Writing Backwards

When I wrote mysteries, I always started with an idea that hooked me.  Some odd thought would snag my imagination, and it wouldn’t let go until I built scenes around it.  The scenes told me what type of character I was going to follow through that particular story.  Sometimes, I’d get so gung-ho, I’d rush into writing.  At that stage of my craft, rushing was a mistake.  Almost every story I started, when I didn’t have an ending in mind, lacked the tension and punch my stories–with endings in mind–had.  I’ve written for so long now, I don’t need to plot as hard as I once did–at least, not on paper.  Because now, the rhythm and twists are so internalized, they’re just part of the process.

A friend read some of my stories and said, “I could never write these.  How do you come up with so many ideas?”  “But it’s easy,” I told her, “if you know the end and write backwards.”  And it’s true.  You have a beginning, and if you know the end, you just need to figure out how to get there.  If it’s a mystery, you can sprinkle in clues and red herrings along the way, because you know which things ARE clues.  You know who did it and why.  Same holds true for most stories you write.  But middles can still be muddles, so that’s why I fiddled around until I found what works for me.

I spelled out my plotting technique in an earlier blog, but basically, I divide  a story (whatever it’s length) into four parts.  And I know how the story will end, so….

The first fourth is set-up:

1.  One heck of a hook–whatever grabs the reader and pulls him in.  (It doesn’t have to be in-your-face to do this).

2.  Introduce the main & minor characters through action–not back story.

3.  The inciting incident and big story question (both external and internal).

3.  The setting has to contribute to that particular story’s tone/mood/plot.  Show it through the protagonist’s POV, what it means to him.

4.  For novels, I introduce 1 or 2 subplots that deal with the same theme as the main plot.

5.  A direction the protagonist goes in, thinking he’ll resolve his problem and make his world right again.

6.  At the end of the set-up, he discovers his solution won’t work or that his problem’s bigger than he ever thought.

After the set-up, I think of at least 2 more plot twists and try to put the first twist in the middle of the story and the next twist close to the 3/4 mark.  Then for the last fourth of the story, I tie things up and finish what I already put in place–rushing toward my ending.

This technique took something unwieldy (writing an entire novel) and broke it into smaller pieces that make it easier for my brain to hold.  Until, that is, I got bored doing the same-old, same-old.  And I decided to write a novel where I knew the beginning and I knew the end, but my goal for myself after the set-up was to try to put my protagonist in as much trouble as I could get her in, scene after scene, and then get her out of trouble by asking myself, “What would the reader never expect to happen here?”

I wrote the book.  A friend read it.  A small publisher even took it and then went out of business.  (Not my book’s fault.  Lack of money).  And my friend said, “Hmmm, my daughter loved it, but it sure isn’t your usual writing, is it?”  Not a compliment, but I had to laugh.  No, it wasn’t my usual writing, and that was the point.  I learned a lot from that book (not that I recommend writing books to experiment with unless you really don’t care if it’s published or not.  At that point in my life, writing was still a hobby to me, my “me” time.  I wrote and sent books, but wasn’t really surprised if no one took them).  But that book gave me a wonderful sense of freedom.

Before, I tried really hard to write like my favorite authors wrote, to do as they did.  When I gave myself permission to ask, “What do I want to do now?” and it could be anything, I came up with plot twists and scenes I’d never considered before.  Not that it made for a great book, but it made for a fun one.  So now, I make a habit of using the Rule of Three.  (I’ve heard Shirley Jump on panels and in workshops, and she uses the Rule of Six.  If I’d have heard her first, maybe I’d have tried harder, but she’s smarter than I am, or maybe I’m lazier, so three works for me).  Anyway, when I come to a culmination scene now (where I’ve laid the ground work for it and, hopefully, the reader’s waiting to see what happens), I try NOT to go with my first idea–the obvious.  I try to think of a second and a third result that’s feasible, but unexpected, and I go with that.

So my technique now?  I still use the four part strategy for stories, but I give myself more wiggle room.  I try to suprise myself more often.  My advice to new writers?  Find what works for you and have fun!








4 thoughts on “Writing Backwards

  1. Thanks for the insight into your writing process today, Judy. I don’t have near the written library that you do, and am still working to discover my “process”. I think what I seem to be finding the more I write is that me TRYING not to be a pantser is squelching my creativity. I like outlines and structure, but my writing brain keeps bucking that concept. lol But you gave me some great points to ponder today, and I’ll probably try a few out the next go ’round.


  2. Most of my friends are pantsers, and they write really good stuff. I think each person has to find what works for her. All a person can share is what’s worked for them. So do your own thing!


  3. Your technique sounds very smart. To be honest I never know where the ending will take me, I am a lot less organized. But for a mystery your technique is mandatory…I could never write a mystery, it requires more experience in writing…maybe one day :).


  4. I started by writing mysteries, but for me, they did take more planning if I wanted to get clues and motivations right. I don’t outline nearly as much since I’m writing urban fantasy. They have more of a quest feel, moving from one battle or adventure, conflict, to the next, but I still like to have a map along the way–old habits die hard.


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