Using Backward Design to Plan Your Story

Weaving a powerful tale is not easy. Whether you pants or plot, ending up with a cohesive tale means understanding the key moments in a story. Today’s post by Angelica Hartgers offers up a great technique to use if plotting is something you struggle with, so read on!

“Begin with the end in mind.” -Stephen Covey

Whether it’s planning a goal, an entire curriculum unit, or a book, backward design is an effective concept that can be applied to any strategic planning process – storytelling included.

Think about it: As writers, we often start mapping out our stories by focusing on the beginning, then working our way through the murky middle, until we reach, with relief, the inevitable end.

But, what if you were to plan your story backward, and reverse engineer your entire plot?

If you’re struggling with writer’s block or discovering that your story’s events don’t seamlessly lead your reader to a resolution, try reverse engineering your story with backward design.

What is Backward Design?

Backward design, also known as backward planning or mapping, is a popular strategy used by educators to design learning experiences that lead students to end-of-year success. Teachers use this strategy to plan their curriculum unit or lesson plan with the end-goal in mind, rather than construct it around the everyday classroom process. 

How Can You Apply Backward Design to Storytelling?

By starting with your story’s end in mind, you can navigate your way through the major plot points that led up to that end. You can take your reader through a well-constructed, thoroughly mapped out experience.

You can apply the backward design strategy on a macro and micro level. On a macro level, you can use it to plan the main events in your plot. On a micro level, you can apply it to strengthen your characters’ development, so that they achieve the desired persona.

Let’s take a look at how we can apply this strategy to our storytelling! 

Step 1: Establish the End-Goal

Just as a teacher might begin with laying the foundation, you must begin with a setting and some basic characters for your piece.

Once this is established, you can dive into the big question: How do you want your story to end?

The answer to this question can vary depending on your writing goals. Do you intend to write a series of books, a single novel, or a short story? Either way, thinking about how your story will end is the foundational question you must answer.

Identifying your end-goal first is a beautifully simplistic thing that opens up a plethora of opportunity for your characters and plot.

As an example, let’s examine J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The end goal of Tolkien’s series is that Frodo destroys the one ring, crumbling the dark forces of Sauron. Due to the establishment of this ending, Tolkien’s characters’ actions, and the course of his plot is dedicated to attaining this resolution. Without the inception of this ending, the beloved characters of The Lord of the Rings would find themselves wandering Middle Earth for three novels until their author deemed it a good time for the story to end.

To avoid disappointing your reader with plot holes, start by establishing your story’s end goal and guiding your entire plot and characters towards it.

Step 2: Determine Your Principle Plot Points & Create an Index

Once you’ve established your end-goal, you get to delve into the meat of your story, constructing the path your plot must take in order to reach the desired resolution.

With your ending scrawled out before you, you can now create an index of what titular events must take place in order for your ending to be achieved.

Using The Lord of the Rings as an example again, Frodo must have the ring in order to destroy it, he must find a way to get to the only place where the ring can be destroyed, his enemy must be distracted upon his final approach, etc.

Creating an index of these important events allows you to space out your story, and precisely build an outline for your plot to follow.

Step 3: Construct the Filler

Your story now has a roadmap. You know where you are, where you’re going, and what your primary stops are along the way. All that’s left is to make the journey.

From this point you get to connect all of your principal events in whatever way best suits your characters. It is within this step that you can use backward design on the micro level to plan your characters.

Using Backward Design to Plan Character Dynamics

A complex character development is just as beneficial as a good plot, and backward design provides an effective strategy to constructing this development throughout your piece.

To formulate your characters using backward design, simply follow the same format we used for mapping out the plot.

Establish where you want your character’s development to end, then plan out the events that will shape their personality to get them there. 

Step 4: Tie in Character Construction

At this point, you have planned out the arc of your plot, starting with its end, and have discovered who your characters will be upon reaching your tale’s resolution.

Now, you can simply tie the two together, recognizing what events in your plot line will cause for the necessary changes in character. By the time you are finished, you have a beginning-to-end story with no loose ends, formulated so that every event that unfolds supports the conclusion. 

