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View Full Version : Reverse engineering in writing: When you know what result you need, but not what would produce it.



Perks
11-05-2016, 12:10 AM
I've started a new book and I've got what I think is a solid hook. I know there's a good story that goes with it and it's just a matter of finding it.

Over two books, I have been a pantser - and I hate it. I really hate it. This time I want to at least sketch out an idea of the story so that I can write with some sort of assurance that there's a path through the dark and thorny forest of AnythingCanHappen.

So far I know that, in the story, there's something that's happened where a woman has been left for dead to the advantage of someone she knew. He feels unproud of it enough to change his name and start over somewhere. Of course, this will all come back to haunt him.

But I don't know what the thing was that happened.

Would any of you, pantsers and outliners alike, share your tips on reverse engineering?

Richard White
11-05-2016, 12:23 AM
In the Army, they taught us the technique of "reverse planning". For example. If we're going to the woods on Monday at 0900, then we have to be on line at the motor poll by NLT 0800, which means we have to draw gear NLT 0600, which means we have to muster NLT 0530, which means sending out the alert NLT 0430, and if we need supplies, we need to order them NLT D-5 days and .....

So, using that technique, I'll grab some paper (I actually have some big "butcher block" paper for this) and start at the top (Murderer is caught). Then I'll think of three or four scenarios how the murderer could be caught and then think of two or three possible actions that led to that result and I wind up with this huge spiderweb of possible actions. Eventually, it starts narrowing down until I get to the (a) beginning. After I do that, I take a serious break and then come back with a red marker and start striking out the options that are too silly, too obvious, too cliche, etc. and eventually, i start to see one or two of the pathways are leading to a story I like (and maybe identify a good sub-plot or two).

My wife accuses me of making writers "design flow charts", not unlike the decision charts that software designers use, but this works for me, especially if I "have" to have something occur to set up the ending. It helps me be sure to account for everything, esp. if I'm working on a mystery, because I have to have clues the reader has a chance to spot too - no pulling the pistol out of thin air to solve the mystery.

However, not everyone's a fan of this method. Others may have better suggestions.

MaeZe
11-05-2016, 12:24 AM
Seems you could brainstorm this:

She had information on him that would have been damaging
He wanted something she had, stole it, and it was portable and he took it with him
He raped her or attacked her in anger over something

cornflake
11-05-2016, 12:26 AM
Try limiting yourself. I think people get scared by the idea of outlining, like it all has to come out in some grade-school I., Ia., or snowflake or whatever fashion and you have to know all the things.

Try just pantsing the outline. Tell yourself you're just going to write a paragraph or a page explaining it to someone, start with the MC does X or whatever, and just write a paragraph and see what happens.

Maze Runner
11-05-2016, 01:22 AM
Literally left for dead? If so, is that an essential? What are the essential elements of the premise, as you see it? What do you not want to do without, as far as premise, setting, character? I agree with limiting yourself, but don't be afraid to question what you now see as essential. I think it becomes a process of elimination, but careful with that knife at the onset. Don't want to eliminate a path that might be wrought with possibilities. I'm thinking that your choice of exactly what it was that happened offers a lot of room for creativity. Maybe, the more interesting that choice, the more interesting your story. Anyway, this is what I'd tell myself were I writing this story. Best of luck.

Jason
11-05-2016, 01:35 AM
In the Army, they taught us the technique of "reverse planning". For example. If we're going to the woods on Monday at 0900, then we have to be on line at the motor poll by NLT 0800, which means we have to draw gear NLT 0600, which means we have to muster NLT 0530, which means sending out the alert NLT 0430, and if we need supplies, we need to order them NLT D-5 days and .....

So, using that technique, I'll grab some paper (I actually have some big "butcher block" paper for this) and start at the top (Murderer is caught). Then I'll think of three or four scenarios how the murderer could be caught and then think of two or three possible actions that led to that result and I wind up with this huge spiderweb of possible actions. Eventually, it starts narrowing down until I get to the (a) beginning. After I do that, I take a serious break and then come back with a red marker and start striking out the options that are too silly, too obvious, too cliche, etc. and eventually, i start to see one or two of the pathways are leading to a story I like (and maybe identify a good sub-plot or two).

