hit moments where I think, "Umm..." and stare at the screen with no idea how to fix it. When this happens, I shift back to the beginning again and see how far I can move forward now with the plot until I reach that moment (or as close to it as I can get). Often, all the work I did on the back end of the story arc is enough to give the beginning the necessary narrative drive and goals to reveal the solution. And when it doesn't, at least I have enough information to let my subconscious mull it over for a while and hopefully figure it out.  

This technique is useful for both the broad strokes of plot, such as your major turning points, as well as the minutia of a scene. I like to start with the major plot points and work my way down to the individual scenes, using the larger points as directions on where to send my plot. If I know I need to find a body, I have a much better sense of what my detective needs to do to get to that point in the plot.

If you're not sure what questions to ask, here are some general scene-driving things to consider:

  • What does the protagonist want? Why?
  • What made her decide to pursue that goal?
  • What's the next big plot moment in the story? How does the protagonist get there?
  • What problems will the protagonist run into getting to that major moment?
  • What doesn't she know about the situation(s) she's facing?
  • What secrets are the other characters she's interacting with keeping that might affect her decisions?
  • What clues might suggest or hint at those secrets? Do they need to be revealed now?
  • What might mislead the protagonist? It is intentional, accidental, or just a mistake on her part?

Move forward and backward as needed, keeping what has to happen in mind. Use your imagination, but keep asking, "How did (or would) my protagonist get here?" in some manner, and you'll find your way from Plot Point A to Plot Point Z.

And for those who'd like a little extra plotting help, today is the last day to receive my free e-book, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. Don't miss out on this useful novel developing tool.

How do you like to plot your novels? What are your biggest pain points on the road to The End?

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About Janice

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.

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30 responses to “Plot Backward to Move Forward with Your Novel”

  1. janicehardyauthor says:

    Thanks so much for having me! It's always fun to hang out with WITS πŸ™‚

  2. Terry Odell says:

    James Scott Bell wrote a book called "Write Your Novel From the Middle" (or something close to that.) While I can't skip around when I write, I do a lot of filling in as I discover more and more about the characters. And "Why?" is such a useful question.

    • janicehardyauthor says:

      I've seen that one, though I haven't read it. I jump around while I plot, but I can't do it in the actual writing. I need to go scene by scene, even if the scene is rough and has a lot of notes of things to figure out later.

  3. Sandy Tilley says:

    Your posts always offer valuable information and just what I needed today: to look down my path from a different direction. Sometimes backward is better. πŸ™‚

  4. My biggest struggle plotting is coming up with the original concept/hook. Once I'm excited about a premise I can dive in with the outlining. It's just that original spark that gives me fits!

    • janicehardyauthor says:

      Oh no! But maybe in the end it all works out? You spend more time in the concept stage, while other writers spend more in the plotting stage (or the drafting stage, or the revision stage).

      • I suppose it all works out eventually, Janice! I downloaded your book and trying your suggestions of searching images, poetry, etc. hoping something will speak to me soon. I don't start a new book until November so I'm feeding my subconscious with all this!

        • janicehardyauthor says:

          Sending good writing vibes! my subconscious is a much better writer than I am, so hopefully yours will come through for you, too πŸ™‚

  5. Fae Rowen says:

    My current WIP (fifth book) has me leaning toward more plotting. Feels like heresy, but you've almost got me jumping over the fence with this post, Janice. Thank you for sharing these brilliant ideas!

    • janicehardyauthor says:

      Glad I could help! Plotting doesn't have to be a full detailed outline. Sometimes all you need is a few key points and you'll have enough to work with.

  6. Libby Sommer says:

    yes, definitely need to plot a 'who-done-it' novel. i'm normally a pantser, but this brings a lot of anxiety (am not writing thrillers). recently i've made the end of the story the beginning and am working backwards and including this writing process in the story. don't know if i'll be able to maintain this idea yet. but agree that plotting backwards is absolutely a good idea.

