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Developing a Plot Backwards

What’s the best way of developing a plot in a novel? The obvious way is to start at the beginning of the story and work your way through to the end…

First, you introduce your main character living in their ordinary world. Then you turn their world upside down, which gives them a goal. And so on, all the way through to the story’s conclusion.

Now, if you’re more of a pantster than a planner, you’ll have no choice but to work from the beginning to the end.

Working out how the plot develops 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.

What’s wrong with developing your plot chronologically, chapter by chapter?

If you’re an experienced writer with a few novels under your belt, there’s nothing wrong with it. But if you lack experience, and if you’re still learning the rules of novel writing…

It Can Lead to a Lot of Wasted Work

Constructing a detailed plot for a novel is a bit like making an argument. The conclusion of this argument, or the essence of the message you want to get across, happens at the end. For the ending to have the maximum punch, everything that comes before it should contribute in some way to the final message.

When you develop a plot from the beginning, with no firm idea of the place you’ll 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’s 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 main characters were heading for some sort of happy ending.

If you’d 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. For example…

  • When you created the female’s character profile, you would have made her the jealous type. And someone capable of taking a life, of course.
  • When you decided on the novel’s theme, you would have made it an exploration of betrayal and jealousy, say, rather than something cozier.

In short, you’d end up with a mess. Sure, it’s nothing you couldn’t fix with a lot of structural editing. But you still could have avoided it by…

Knowing How the Story Ends in Advance

Doesn’t that take all the fun out of storytelling? Nope. If you start with Event A and know you must finish with Event B, there are still 1,001 different ways to get there.

It’s simply that knowing how your novel ends in advance allows you to write a tighter and more focussed story.

One of the biggest champions of “plotting backwards” is the novelist John Irving. He doesn’t just need to know how the story works out. He needs to write 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.”

You don’t need to take it as far as writing and polishing the actual closing line (though it won’t hurt if you do). But you definitely want to begin with your ending in mind, together with any important milestones along the way.

Then, like John Irving said, it’s simply a matter of how best to tell a story that has already taken place!

Bottom Line?

There are as many ways to write a novel as there are novelists. If it works for you but breaks every rule in the book, so what?!

The next time you start work on a novel, though, at least think about 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.

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