My wife accuses me of making writers "design flow charts", not unlike the decision charts that software designers use, but this works for me, especially if I "have" to have something occur to set up the ending. It helps me be sure to account for everything, esp. if I'm working on a mystery, because I have to have clues the reader has a chance to spot too - no pulling the pistol out of thin air to solve the mystery.

However, not everyone's a fan of this method. Others may have better suggestions.

I still do this to this day (never realized it stuck from the Army days though! LOL)

Plane leaves at 11:00
Boarding is at 10:30
At the gate: 10:45
At security: 10:15
At curb: 10:00
At parking garage: 9:30
Leave house 9:00

It's 2 hours, but I do this every time - don't ask me why I don't just subtract 2! LOL

As to reverse engineering a story, I guess it's possible, but I'd run the risk of writing your story for you and don't want to presume to know how you think...

Perks
11-05-2016, 02:07 AM
As to reverse engineering a story, I guess it's possible, but I'd run the risk of writing your story for you and don't want to presume to know how you think...

Not to worry! I'm just looking for any anecdotes and techniques that might come to mind. : )

Chris P
11-05-2016, 02:18 AM
I often write like this; knowing several of the scenes and needing to connect them. My method is to carry the previous scene as far as I can, start the new scene as early as I can, then work either forward or backward (backward is easier) to connect them. This can be blind writing and see what happens, breaking the space into a numbered list of things that logic tells me must happen between the two scenes, or saying "based kn these characters in the world, what is the most likely to have happened just before this?" Most times, I surprise myself and come up with my favorite parts. I never know what I can do until I push myself. :)

The struggle for me is to not get too detailed in connecting. Sometimes I have to delete the "connective tissue" if I've put it there just for the sake of connecting.

ElaineA
11-05-2016, 02:52 AM
I always fall back on character. I had an opening and a closing scene I wanted to turn into a novel for the longest time, but I couldn't make any plot between them because Too Many Options. So I threw my hands up and used the opening scene for a short story instead. It forced me to get to know the characters, why they were each doing what they were doing in the scene, how their backstories informed them. I developed histories for each of them, and from there, their behaviors and motivations came more clear. I could "predict" them, ask "why" that would happen, or "how" would she react to X. At that point the options going forward were more limited by what that characters would (and wouldn't) do and the novel's plot narrowed into focus. It's not reverse engineering by any stretch, but it does help to answer questions like, what did he do and why--just a way of reducing the number of options on the table.

Chrissy
11-05-2016, 04:03 AM
I haven't written in two years, but this caught my eye. It was like a prompt! I'll share my process, fwiw, which is probably nada.

That she's left for dead makes me think she doesn't die, so based on that... Does he injure her (and if so, is it accidental or intentional or heat of the moment) or does he just not help her?

If he doesn't do it, does he see it happen / is he in the accident too, or does he find her after it happens?

How / how well do they know each other? Lovers, coworkers, neighbors, relations, friend of a friend, competitors, enemies?

Does she fully recover from her injury or does she have permanent damage / scars?

Does there need to be a witness to the event, or no witnesses?

Before he leaves her for dead, is she unconscious or do they speak? Is she still conscious when he leaves? Does she know she's dying?

Is it day or night? Indoors or outdoors? Hot or cold?

For each possible answer to these questions that would fit with what I already had for my story, I'd make a tree (flowchart) and then from that, brainstorm injuries that would fit. Well, I would personally would not do a flowchart (see first sentence of this post) but it seems like a good idea.

Good luck, Perks, I can't wait to read it. :)

Perks
11-05-2016, 04:45 AM
I haven't written in two years, but this caught my eye. It was like a prompt! I'll share my process, fwiw, which is probably nada.

That she's left for dead makes me think she doesn't die, so based on that... Does he injure her (and if so, is it accidental or intentional or heat of the moment) or does he just not help her?

If he doesn't do it, does he see it happen / is he in the accident too, or does he find her after it happens?

How / how well do they know each other? Lovers, coworkers, neighbors, relations, friend of a friend, competitors, enemies?

Does she fully recover from her injury or does she have permanent damage / scars?

Does there need to be a witness to the event, or no witnesses?

Before he leaves her for dead, is she unconscious or do they speak? Is she still conscious when he leaves? Does she know she's dying?

Is it day or night? Indoors or outdoors? Hot or cold?