    • janicehardyauthor says:

      I think it works very well with things such as mysteries and thrillers, where the how is so central to the plot. Of course, I also know plenty of mystery writers who don't know how the killer is until the end, so it can work both ways πŸ™‚

  7. dholcomb1 says:

    I'm a pantser, but I do have a goal in mind with several things which need to happen in order to finish the journey. I have mental plotting. I write down the key moments I have in mind. But things are fluid.

    denise

  8. Dominique Blessing says:

    Once again Janice, you've given a good word at the right time. I have a grand vision of the climax, but how to get there from the cusp of my Act 2 Disaster is challenging me. Possibly because I need more more research on the technical aspects of cars, but I'm trying to write first and fact-check later. Plotting backwards might help me over the hurdle.

    • janicehardyauthor says:

      Hope it helps. I often leave a lot of notes as I write a rough first draft when I know I need to research, I'll write [figure out XX] or the like and then move on. This is particularly useful when the details of the research aren't important, but the outcome advances or affects the story. I just wrote [describe room] this morning. I'll deal with it after I figure out how the office looks.

      If the details matter, then I'm a bit more stuck πŸ™‚ But most of the time I can gloss over it to keep the writing momentum going.

  9. Laura Drake says:

    The thought of plotting has the creative side of my brain giving the other side the finger...but I have your book, and IT works for pantsers as well as plotters. It's brilliant. Thank you from both sides of the 'P' line, Janice!

    • janicehardyauthor says:

      Not everyone enjoys it, and that's okay. I'm lost how you pantser folks can dive in with no planning at all. Aw, thanks! I'd really tried to make it helpful for both sides, so hearing that made my day πŸ™‚

  10. This is a great post, Janice. Sorry I'm late to the party. The week got off to busy start. If you're still around, what about pinch points in romance? That always confuses me.

    • janicehardyauthor says:

      I don't write romance, so you'll probably want to do a bit more research on this, but overall it's very similar to any other novel. The big difference in the emotional impact I believe. You'll typically see your "meet cute" in the beginning, the first sign of the problem keeping the two lovers apart at the end of act one, something big and unexpected to create trouble for them at the midpoint (they're often have secrets that come out here), an emotional disaster at the end of act two (secrets here if they didn't come out earlier), and then growth into the people they need to be for the climax.

      Often the character arc mirrors the plot arc much stronger since romance is so rooted in emotion. The characters want to be together so the problems come more from them not being emotionally ready or secure to get over their baggage and be happy with each other. Mistrust, hangups, whatever their flaw is holding them back.

      Does that help?

  11. Jerold Heyward says:

    Interesting. I'll try it on the re-working of the second book of my SciFi trilogy*. I like stories with multiple key characters responding/reacting to how their personal lives are affected by a main event (the story concept). Each has their own sub-plot and story-line, though all eventually merge in the end. It lets me explore more of the ramifications of the main event. And since each of these books needs to reach a specific destination, this method might help me navigate. I have a question... is there any plot diagraming software you might recommend. I use Scrivener (absolutely wonderful!), which has "cork board" notes that can be moved around, but I'd like to find something more visual for plotting purposes.

    • janicehardyauthor says:

      Actually, a friend just this past week told me about one that you might like. It's called Scapple, and it's like mind-mapping,flow charty, free thinking stuff. It's from the same guy who created Scrivener.

      One Stop for Writers (https://onestopforwriters.com/) also has some tools (they're subscription based, but affordable for the site). Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman run it, along with the same Scrivener guy--Lee Powell.

  12. Jerold Heyward says:

    The * = PRELUDE: The Expanding Seas of Earth

  13. Victoria Marie Lees says:

    These are great points, Janice. What a great way to think about writing mysteries, which I love. Thanks so much for sharing them. I’ve shared the post online.

  14. Julie Glover says:

    I'm not really a plotter β€” even with my whodunnit mysteries! β€” but I do what you're talking about in a different way. That is, I will write scenes out of order. So I might write a reveal later in the novel and then ask questions like you suggest to figure out what scenes lead up to that. It's a good way to keep the story structure solid. Thanks for the great tips, Janice!

    • janicehardyauthor says:

      I have a good friend who writes that way. I don't know how you guys do it, but I'm happy it works for you. Though with this book, I get a much better sense of how that would work really well. It does lend itself well to some genres.

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