The age-old plotter vs. pantser debate always ends with the acknowledgement that there are as many ways to write a novel as there are novelists. So to stir the pot a bit this week, I thought I’d throw in the idea of outlining backwards.
Not a new idea
Plotting in reverse is not my idea, and it’s not new. Novelist John Irving uses this method and even takes it a step further:
“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.”
Now this may sound overly dramatic, but I can see how knowing that “atmosphere” would be helpful. If I know that ending as I’m writing the beginning, I can make sure all elements support that ending from the start.
Supporting the Message
Writing a novel is a lot like making an argument. Knowing the conclusion of the argument or the essence of the message you want to convey means that everything that comes before can contribute in some way to that final message.
Say for instance that I’m writing a book that involves a love affair and instead of the two lovers getting together in the end, the guy decides to go home to his wife, so his lover shoots him.
Character: I can give hints of her jealous nature, or her tendency to do rash things. I can set up the evidence that she is capable of taking a life. And as for him, maybe I need to heighten his inability to make decisions or insert scenes where we see him back out of commitments.
Setting and story world: It would be helpful if guns were normal part of her life so that grabbing a gun in that final scene isn’t contrived. And we would know she knows how to use it. Perhaps she works as a park ranger or her father and brothers are all hunters. Maybe she’s a biathlete.
Theme: The theme may now be betrayal or jealousy rather than self-acceptance or trust. I can build this into subplots or other characters either to echo the theme or contrast it.
And notice we are talking here about knowing the ending only. Not outlining the whole novel. Knowing where you’re headed simply allows you to write a tighter and more focussed story.
The idea can be applied to smaller segments of your novel too. Events in a believable plot all hinge on cause and effect; on action and reaction. Equally, you can think of it in reverse: he did this because she did that, or they are in this situation because this happened yesterday.
Coming at it in reverse can be useful when you get to a point in the story and don’t know how to link to a scene that you know comes up in the future.
For example, if I knew that Clara needed to arrive back at her childhood home just as it was burning to the ground, but right now in the story she is happily away at school with no intention of going home, I can visualize the fire scene and work backwards:
How do you work backwards? Ask questions: What would have happened immediately before this house burning scene to cause it? And what would have happened before that scene to cause that? And so on like dominos to the point in the story where Clara is at school.
Why is the house burning down? Who started it? How are they connected to Clara? Is there a reason they might be so angry or so depressed that they would want to force her to go home?
If the fire is not deliberate, what other things might make Clara come home in the middle of term? Is Clara or someone else ill? How did Clara arrive there………
Now with the scenes slotted in to the next point, I can write forwards again, logically and with purpose. Instead of writing forward with a blindfold, I’m just filling in the blanks.
Kurt Vonnegut said, “A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”
It seems that a step backward in writing, when you don’t know where you’re going, is also a step in the right direction.