Your End is Your Beginning: How to Write Your Story in Reverse

My first exposure to the world of fiction romance was my mother’s two milk crates filled to the brim with Harlequin paperback novels. I’ll spare you the details of the stereotypical covers, but they were enthralling to my hormonal preteen brain. If you’ve ever walked through the book section of any big-box superstore or pharmacy, though, then you know what I’m talking about. (Give “Fabio + Harlequin” a quick online search if you don’t. It’s kind of worth it.) Anyway, I’d pull one from deep in the stack, hide it under my bed, and wait for mom to go to sleep.

I always started at the end of the book. I would flip to the last page, read those last paragraphs and bits of dialogue, then go back to the start and read the book cover to cover. There was something intriguing about knowing how the story ended that made the journey all the sweeter to follow.

(By the way, mom caught me every night for two straight weeks, arguing that I wasn’t mature enough for the story content. On day fifteen, she threw up her hands and left me to my own devices.)

When it comes to planning a novel, starting at the end—with those final lines of dialogue or narrative summary to wrap things up—can feel like the opposite of every outlining lesson your English teachers beat into your skull. Sometimes working backward, though, is just the answer to your story’s plotting problems. By reverse engineering your characters’ external journey, you prioritize plot consistency.

Refresher: “Plot” refers to all of the external events, obstacles, and antagonistic forces your protagonist will have to deal with from the inciting incident to the climax. Causality lies at the center of a logical and entertaining plot. Event A happens, but Obstacle B interferes. New Event C happens as a result of Obstacle B, therefore the protagonist experiences Result D. This pattern repeats itself until you to get to your final climactic scene.

The climactic scene is thus the starting point of your reverse-engineering efforts. To work backward effectively, there is one question and one answer you need to focus on. Why and Because.

Why Did This Event Happen?

The climax is the final reaction to every action that preceded it. That bears repeating.

Your climax must be the natural result of every choice, obstacle, success, and failure of every major character involved in that final scene.

Of course, when you ask yourself why this event went down the way it did, your imagination is likely to provide several reasonable-sounding answers. Keep your options limited to three at most, because the more options you have, the more convoluted the equation becomes. All you’re trying to do is solve for x, not uncover a worldwide conspiracy. I mean, not unless you’re writing a novel centered around a worldwide conspiracy. But I digress.

When you dig into why an event happened, you’re not just uncovering the tangible path your protagonist walked down. Sure, they had an end goal in mind, something they had to see through to the next stage. You’re answering the more specific question of “Why did this character do what they did that created this result?” External motivation is intwined with external action. Your story will suffer as a whole—especially the all-important climax—if you don’t answer both why an event happened and why your character decided their approach to that event was the best one.

Because This Choice Was Made.

Even if your protagonist is only reacting to an event, they’re still choosing that reaction. As you move closer to the most logical starting point of your novel, be wary when a particular character’s choices start to seem too fantastical. You may have previously experimented with putting that character in various situations to gauge how their minds work. The reverse-plotting stage is the perfect time to review those profile sketches or scenes. You might find that what you thought was a sound choice or reaction is quite the opposite. Simply course-correct, then move to the next previous choice.

Premier Hollywood story consultant John Truby rallies against building out a mechanical plot, where specific events happen because you as the author need them to happen. Indeed, a simple telling of events does not a plot make.

Plot that comes naturally from the hero is not simply one the hero concocts. It is the plot that is appropriate to the character’s desire and ability to plan and act.

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller

Each choice your character makes has a consequence. In starting from the consequence, you build on your character’s individuality, humanity, and self-determination, especially when their choices result in disaster.

Photo by Piotr Makowski on Unsplash

I am not a chess player. I don’t even play one on TV. I prefer crosswords and other word-based games to anything centered around strategy. I’m still aware, though, that there are literally millions of moves one could use to successfully call checkmate. Every piece on the board, depending on how it can move from its current position, has the potential to knock down every other piece. Yet the final goal, the final move, the final scene is always the same. The king has no means of escape.

Reverse engineering your story is nowhere near as complicated as winning a game of chess. But the end goal is the same: Move backward in such a way that every choice your protagonist has made, every scene caused by that choice, is based on the previous one. You’ll reach a point where that character will have no other way to move but down the path that leads to their final clash with the main antagonistic force.

On the other hand, remember you may have one or two other paths to tread down from that climactic scene. Try to avoid tunnel vision by comparing those paths along the way. You may find one event has a better cause and is a more natural choice your character makes.

Don’t be afraid to patchwork quilt your way to a more natural plot. Your readers won’t even notice the seams if you blend the stitches well enough. Even better, they’ll snuggle under the warmth of your novel and reflect on your character’s story one word at a time.

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