On Reverse Engineering for Writers


My day has both sucked and blown … as a result, I have had such dreadful potty-mouth that the Parliament of Scotland called to advise me that I’ve been declared an outpost of Billy Connolly … so I will make myself feel better by thinking about writing.

And the thing I’ve been thinking about is the tool of reverse engineering. I’ve gone back over the notes I took from the superb Alison Goodman[i] (she of Two Pearls of Wisdom http://www.alisongoodman.com.au/ and an exquisite Meerkat impersonation). When I say ‘took’, I don’t mean I beat her up and threatened her with bad grammar – I mean she talked, I listened politely and took notes in the manner of a scribe. Of course, now that I try to read my handwriting (which bears a striking resemblance to hieroglyphs written by drunk chickens) I think perhaps I would have been better off beating Alison up and taking her notes.[ii]

Where was I? Ah, yes. Reverse engineering.

Now the thing about this technique is that you start at the end – hence, the reverse part. It’s about examining where your story’s finished up and then working backwards to check the causal links that are holding the narrative together. Confused? So I am most of the time; you’ll get used to it[iii].

You can do this at Act level or Scene level – even paragraph level if you’re bored. Let’s say you’ve finished Act One, so now ask yourself ‘What happens at the end? What point have you been making your way towards? What is the final effect of the Act?’ (Alison’s example was ‘Palace explodes’ – which is admirable. I think if you’re working towards something, it should always be about something the size of an exploding palace.)

Once you’ve established that, ask ‘What caused that moment? What led to it?’ And keep working backwards – ‘What caused the moment before that one?’

And so on and so forth.

This is a great way to examine the causal links in your plot, to look at what is propelling your action forward. If you cannot see a causal link or a logical series of causal links leading back from your climax at the end of the Act, then you need to go back and plug the holes.

This is also a useful way to check the emotional beats that lead to a climax – what are the causal effects of the build up. Do they make sense?  Are the choices and actions of your characters reasonable in the circumstances? Another thing to ask yourself is this: is the reader going to care/be emotionally engaged? Will they stick with your story right up to the revelation or will they throw the book aside, snorting “No one does that!”

Reverse engineering can also show up where things are just too easy or too coincidental for your story. You need to make your characters work hard, you need to make them suffer. Convenient fixes for problems are unsatisfying – if every obstacle can be fixed by the application of magic which is easily available to everyone ( the old ‘if everyone’s special then no one’s special’ rule[iv]) then why bother? Readers want to see conflict, they want to see suffering before triumph – that’s what makes the character’s – and the reader’s – journey worth something.

This technique looks not at the big picture but at the fine details (the Devil being in them) and this is a way of finding where the cracks are in the walls of your novel house (or indeed your short story apartment). I applied it to a short story recently and worked out where things were going wrong – I hadn’t documented the emotional journey of a secondary character and her development was essential to understanding that of the main character. Looking backwards at the causal links meant I was able to see where I’d been and where I’d missed steps.

[i] Any mistakes of fact in this are mine, not AG’s.

[ii] A lesson for next time.

[iii] See? Still got the crankies. Gonna take a really big choclit patch to cure this.

[iv] See previous post on On The Limits of Magic http://angelaslatter.com/2009/07/23/on-the-limits-of-magic-or-if-everyone%E2%80%99s-special-then-no-one%E2%80%99s-special/.

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