Last week, I shared my monthly self-publishing-focused post over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, and this week kicks off a short series of monthly posts from Janice that she’s sharing with us here. Yay!
If you’re not familiar with Janice’s site, I highly recommend it. She has tons of great craft posts (and she’s also a wonderful person). *smile*
This month’s post from Janice focuses on planning. Specifically, she shares how knowing the ending of our story can help us plan the rest of the book.
We’ve discussed this technique before when figuring out the emotional arcs of our characters. Today, she’s going to demonstrate how working backward can also help us figure out our story’s plot, especially if we get stuck.
This technique can help both those who plot in advance (plotters) and those who just have the barest ideas and write by the seat of their pants (pantsers). Please welcome Janice Hardy! *smile*
Stuck on Your Novel? Start With the Ending
There are as many ways to write a novel as there are ideas to write about. Every writer has their own process and way of getting from page one to the end. And most of us will stumble during that process at least once during our careers.
And that’s okay.
Writing is a creative process, and sometimes we need to shake up how we do things to get the creative juices flowing again. A process that has always worked for us might utterly fail for a particular story.
If this happens to you, try approaching your novel from a different perspective. Skip ahead and figure out how your story ends to understand how it begins.
Why Knowing the Ending Might Help
Stories are about people solving problems, so a story ends when that problem is resolved. If you’re not sure what constitutes a win for your protagonist, or how she fixes and resolves her problem, then how can you plot toward it? It’s no wonder you got stuck.
(And believe me I’ve been here many, many times. So often in fact, that I now figure out my endings before I start writing a book.)
Luckily, you don’t need to know every detail of how your story ends for this to work. A rough idea of what the problem is and generally how it will be resolved is usually enough to allow you to plot toward it.
Working Backward: Asking Questions & Brainstorming Possibilities
Let’s work through an example:
If you know your protagonist is going to stop the alien invasion and save the world, you’d look at how that’s going to happen.
Ask Questions to Define the Ending:
- What will my 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 my protagonist figure that out?
Once you have a basic understanding of how this problem works, you’ll be able to work backward along the plot path.
Identify Steps to Reach the Ending:
Let’s say (blatantly stealing from Independence Day) your protagonist is a skilled computer tech and designs a virus to disrupt the alien ships’ shields so human weapons will reach them. All she needs to do is upload it into the mothership.
- 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.
Brainstorm Possible Actions to Complete a Plot-Point Step:
How does the protagonist get to (or get the virus to) the mothership?
- She steals an alien craft
- She flies up in a space shuttle
- She finds an alien computer terminal on the ground with access to the mothership
- She kidnaps an alien and forces it to take her
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.
Identify Steps to Complete 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.
Brainstorm Options for Completing Step:
Maybe the only pilot she knows who’s willing to try this crazy plan is an ex-husband she never got over (or who never got over her–awkward).
Maybe there’s a government program the crazy gal she met in chapter three used to belong to, or knows about in some way. But to get her to help, the protagonist has to risk something even worse than alien enslavement.
Repeat as Necessary…
The Benefits of Starting With the Ending
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 figuring out two or three major moments near the end is all you need, 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.
For some writers, just having a better sense of what the story problem is will get them past their sticking points and back to writing. Other writers will have a blast working backward and coming up with all kinds of ideas they’d never have thought of otherwise.
Knowing where you’re going is sometimes all it takes to find the right path to getting there.
Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy
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It’s easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. One entry per blog, but you can enter on every stop on the tour. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.
Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft.
She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.
Thank you, Janice! I love how you point out that we only need to work backward as much as we need to get unstuck. As a pantser, I’m a big believer in not doing extra plotting work. *grin*
I often don’t know how my characters are going to get out of the jam I write them into until I get there. But thinking about this process, I can still take what I do know to help me work backward.
Maybe I have an image in mind for the type of showdown involved:
- Where will it take place?
- Are they coming into the showdown with injuries or other obstacles (kidnapped, sneaking around, ticking clock, etc.)?
- Who’s present at the big confrontation?
Each detail we do know can help us work backward toward our ending. We’d know that we need to set up those obstacles and get all the characters into the right place at the right time.
Or maybe we can ask ourselves about the elements that need to be part of our story’s climax:
- Will we end with a cliffhanger or hooks to future stories?
- Are there multiple antagonists to overcome?
- At what point are the subplots wrapped up? Do they tie into the ending of the main plot?
- How will the plot echo or involve the characters’ false belief, fear, or wound?
No matter what we know or don’t know about our story, any information we have can help us work backward to develop our plot. And whether we like knowing every step or we’re just trying to get unstuck, we can use this technique for figuring out our Points A, B, and C on our way to D. *smile*
How do you like to plot (or are you a pantser)? Have you ever plotted the ending first? What works or doesn’t work for you with this technique? Is it easier for you to work forward when plotting (A causes B) or backward (what would cause B to happen)? Do you think this technique might help if you get stuck?Pin It