Sunday, 4 August 2013

Writing in reverse

For the last few months I’ve been writing chapters for my next book in reverse order. I write a chapter, then I write the preceding chapter, then the chapter before that, etc. What was originally chapter one is now chapter seven. Why am I doing this? Because it is a good way to increase tension in the writing and jeopardy for the characters. It keeps the writing vivid.

Before I explain the technique I should say why I started doing it. It is not always easy to write tension and produce thrillers that are satisfying page-turners. One way is to plot everything out carefully, along with all the intrigues and twists and turns, and then roll up your sleeves and get writing. But I personally hate writing to a formula (it’s hard to stay fresh and keep the prose ‘lively’), and often by the time I’ve reached certain chapters, I find my characters want to do something else (they are pretty undisciplined, I have to say).

In my first three books I found myself often getting to a point and deciding I needed an earlier, new chapter, to ‘up the ante’, to increase jeopardy and conflict and all those things that make writing exciting to read. An easy solution was a flashback, but more than a few of those and the book loses cohesion and momentum for the reader. With flashbacks it reads inevitably as ‘look, this is something I forgot to tell you earlier but you need to know right now.”

So, for my fourth book I decided to do something different. This is how it works (what follows is a simplified synopsis-like example). I wrote the first chapter. In it, two men, let’s call them Tom and Harry, are trying to rescue sixty people, including Lara, Tom's wife. The sixty are being held captive by Nastia, who has already killed a lot of innocent people. Tom and Harry get close to finding the captives when Harry is captured. Tom is also about to be unmasked and captured, when he sees an opportunity to kill Nastia. At the end of the chapter he walks towards her, a concealed weapon in his hand.

Okay, it’s an action book (scifi in fact, but don’t let that make you switch off just yet!), and the chapter has plenty of intrinsic tension (you’ll have to trust me on that). However, maybe there needs to be more depth to the characterisation, delving into just how important it is for these two men to rescue the captives? Otherwise they can be seen as just being ‘good guys’, but then they will appear two-dimensional.

Then I write the next chapter, call it Ch.minus1. In this chapter Tom and Harry are preparing to go to the planet (stay with me please) where the sixty including Lara are being held by Nastia. This is a more static chapter, but we find out that Tom is really on the edge due to prior events. But we also find out there is something between Harry and Lara that Tom doesn’t know about.

So, now it’s a little more interesting. We still don’t know what Tom will actually do. Will he kill Nastia?

Now we ‘up the ante’. In Ch.minus2, we meet Lara, who is being interrogated by Nastia. Lara is herself conflicted about Tom and Harry. But more importantly, Nastia informs Lara that all the captives have been implanted with a electro-chemical device which can kill them unless a signal is received every fifteen minutes. If there is an escape attempt, they will stop the signal. And if Nastia herself is killed, the signal will stop transmitting…

So, chapter minus2 becomes chapter 1, chapter minus1 becomes chapter 2, and chapter 1 becomes chapter 3. And if you’ve stuck with it until chapter 3 where Tom is about to kill Nastia, you’ll sure as hell want to read chapter four to find out what happens.

This process is like ‘reverse engineering’ the plot, going backwards from a pivotal moment to ensure the characters are grounded and their motivations are clear and compelling, and the jeopardy has been raised really high. Moreover, the reader is ‘omnipotent’ in the sense that only she sees what’s going to happen, as none of the characters do.

As a writer it is quite a challenge to write this way. I’m not going to do the whole book like this, but it has certainly got the creative juices flowing, and I believe some of the tension I feel when writing it (because Tom, Harry and Lara have to somehow get out of this, and that’s down to me as much as them) translates onto the printed page.

I should add that I write multiple characters and points of view (POVs; one per chapter) – and reverse writing fits well with that style. I also write multiple alternating plot strands, what I call ‘tourniquet-plotting’, which coalesce into a finale. So for example, interspersed between the three chapters above are three other chapters from a different plot strand, though all the characters will come together at the end. This also adds to the tension since for example, the reader would have to wait a full chapter after chapter 3 above to find out what Tom is actually going to do.

The main advantage of this process is that the gradual increase in tension will seem to the reader genuine rather than contrived or due to writers’ tricks, and certainly will never be seen as ‘deus ex machina’ or plot twists for the sake of it. Also, because each chapter is happening ‘on the surface’, there is little need for backfill, info-dumping or flashbacks, so the reader stays in the moment. The end product should be tense, vivid, and hard to put down.

If you’re a writer of thrillers, try it sometime, because if nothing else, as a writer, this is fun to do.

The Eden Paradox Series: The Eden Paradox, Eden's Trial and Eden's Revenge, all available from Amazon. The finale, Eden's Endgame, is due Spring 2014.

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