Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 11, 2022

10 Ways to Reverse Engineer Your Plot

by Shirley Jump

Feeling stuck in your book? Bogged down in the middle? Wandering around aimlessly without an ending? Chances are good you have a plot problem. When clients come to me with books for content editing and tell me they’re stuck on Chapter Three or Chapter Thirty, 99% of the time it’s the plot that’s the problem.

Quick Chat About Plot

The plot is the framework for your book, like the framework for a house. If you build it with cheap, flimsy materials, the house will fall down. If you forget to put a few pieces in place, the walls will crumble. If you build it with solid, strong beams and posts, atop a smooth, concrete foundation, the house will stand the test of time. Plots work exactly the same way.

Taking that house analogy one step further—if you’re buying a fixer-upper, one of the first things you look at is the structure of the home. Sometimes, you can tell it’s in trouble because you see cracks in the foundation or sagging floors. Other times, it’s not until you buy it and start working on it that you realize there is something wrong.

We once had a house with a kitchen floor that bowed in the center. My ex-husband was not exactly Bob Vila, so it took a while to figure out what the problem was. We eventually realized that the joists were weakening, and so my ex crawled into the crawl space and installed some floor jacks. We had to fiddle with them a few times until we got the floor level. He had to, essentially, reverse engineer the problem.

That’s what you’re going to do with your plot—reverse engineer your problem. Here are ten things to look for:

1. Do You Have a COMPELLING and BOOK-LENGTH goal for your protagonist(s) and antagonist?

Too often, I see books that don’t have good external goals for the characters. The goals need to be

a.) big enough to carry an entire book and

b.) important enough for the reader to give a crap.

If the reader doesn’t care, she won’t keep reading. Analyze books that keep you hooked and movies that you stay with until the very end.

  • What was the external goal of the main characters?
  • Why did it matter to the character?
  • Why did it matter to you, the reader or viewer?

It has to be something more than just buying a car—it has to be a goal that takes an entire book for the character to accomplish, and—this is key—important enough that the character will go through hell, and grow and change, to achieve that goal.

2. Does EVERY Scene Have a Goal, and a Sequel?

 Does your main character in each scene have something he/she wants to accomplish during the course of the scene? A scene that feeds into the overall book-length goal (because it has to!)?

Every single scene has to have an external and internal GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict). Every single scene. If you have a scene that just seems to be sitting there, with no real purpose, then nine times out of ten, the lack of a goal is the problem. Or, it doesn’t feed into the main plot and it’s just extra (like an outtake!). Each of the scene goals should feed into the main book goal, and should raise the stakes and the tension. The minute you lose your tension, you’re at the end of your book, because the characters have achieved their goals.

Ask yourself at the beginning of every scene: What is my point of view character’s goal for this scene? Does it feed into the book-length goal?

3. Do Things Keep Getting Worse?

Things need to keep getting worse, both externally and emotionally, for the characters. They need to have tension in their scenes and in their lives. Conflict and tension are two different but related things. Tension isn’t roadblocks (those are conflict); tension is that pit-of-your-stomach worry that things will go horribly awry for the characters the reader has grown to love.

Every action, every interaction, should have an impact, one that creates tension in their guts—and in the reader’s as she’s turning the pages. If they achieve what they want, the book is essentially over. Scene and sequel are all about two possible outcomes—the character either gets or doesn’t get what he wants and regardless, things get worse (and there is a price to pay). Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction is a great book for more tips on creating tension.

4. Are the Characters ACTING or Watching?

Passive plots drive me crazy. This is when characters sit around and watch things happen, or moan and groan because things keep happening to them. Think about your “victim” friends. Do you get annoyed with them because they never act on the misfortunes in their lives? Then think about how a reader will feel about a fictional character who does the same thing. Ask yourself: How can my character act upon his/her goal in this scene?

5. Is EVERY Action and Reaction Properly Motivated?

You can make pretty much anything in a book believable if characters are properly motivated. They need to have believable, strong motivations that have the reader rooting for them to achieve their goals. That goes for overarching book goals and scene goals, as well as the internal plot.

