Writing backwards

Recently, a student who attended one of my presentations sent me one of his stories. It was a re-make of Cinderella in modern times, with  octogenarian protagonists. The story was really interesting, but one of the things that I noticed with his story, as I have with many other stories by young students, is that the beginning had nothing to do with the end.

It’s a classic problem that all writers have. At the beginning of a story, we have a zillion ideas. That’s because in the beginning the options are endless. But as your hero and villian make choices, the options narrow down. So often the story at the end of your draft is totally different from the beginning.

What you need to do now, is write backwards.

Backwards puppy!

Focus on the ending, and think of the story in reverse. What does the main character need to have to get to this point? Do her personality quirks get her into trouble that eventually leads her to the confrontation in the last chapter? Does she pick up tools along the way that she uses to vanquish her foe? If so, you will need to show her finding those tools, and if necessary, show how she learns to use them. If your character is drastically different at the end than she is at the beginning, the previous chapters will need to reveal why and how she changed.

The main character isn’t the only one who deserves this kind of attention. The villain also needs to be written in reverse so that we can see how their attempts to foil the hero  have grown progressively more difficult. The vilain is just as important as the main character, since it’s going to be the two of them facing off at the end. They need to be set up with as much care, possibly more, since they’re not sympathetic.

Even minor characters, especially ones pivotal to the ending need to have their own moments throughout the novel when they learn things, grow, and slowly reveal their true colors so that their part in the ending doesn’t seem abrupt.

Putting things in might be easy, but for some, it’s harder to take things out. Look at the ending again. If there are people or scenes that don’t move the characters (hero, and villain) to the point you need them to be at the end, then those need to be cut. Does your hero need that scene with her aunt Sheila? Unless Sheila is imparting some knowledge, tool, or plays a helpful role at the end, she’s got to go. Even if the scene you wrote with her is heartfelt and profound, if it doesn’t add to the ending, it’s useless. Save it for another story.

“Cut a good story anywhere and it will bleed.” It has to be that way with your work. Keep cutting lines that don’t help the story to its final line until you can’t possibly cut anything else. I’m not saying lose meaning or description, but there may be a lot of unnecessary information in there. Working in reverse will help you find it.

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