Plotting a Story 101: Using the Plot Ending to Figure Out the Beginning and Middle
November 6, 2019
Do you know what the ending to your novel looks like? I ask this question because even for me, by nature a panster, knowing a plot ending is crucial.
Deep in the mixed up jumble that is my mind, there lie certain scenes I’m working toward. One of them is the climax of my work-in-progress. All of them relate to the end of the book.
Even when I fully pantsed my way through the first very long, wandering draft of my WIP, I had a couple of theses scenes playing in my mind. These scenes were the only reason I eventually got where I was going, even if I took too many rabbit trails along the way.
So, when I started my rewrites, after much deliberation and months and years of procrastination and wayward writing, I began with those scenes. Because of how much time I spent not working on my book, the scenes had evolved and changed, but they were vivid as ever.
Even if you don’t have a vivid scene like this in your head, you probably have some idea of where your characters will end up. Let’s start there.
Visualize the Plot Ending
Think about where your characters are going to end their journey (or, for my fellow series writers, this part of their journey). Can you picture the climax or final scene?
If not, I encourage you to go ahead and write that scene.
What? Write a scene before I’ve reached that point in drafting? Are you crazy?
Well, maybe, but not for this!
One of the reasons keeping these scenes in mind works so well for me is that I can clearly visualize them anytime. When I’m struggling to nail down a plot point or even craft another scene, having a clear, concrete image of where I’m going helps keep me focused.
I think it’s fair to say that, as writers, we have overactive imaginations––and that’s a gift. Use it.
If, however, you can clearly visualize the scenes you’ve chosen as your motivators, a word of caution before you write them. For my personality, at least, writing scenes out of order gives me little motivation to fill in between them. Why? Because I write the stuff I want to explore most and then don’t want to take the time to complete the story.
Unfortunately, writing scenes out of order puts me in a mentality of “the rest is filler.”
The rest is NOT filler. But I often don’t believe that until I write it. That’s why I make sure to write everything in order––it gives me something to look forward to. It also forces me to realize that the scenes I haven’t given much thought to are equally important to the ones I’ve been able to see since day one.
All that said, whether you choose to write out any scenes or not, you should be able to see them clearly in your mind. This gives you––and your plot––a goal.
Hopefully, one of the scenes you wrote out or visualized is the climax of the story. Of course, the climax isn’t technically the plot ending––there’s still falling action afterward. But the climax is where the main conflict comes to a head. Since conflict drives the story and the climax is the end of conflict, it’s fair to say that the climax is the plot ending.
But what do you do with that information?
Simple. You work backwards.
For me, this idea was both revolutionary and dangerous. One of the great things about pansters is that we let characters develop on their own rather than as a plot device, and we let the story speak for itself.
Working backward from your climax forces characters to develop in specific ways at specific times. It forces the story onto one particular path.
To these concerns, I would say only this: know your characters.
If you’ve spent time with your characters, if you know them in and out, if you can pin them down in a line and flesh them out over a lifetime––they won’t become plot devices. The climax you’ve chosen and the vague plot ideas you’ve formed will already be built around them and their development.
These concerns are also why I started this series with posts about using your protagonist and your antagonist. I believe plotting should always start with the characters. So make sure you know them better than they know themselves. That way, if you come upon a plot point that forces someone to act out of character, you’ll know pretty quickly and be able to adjust before you get too deep.
If you need a little extra help getting to know your characters, check out this post for some easy exercises to learn more about them.
So, how do you work backwards from your plot ending?
Look at the conflict coming to a head. Define it. Now ask, how did this happen?
Don’t look for the grand, overarching answers. Look for the immediately preceding action.
For Example . . .
Let’s say our climax is a hometown bake-off competition where the protagonist goes head-to-head with his baking archenemy.
The moment of deepest tension is that horrible last minute where the flour-coated protagonist has fifteen different kinds of cupcakes in the oven and fourteen of them are burning, lumpy, or underdone while all of the decorations are melting into multi-colored sadness. Meanwhile, the evil baker across the way calmly places the last pink bow on the last cupcake, straightens her horned chef’s hat, and taps her barbed wire whisk on the counter, that smug grin on her face as she watches the protagonist scramble to finish.
How did we get here? What led to all those lumpy, burnt cupcakes? Was there an act of sabotage via Evil Baker’s assistant? Did Hero Baker forget key ingredients?
We’re not concerned with how the protagonist is going to pull this off, but with what happened immediately prior to so completely screw things up.
Let’s say that our protagonist forgot key ingredients and there was a malicious act of baking sabotage (because heroes never have it easy).
Why did Hero Baker forget those ingredients? Was he distracted by Evil Baker’s taunts from the day before? Was he so nervous that he dropped his list in a puddle and all the ink ran?
As for the sabotage, how did Evil Baker’s assistant get the opportunity to switch the sugar for salt? Did Hero Baker leave his supplies attended by his distracted cousin, who spotted a break in the funnel cake line and promptly abandoned her post? Or was Hero Baker’s assistant promised a job at Evil Baker’s shop if he played Judas (the little turn-apron)?
We now pick our favorite of the options, then take those and ask, again, how we got here.
Keep Your Beginning in Mind
If you already know where your character starts off, make sure you keep that beginning firmly planted in your mind. Your task is, simply put, to get your character from Point A to Point B. But that progression must follow the logical paths of natural character development and plot plausibility. Too rapid character development or development without cause leads to unrealistic characters. Too many coincidences leads to a skeptical and irritated reader.
Remember, suspension of disbelief can only get you so far.
I like to think of this kind of plotting as a puzzle. You start off with vivid scenes––those are the puzzle pieces you already have in place. Then, you use trial and error to place the remaining pieces. After some eyebrow furrowing, vacant staring, frustrated groaning, and lots of diving under the table to search for a piece you know you just had in your hand a minute ago, you’re left with a beautiful, well-proportioned plot.
Final Thoughts on the Plot Ending
Take some time to work on your plot from the end to the beginning. When I first did this, I found not just irritating plot-holes, but solutions to fix them! I hope this exercise has the same result for you.
Have a wonderful Wednesday, and I’ll see you back here next week!