How to Plot a Story: Back to Front

Back to Front Plotting

Jess Harris, one of our other members wrote up some notes on this plotting technique.  Following is a portion of his notes (used with his permission) and after that I’ve added some of my own perspectives. 

 UNDERLYING PRINCIPLE: The action plot is driven by the character development plot, and the character plot is driven by the character arc (growth/changes in the character – not her circumstances.) In other words, the character’s changes are defined by who she is at the end vs. who she is at the beginning.

 Start with the captivating idea that is the kernel of the story and develop the theme.

*What do you want to say with this story?

Now you must understand your protagonist.

*Who is she?

*What drives her?

*What are her strengths and weaknesses?

*How can she be excited, bored, impressed, etc. (Just a rough sketch, for now, but the basic nature of the protagonist character affects all that comes after.)

Visualize and describe the character ending.

*What is her personal discovery?

*What is her nature (most, least desired, etc.) at the end?

*How have her interests, concerns, etc. changed?

 Next, visualize and describe the character beginning:

How different can you make the character at the beginning from the character at the end without being absurd, or at least unrealistic? (Even in fantasy, the character’s development must be realistic.)

 (Jess has more, and I’ll push those comments in another post.)  Here come my editorial comments:

I don’t know if I can start a story with consciously thinking about what I want to say.  Unconsciously, it is there, but I’m not likely to have thought it through consciously.  Most likely, I have one or two critical scenes, maybe including an ending, which are the hints of a story.  Those hints tell me the nature of the story and its characters, and that takes me to the ending of the story.  The ending of the story is the ultimate definition of your protagonist’s character.  I don’t really know their character without knowing the choice they are going to make at the end.

Therefore I do agree with Jess that it is absolutely, positively, vital that you know the ending of your story before you start writing.  I know I’ve just lost a lot of people with that statement.  For those of you who are still with me, let me give a rationale:

Most people when asked to do any task will do it in stages.  Say you want to write a setting for a scary moment in a horror story.  The first settings that come to mind are almost certainly cliché, pulled from our unconscious pile of scary places (cemeteries, dark abandoned buildings, woods at night, undersea cave…).  Problem is, all of those are probably TERRIBLE and UNORIGINAL ideas.  You need to think about this for a while to come up with a really good one.  How about cheerful daycare center and a child’s bloody finger found on a sink?  (Yeah, that isn’t great either, but it’s not quite so cliché.)

A novel-length story is composed of many scenes.  Each one of them requires a great deal of thought to make them interesting and effective.  And, here’s the rub—those scenes need to link together in a coherent whole, culminating at a satisfying ending.  They don’t have to just be good, they have to connect, build off of each other, feed off of each other. 

So, if you agree that it is really hard to come up with a single excitingly innovative scene, when you hit that happy spot and put in a chapter break or a scene break, how likely are you to carefully mull over the many alternative options for the next scene?  Or are you most likely to go with what feels about right, and keep typing?

And, if you don’t know what the ending is, how likely is it that any given scene or any collection of scenes actually does an outstanding job of sending the reader on the roller coaster ride that ends in a perfect ending?  If you know the ending, you can think about what does it take to get to this place?  You can contrive to confront your characters with the escalating challenges that are necessary to culminate in a final, ultimate test.  And you are making those scene decisions before writing the scenes.  All you need is a couple sentences that describe what has to happen.  After due consideration, if the order isn’t right, or a scene is too much of a trope, or it doesn’t have the necessary impact—you fix it by crossing out a few lines and substituting the much better idea.

Most important—I think that we all are striving to do our very best.  We want to provide the most satisfying experience for the reader that we can.  I don’t think we can consistently come up with house-on-fire scene ideas, one after another, writing serially.  And I really doubt that most of us can string those powerful scenes together into a successful whole without knowing where we are going.  Without starting at the end, the story certainly can get written.  It will have satisfying moments.  But will it be the best story we are capable of writing?  Unlikely.

On the other hand, following this last shall be first scheme does not guarantee goodness.  There are abundant opportunities to go seriously wrong.  But for us mere mortals, it gives us a fighting chance.

About Patrick Sullivan

Pat Sullivan is an electrical engineer by training, corrupted into an Information Assurance architect--He recently let slip the secret motto of all IA people: "We're not happy 'til you're not happy." He likes to read science fiction and espionage thrillers, has a few patents, and is trying hard to breath life into a science fiction novel.

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