Authorguy's Blog

Writing backwards

Posted on: August 22, 2011

I don’t know how it works for pantsers in general, if there is such a thing, but when I write a story I do it from front to back. I start on page one and continue through to the end, wherever and whatever that may be. There are lots of writers out there who don’t care what scene they’re writing. If the inspiration is for scene 24, that’s what they’ll do, even if yesterday they were on scene 2. I can’t write like that. I have to know what has already happened before I can move on to what will happen next.

That’s when I’m actually putting words on paper. I do occasionally brainstorm ideas, mostly with my kids when going to and from bookselling events. My son and I came up with many of the plot elements that will go into my next Tarkas novel, someday. We have the ideas, but I haven’t put the words on paper to get me there yet, so i don’t know what will happen to those plot elements when I do. What often starts as a target becomes a roadblock, as I try to figure out how to get the story there, rather than let the story show me how it wants to go. Which is not to say that trying to write these scenes is a bad thing. Like most things, trying to do it teaches me a lot more than simply thinking about it. Many times I’ve written oceans of text that had to be thrown away, but only after it had served the purpose of helping me develop the idea and found its flaws. Many times I’ve written many paragraphs that didn’t work as written, but made much more sense when simply rearranged.

Writing backwards is slightly different. I take a possible endpoint, and try to figure out how to get there, sort of a pantsing approach to outlining. The first step is to find a suitable possible endpoint. As a character on Dead Like Me (the father, who’s an English professor) said, cliches are cliches for a reason. They’re what got thrown against the wall and stuck. Naturally my job is to take it off the wall, turn it upside down, and throw it again. It worked for Joss Whedon, making the petite blonde into the killer that all the monsters were afraid of.

But just creating anti-cliches isn’t enough, the story logic has to support them. That’s the part where you have to figure out how to get there. There is value in directness, but a really cool plot point that takes a lot of tortured logic to get to isn’t as good as an OK plot point that takes one twist and a step sideways. Sometimes you can get to the same place (the really cool plot point) by making a bunch of twists and sideways steps, just like you can make a left turn by going forward one block and making three right turns instead. Not only do you get to the same place but you’ve covered more ground doing it, maybe added a character or even a whole subplot, which can sometimes be a good thing. Sometimes it isn’t, which is where editing comes in.


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