Developing a Plot Backwards

You might think that the best way of developing a plot in a novel is to start at the beginning and work your way through to the end...

  • First, you introduce your central character living in their ordinary world.
  • Next, you furnish them with a goal by disrupting their status quo.
  • And so on, all the way through to the story's conclusion.

If you are not the planning type, you will actually have no choice but to work from the beginning to the end.

Working out how the plot progresses is something you will need to do in your head as you write, and you simply won't be able to write the second chapter until you know what happens in the first one.

The big danger of plotting a novel from front to back, particularly if you don't have a huge amount of experience as a novel writer, is that it can lead to a lot of wasted work.

Writing a long work of fiction is a bit like making an argument. The conclusion of this argument - or the essence of the message that you want to get across - happens at the end. Everything that comes before this should contribute in some way to the final message.

When you are developing a plot chronologically, with no firm idea of the place you will end up at, it could well turn out that your conclusion isn't supported by everything that came before it.

Let's say you are writing a story about an affair between a man and a woman...

The way this story ends is that the man decides to return to his wife. When he tells his lover of his decision, she shoots him in a jealous rage. She is driven to jail and the man to the mortuary.

Trouble is, you didn't decide on this climax until the bulk of the novel was already written. Up until then, you assumed that the central characters were heading for some sort of happy ending.

What is wrong with writing a plot in this way?

Like I said, it weakens your argument. If you had known from the start the fate that was awaiting your characters, you would have constructed the plot - and every other element of the novel - a little differently...

  • When you created the woman's character profile, for example, you would have made her the jealous type - and someone capable of taking a life.
  • When you decided on the theme, you would have made it an exploration of betrayal and jealousy, say, rather than something cozier.

Working out a plot backwards - that is, knowing how the story ends in advance - doesn't take all the fun out of storytelling. If you start at Point A and know you must finish up at Point B, there are still 1,001 different ways to get there.

It is simply that knowing your destination in advance allows you to write a tighter and more focussed story.

One of the biggest champions of knowing how a novel ends before you figure out how it starts (and everything that happens in between) is the novelist John Irving. As a matter of fact, Mr. Irving doesn't just need to know the ending but the final words themselves. Here he is on the subject...

"I don't begin a novel or a screenplay until I know the ending. And I don't mean only that I have to know what happens. I mean that I have to hear the actual sentences. I have to know what atmosphere the words convey. Is it a melancholic story? Is there something uplifting or not about it? Is it soulful? Is it mournful? Is it exuberant? What is the language that describes the end of the story? And I don't want to begin something - I don't want to write that first sentence - until all the important connections in the novel are known to me. As if the story has already taken place, and it's my responsibility to put it in the right order to tell it to you."

As I have said countless times before, there are as many ways to write a novel as there are people writing novels. If it works for you but breaks every rule and suggestion in the book, so what?

The next time you start work on a novel, though, at least try out this idea of knowing how the novel ends before you return to the beginning and start plotting it chronologically.

Developing a plot with an ending firmly in mind is arguably much easier. And it should certainly lead to a stronger work of fiction.