There have to be compelling reasons for your characters to act and change. Make the stakes matter. Motivation should be deep and driven by the character’s pasts. If you don’t know your character well or what traumas shaped him into who he is, then you will struggle with motivation. Past traumas drive our motivations and actions.

6. Internal is Just as Important.

Lots of writers are great at external plot, but completely forget the internal plot. Your characters need an internal goal, motivation and conflict—both a book-length one and scene ones that feed into the book-length GMC.

These internal plots always stem from your characters’ past wounds and issues. These are their deepest fears, their most horrible emotional wounds, and the things that they are most afraid of facing (but eventually will because the stakes are high enough). Let your characters have emotional goals, and emotional ramifications.

A note: if you’re writing romance, remember the romance is never the goal. It is a conflict for the external and internal plots.

7. Does Their Past Impact EVERY Scene?

As I said a second ago, your characters didn’t grow up in a vacuum. They have had moments that shaped their lives and their characters. The hero whose father was hard on him will have residual scars from that. The heroine who was abandoned will have trouble trusting people. These past events should impact how they see the world.

If you’re having trouble seeing how that works, take a character who has been scarred—say, Michael Ohr from The Blind Side.  How did his past make him see the family who helped him? See a bedroom? See a shirt? See a meal? Everything he saw, every experience he had was filtered through his past. Too often, writers forget this important part of character development. This will impact their GMC and their reactions to other characters and events.

8. Where’s the Conflict?

Undoubtedly, one of the things that reduces tension and drags down your pacing (and thus, kills your plot), is a lack of conflict. Characters who solve their internal and external obstacles too early end the book too soon. Be sure there is some “but” still getting in the character’s way, forcing them to continue on their emotional (and physical, if you have one) journey before you get to the final concluding scene.

Conflicts are the roadblocks that get in their way—and there should always be one until they reach the end of the book.

9. Do You Have the Right Balance of Narrative and Dialogue?

Do you have too much of one or the other? Too little in one area? Do you have long passages between spurts of conversation, which make for unnatural pauses? It really helps to read aloud at this point to make sure the dialogue holds together naturally. If necessary, act it out to really see the places where your narrative is too long.

Dialogue is a plot tool. It’s used to further the plot and show character, rather than just sitting there, filling up space. It should be unique to that character, and when the character speaks, it should be for a reason.

10. Did You Dump Backstory and Create a Landfill?

Lots of writers feel like they have to explain the character’s past early on so readers will “understand” their characters. Think back to the last date you had where the person you just met droned on for an hour about their past. Did you stop listening at minute three? Yeah, me too. Your reader will do the same.

Backstory should be sprinkled in just enough to intrigue the reader to want to know more. In addition, it should only be brought up if it is intrinsic to that moment. Michael Ohr doesn’t think about the fact that he’s never had a bedroom of his own—until he is given a bedroom of his own. The moment triggers the backstory.

EVERY single word in your book should move the plot forward. Every. Single. Word. If you add in descriptions or scenes that aren’t moving the plot forward, then you are wasting your reader’s precious time. Don’t do that. It’s not cool. Reverse engineer your plot and make it more powerful!

Which of the ten plot points is the most challenging for you? Do you have any questions or tips you want to share? Please join us down in the comments to welcome Shirley to WITS!

* * * * *

About Shirley

Shirley Jump, author of Writing Compelling Fiction, is an award-winning, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Amazon, and USA Today bestselling author who has published more than 80 books in 24 countries. Her most recent books hit #1 in two categories on Amazon, and her Christmas novella hit the USA Today list in November. Her books have received multiple awards and kudos from authors such as Jayne Ann Krentz, who called her books “real romance,” Virginia Kantra, who said, “Shirley Jump packs lots of sweet and plenty of heat in this heartwarming first book of her promising new series,” and Jill Shalvis, who called The Sweetheart Bargain “a fun, heartwarming small town romance that you'll fall in love with."

