Working Backward to a Plot

I haven’t yet touched on plot in my blog, and purposefully. Plot for me is the hardest thing to develop. Let me rephrase that: a working plot for me is the hardest thing to develop. It is all too easy to create a grand plot that gets your characters into all kinds of shenanigans, but getting your character to a successful and believable resolution of that plot is where the difficulty lies (unless you take the easy, “It was all a dream” approach. …Never take that approach.)

So what can we as writers do to ensure our plots are air-tight and believable? Well, first of all, that is why we must struggle through numerous rewrites and edits, to catch all the little mistakes. But sure enough, even after you’ve rewritten it two!—five!—ten!—times, you’ll probably have missed something that doesn’t make sense, and your friends and family who are charged with the task of reading it may miss it too. The fact is, there are so many things that can go wrong, that inevitably, something will go wrong.

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For example, ever wonder why the eagles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy simply didn’t fly the ring to Mt. Doom? Why could Harry not see Thestrals after Cedric’s death in Goblet of Fire? (I promise I read more than fantasy; this is just what came to mind.) The point is, plot holes are bound to happen, even to some of the most celebrated writers and most highly paid editors, so we must remain ever vigilant for them. I will provide some techniques on how to avoid them, and how to scout out the ones you couldn’t avoid, in a later post.

Instead, this time I’d like to talk about the believability of plot. Without careful planning, it’s very easy to get your characters into a situation you can’t realistically get them out of. Often times, rather than rewrite the scene or the chapter or the book, writers will add one or two sentences in here and there that allows for some ambiguous escape or unrealistic salvation for the characters. This is a no-no. How I have learned to avoid such a move is by outlining—backward. Instead of using cause and effect, I think of effect and cause.

Often I begin with the resolution. I think, This is where I want each character to be physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, economically, (and a lot of other –ally’s) by the end of the novel. Now what led to this? Then I will go through the climax options that are likely to yield my results. What climax is most exciting and creates the resolution I envision for my characters? Then I question what leads to that climax, and so on and so forth. Now, naturally before I begin plotting, I already have an idea of how the story plays out. But say I have envisioned this great scene of a child’s hero (is it too cheesy to call him Plot Hole Man?) sacrificing himself to save the child halfway through the novel, but it turns out I need Plot Hole Man to be alive much later in the story to bring about the ending I desire. By working backward, I can see that I’ll need to scrap that scene or develop a different sequence of events.

I know from personal experience that writing is most exciting when you’re exploring uncharted territory. It’s really tempting to sit down and see where the ink will take you. But I guarantee, with at least mild planning, you can still be open to creativity and the discovery of new territories in your writing, but within the confines of some structure that will make your plot functional and not a totally unbelievable disaster. Expand your mind when you write. Let it wander where it will. Just make sure you’ve got your handy plot outline nearby to make sure your mind isn’t wandering somewhere too crazy.

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