For each possible answer to these questions that would fit with what I already had for my story, I'd make a tree (flowchart) and then from that, brainstorm injuries that would fit. Well, I would personally would not do a flowchart (see first sentence of this post) but it seems like a good idea.

Good luck, Perks, I can't wait to read it. :)

It's worth quite a lot. These are great questions!

Chrissy
11-05-2016, 05:50 AM
I'm so glad to hear it! I was also going to say (so I'll just say) that your pantser method has worked out brilliantly for the rest of us, so please consider continuing to employ it. Your pain is our gain. :greenie :heart:

Perks
11-05-2016, 06:49 AM
I'm so glad to hear it! I was also going to say (so I'll just say) that your pantser method has worked out brilliantly for the rest of us, so please consider continuing to employ it. Your pain is our gain. :greenie :heart:

That's too nice and you should probably take it back. : )

Namatu
11-07-2016, 02:37 AM
He leaves her for dead, but is that a result of whatever he did/she knows or is it a separate but convenient development that he seized for his own gain?

Marissa D
11-07-2016, 02:47 AM
I'm mostly a plotter (or maybe "plotser" is a better term) and I've been playing with a plotting method in a book called Take Off Your Pants (pretty cheap in ebook form--$2.99 IIRC) that I've been using to work out a sequel to an-already written story, and I like the results. It builds the story based on your main character's (or characters') Flaw, which can help keep you from wandering into the weeds plot-wise.

auzerais
11-07-2016, 03:36 AM
Most of my storybuilding techniques revolve around two questions: "What would happen if?" and "What would make a person do x?" So you've got: "What would happen if a man did something bad enough to a woman he knew that he felt the need to start over elsewhere?" and "What would make a person do something so bad to a woman that he'd feel the need to start over elsewhere?"

Ultimately these are character building questions. I think a lot of your story can be built simply by determining what kind of person he is. Is he a basically good person who had a desperate need? A basically good person who had a moment of weakness? Or a basically evil person who is having a moment of guilt? A basically good person might steal from a person, or abandon them in their hour of need out of fear, but they would be significantly less likely to intentionally injure another person.

I would also ask, how is he feeling right now? You say he moved away and changed his name because he was unproud as opposed to changing his name from fear of being punished. That tells me something, but I'd also like to know how he's handling it. How much guilt does he have right now? How much shame? Does he think about it everyday or has he buried it into the deep recesses of his psyche so that he doesn't have to face it? Also, is he still benefiting from the "advantage" he got from the inciting event, or is it gone? When push comes to shove, will that advantage really be worth the full frontal consequences of his actions?

The precise nature of what he did, while not inconsequential, is not as interesting as his suffering is. Is he the type to suffer a lot for a minor thing, or suffer only a little for a major thing? Both paths are intriguing...you just have to figure out which path you're on.

dinky_dau
11-07-2016, 10:22 PM
I focus on the emotional crisis I want the protagonist to face in Act III, and then I either work backward (or forward) building up plot-points and character-relationships to put them in that fix. Along the way, one has to close off all the loopholes which might allow the hero to wriggle free.

I 'shoehorn into place' everything that is needed [emotionally] to make the crisis watertight. Fiction doesn't have to be true-to-life, fiction is a form of heightened reality.

To sustain that intensity, one must usually re-discover the "abstract middle-ground" of storytelling; where real-world rules are not fractured and where the fantastic still remains semi-plausible. A story ought not either "kowtow to mundane realism", nor "wander off into hysterical melodrama".

Measure everything by the end goal: there's no need to set a tale on a complex nuclear submarine when a dinghy will serve just as well.

Of course, if you have a story which is about mermaids in the first place, you then have a story with "all its own rules"; nevertheless the emotional payoff is still the end-goal. Just means you have a lot more work to do.

If you find yourself 'over-inventing' a plot element, that's risky; as is 'over-realizing' other elements. Bend whatever needs bending to deliver psychologically real emotion as the final product, because in the end, that is all that matters to the reader.

dinky_dau
11-07-2016, 10:31 PM
p.s. Also, I like simple, structural proportions in a story. In this case since someone was 'left for dead' as the opening hook...the obvious emotional parallel (at the end of such a yarn) would be that she suddenly and dramatically returns to confront the individual who abandoned her. So right there I would have a 'bare-bones' beginning and ending to the tale.