As the owner of JumpStart Creative Solutions, Shirley also does book building, content editing, ghostwriting, and author coaching. She has spoken all over the world about the power of narrative and how to create compelling books. A former reporter, she has a background in all aspects of writing, from hard news to publicity to fiction. Visit her website at www.ShirleyJump.com or see her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn @ShirleyJump.

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18 comments on “10 Ways to Reverse Engineer Your Plot”

  1. I love it when I get to be the first commenter! And I absolutely adore that you are here at WITS. 🙂

    Probably the hardest thing for me is the balance. I like to have all the characters talk all the time and I have to really lean on Margie's EDITS system to figure out my problems (which is usually not nearly enough yellow, viscerals or body language. *sigh*

    1. I do something similar to Margie's EDITs with highlighters. Once I did that a few times, I could literally see what I was missing. I have a download handout about that on my JumpStartCreativeSolutions.com website, too.

  2. Now and then I stumble over scenes that may not move the plotline forward. They don't feel like throwaway scenes to me but critique buddies disagree. Some times it's hard to let them go.

    This is a super helpful post.

    Welcome to WITS, Shirley!

    1. I always say that they're words, not oxygen, and you can live without them. If you look at a basketball player, for instance, not every practice or game will have his/her best work. In order to get to playoffs, though, the player needs to weed out the techniques and moves that are holding him back 🙂

    2. Yes, I know what you mean. I wrote a couple of chapters at the beginning of my WIP, which I loved writing, but on reflection, they just postponed the real point of the story. They were interesting, I thought, but they had to go.

      1. It's like basketball practice--you have a heck of a lot of drills and practice games that you have to get under your belt in order to hone your craft, maximize your strengths, and overcome your weaknesses.

  3. This post is great. Thank you, Shirley. This is the kind of information-all in one place and hitting every need- I wish I'd read before writing my first manuscript. I had a strong premise and compelling story ( at least that's what the agents told me), but unfortunately was missing on key points of conflict and inner struggle (the agents also told me that). I love your points about the wandering backstory/info dump- I have come to see those as commercial breaks in the story, and tune them out the way I hit the mute button during TV commercials. You're a wealth of information. I'm so glad you have joined the WITS team.

    1. Thank you! You're very welcome! FWIW, I just released a book called Writing Compelling Fiction that covers everything I teach (it's on Amazon, etc.). There's always so much to learn with a craft like this--even I sometimes have to remind myself that I'm missing something.

  4. Thank you, Shirley! You have no idea how much you've helped. This post was the examination I needed when I needed it. I've drafted an entire series, but Book1 has been my problem child. It was drafted before I had any idea what I was doing so it's required a lot of fixing. My heroine is embroiled in multiple conspiracies, none of which she understands. She doesn't even know where one begins and the other ends or how they tie to her. Her motivation is simple enough, but I kept trying to complicate it. Quite simply, she wants to know WHY about all of it. At that point (she hopes) all the rest will fall into place. I'd allowed myself to become lost in the internal and external complications I put in place. You pulled me back, made me return to the basics, and—surprise!—the haze of my own creation cleared. Thanks again!

  5. Great post, Shirley! Welcome to the WITS family!

    I had to learn number 5 the hard way early on. People don't do things (especially change) without strong motivation. It can come from the inside, but it's much more powerful when it comes from an outside source. If it's internal, it's more of a choice, whereas external motivators tend to force a change. That creates more tension, upping the emotional response of both the character and the reader!

    1. I think it's both. To me, when people are changed by external motivations as opposed to internal, the reader worries the change won't be permanent. Like Liam Neeson's character in Taken had a really strong external motivation for finding his daughter, but it was only overcoming his internal (that he was a bad dad who had no relationship with her and had let her down a thousand times) that he could finally pull it all together and find her. And, of course, have a relationship with her.

      Thanks for the welcome! I love WITS!

  6. Wow, this is really great, Shirley. Thanks so much. I am an organic writer and so I don't do much planning ahead. I discover as I go along. Often times, I don't know the goal of the scene until the characters start acting and speaking on the page. I find your 10 questions good ones for my rewriting stages rather than the blank page for the next chapter.

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