Plotting Forwards and Backwards

The image that most people have of writing is a lot like reading.  We imagine the author punching line after line into the keyboard (or typewriter), plodding along in the same direction that we read:  From page one to page one hundred.

This view is both poetic and wrong, and the source of a lot of frustration for newbie writers.  But at first it’s all we know and so that’s how we write.  So today’s post is all about outlining.  

“Reading is linear.  Writing is non-linear.”

Most people are familiar with the dichotomy of pantsers vs. plotters.  Pantsers pride themselves by writing blind and often claim to be just as surprised as the reader about where the story goes.  Plotters on the other hand, claim to know how the story will end before they’ve written the first word.  

Don’t worry about these two categories anymore because we’re throwing them out.  I’ll explain why as we go.  

The idea of linear reading and non-linear writing was one of the most powerful realizations I’ve had in my writing life.  Let’s dive into exactly what I mean by this:

If I’m reading through a book, I start with page one — or scene A — and I read all the way through the alphabet to the last page — scene Z.  

Writing is never that pretty.  Sometimes you realize what you thought was scene A was really scene D and you need to go back and write three more scenes to start your book.  You might think you’re finished writing and realize at the last minute that you forgot scene Q.  Sometimes the ending scene Z gets thrown out in favor of an even cooler, more poignant scene Z.2.35.  

Now that we’ve got that basic premise out of the way, let’s look at the ideal way to plot a novel (or series): 


I was debating just how in depth to go with this article, but I’ve resolved to stick with our alphabet metaphor for scenes within our novel.  What follows is both my recommendation and how I personally like to plot my novels.  

A novel is nothing but cause and effect–action and reaction–from one scene to the next.  

I like to start with two scenes, one near the beginning and one near the climax–let’s say scene D and scene S. It’s usually pretty apparent what needs to happen immediately before and immediately after those scenes.  

So now we have scenes C, D, E as well as R, S, T.  

Sometimes you’ll get lucky and keep following the logical sequence of events until you have all 26 scene letters.  Probably not.  You’ll more likely get a hodgepodge.  You’ll start with scene D and S, then think of K and P, which will lead you to B and W and N and K (wait we already did that).  Sometimes you need three letters of a subplot to help move things along.  That’s okay too.  It really doesn’t matter because by the time we’re done setting things in order our reader will never know how butchered our first draft was.  

You also don’t have to plot out every single scene before you start writing.  If you’re stuck, try writing a scene you’ve plotted out.  Sometimes as the dialogue or exposition is flowing it will point you in the right direction.  

Plotting forwards and backwards is more than our scene letter metaphor.  For all you pantsers that start at A and go to B, C, D, E, F, G and so forth, you should still be plotting forwards and backwards.

Let’s say you write a scene a day.  If you finish scene A, don’t immediately stop for the day!  Leave yourself notes on what scene B will look like.  Write down some notes about the location, characters, dialogue direction, and so on, that way when you sit down to write tomorrow, scene B is already primed and (gasp) outlined.  It will make the next day’s writing all the easier.

Furthermore, plot backwards!  When you finish scene A, write an outline of what happened (who was in the scene, major plot points, character development, etc).  If you make a point of doing that throughout your story then you’ll have an outline that you can look back on quickly without having to read through pages of the story to figure out what happened.  Think of it like a cheat sheet for your story.

I mention this because Dean Wesley Smith, a prolific author who literally wrote one of the books on Pantsing (Writing into the Dark), plots backwards so he can keep track of what he’s already written.  If he missed something then he goes back and fixes the mistakes.    

This leads nicely to another aspect of writing being non-linear:  Theme, symbolism and foreshadowing.  

It’s hard to know what a book is about until it’s written like-first-and-second-draft-completed.  It’s only then that you have a good grasp on the theme of a story.  Like a craftsman honing a blade, you forge the general shape first, then the blade, then the pommel.  It’s only after you’re done with the metal that you can wrap the pommel in leather and dress it up.  

After you’ve written all 26 scene letters you can go back and add foreshadowing and emphasize the theme. 


Like all the other writing stuff I’m going to share with you, Plotting Forwards and Backwards is a tool.  A strategy.  There are many different ways to write a book and I’m just sharing one of these things that made it easier for me to write mine.  Try it out and see if it works for you.  

The beautiful thing about the internet and the age we live in is that there is both more information out there and it’s easier to find it.  Sure you might have to sort through the chaff and try a bunch of different things to find strategies that work for you, but I’ll take that in a heartbeat compared to the pre-self-publishing or pre-internet days.  

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