Plotting Backwards

For one of my grad school classes, I’ve had to outline my new project in a variety of ways. First, I had to outline the main plot of my novel-length project in essay form. I discussed main characters, the overall plot, main conflict, and the theme(s) I’d be covering.

Ordinarily, I’d be journaling about all of this without any real focus. Then I’d sit down and write and figure it out from there. I’d burn out at about 20,000 words and free-write my way to the finish line of the world’s ugliest first draft competition. There’d be no real focus, no real conflict. No reason to connect with the main character other than, well, because I wrote the character and how could you not connect with them?

The next step in this term-long project was to outline the project, chapter by chapter. I had an idea of what I wanted to do: how I wanted the opening scene to look, an idea of when big plot points should happen, and how I wanted the book to end. As per usual, I had no idea how to get to the end. The middle of a project is always the least focused part of my drafts. Despite the years I’ve spent studying craft and literature, I somehow completely ignore the fact that conflict needs to be rising to meet the climax and you need a denouement that makes sense.

For Hallucinogen, I knew what my resolution was going to be. I know what my main character needed to become in the end in order for her whole journey to be worth something. I didn’t want to set out to write  a story about the perils of heroin addiction, but of human addiction. I knew the choices that needed to be made in the end.

So I started with the ending and worked backwards.

Instead of trying to move up the plot hill, I’m rolling downhill. Now that I understand what the main conflict is, and what the resolution will be, I understand how I need to get there. Each chapter, each scene, needs to be moving the story forward and, in my outline, that’s what I’ve mapped out.

My outline isn’t just one line or two about what happens in the chapter. I used Scrivener to write actual an actual synopsis about the chapter. I added in details I’d already brainstormed in my notebook. In the end, my outline isn’t just the skeleton of my novel: it reads like a very long, detailed synopsis. So not only do I have a clear plan, I already have a synopsis written–two of the, arguably, hardest part of the writing/querying process.

Whether or not you use something like Scrivener as a writing tool, I’m a big advocate for finding the skeleton of your story before you begin adding parts to its body. You need to understand each bone, each vein, before you can understand the whole picture. Building blocks are essential to everything in life.

And that includes writing.

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