Try Using Backward Design to Plan Your Story!

While this strategy of plot-planning may not be for everyone, it is a surefire way to turn an idea into a viable story, and to avoid writing a plot that doesn’t support your ending.

While this article focuses on applying backward design to fiction writing, you can even apply this strategy if you’re writing a nonfiction book. Instead of outlining a plot, you’ll outline each topic that will guide your book’s main point.

What do you have to lose? Try it – it just might be the strategy you’ve been looking for. 

Angelica Hartgers is the Content Creation Specialist at SelfPublishing.com. With a background in writing and education, she is passionate about empowering other writers to improve their craft and promoting the power of the written word. When she’s not creating content that helps writers tell better stories and publish their books, she’s reading, writing, and traveling the world. Read more on our blog

Have you ever written a novel by starting at the end? Let us know in the comments how it worked out for you and if you’d try it again!

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Backstory, Character Arc, Characters, Endings, Experiments, Guest Post, One Stop For Writers, Plotting, Setting, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Resources. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Using Backward Design to Plan Your Story

  1. Beginning with the end in mind seems to have all kinds of applications for life in general (thanks, Mr. Covey!), and I really enjoyed this example of how to use it in plot construction. I’m noodling on ideas for my next novel and yes, in many ways, I know more about the last 20% than the first 20%. Thanks for the structure offered here.

    • That’s exactly how I feel about it, Pauline! Once you apply a backwards strategy to one thing, it seems to generate ideas for other applications. Starting with the end in mind is usually what I default to, especially when I have a hard time working through something. I’m glad you enjoyed this piece. Good luck with the ideas for your next novel! 🙂

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  3. Tim Seabrook says:

    I haven’t yet tried this but with prequel ideas coming out of my ears, this process will work well for plotting out the events that preceded the current WiP.

    I have a general idea of what happens and this process should be great for character development as it’s all new set of people.

  4. Sam Steidel says:

    As a Pantser this will not work for me, but, I do my first revision from the aft end forward. Great means to see the flow and direction of the arcs as they come into the ending.

  5. Jan Sikes says:

    This is GREAT information! The famous writer, John Irving, says he writes the last line of the book before he even begins. I have never tried this approach, but it intrigues me.

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  7. Writing backward is a good way to avoid writer’s block but it also makes writing the beginning a bit harder.
    Great post, Angelica.

    • Yes, I can agree with that, Ingmar! Once you have the end in mind, it can be difficult to scale back in and start fresh with the beginning. I think it’s also important to remember to capture all the beginning details, especially when we’re so focused on the end. Good thoughts! 🙂

  8. I like the idea of reverse engineering both the plot and character development. I think that how the two weave together is an area that confuses a lot of people, and yet it is really so necessary for a strong novel that inner and outer progression work together, supporting each other. Thanks, Angelica!

    • Reverse engineering the character development is the less common way of applying this strategy, but I agree with you in that it’s very necessary to make everything come full circle! Thanks for giving me the opportunity to contribute, Angela.

  9. Frank Franco says:

    Hello
    I am currently writing a trilogy “The Prophets and The Executioner. Book one “The Awakening” Page Publishing, was released in early 2019, book two, “The Darkness” is currently being edited and I’ve just begun to write book three. I am writing backwards so to speak, the ending of the story was developed first and now I’m working my way towards it. However, it did not begin that way, when I began writing, the story somehow changed and took on a life of its own so when that happened, I was forced to figure out where it was going. So I created a story boarded of the ending which helped me further develope the plot. Having experienced the benefits of creating the ending first, I would not write any other way.

    • Wow! I find it very interesting that you inadvertently used backward design for your trilogy, and that it’s now part of your go-to writing strategy. I’ve thought about writing a series, and I think backwards design is the way I’ll approach it during the planning phase so I avoid coming up with it as I go. Thanks for sharing your experience, Frank!

  10. It’s always helpful to hear another method for structuring our stories. And any that can be illustrated with LoTR is one I can get behind ;). Thanks for being here, Angelica.

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