Building a Story Backwards – Technique First Writing

Most stories begin with what Marie Robinette Kowal calls the “Gee Whiz” factor, wherein an author has a cool idea that must be honed into a functioning story. This process is common, because most writers begin with an idea they want to share.

But what if you don’t have a cool idea? What if there’s no preconceived story or character fueling the desire to write? Can you still come up with a great story without one?

These are the questions I’ve been asking of late, because I find myself dry of any engaging ideas. How does one tell a story without having a story to tell?

The thing is, I know what makes a good story (for the most part). You need to have compelling characters, conflict, and so on. Plus, if Orson Scott Card is to be believed, I already have ideas worth writing about, I just don’t know what they are yet. So, I’m going to try writing a story in a different way, by taking note of the elements I want my story to contain, and then building the details around them.

For example, let’s start with the ending. An ending should do one of two things.

A) Resolve the main conflicts of the story.
B) Open up a can of worms which will ultimately lead to the beginning of another, much grander story.

For my purposes, I like the sound of B. In this option, we end with a bang, but the outcome more-or-less opens the gates of hell rather than closing them.

An example of this would be the ending to “Game of Thrones.” In this example, we lose a main character and a king, throwing the world into chaos for all who remain, as well as the reader.

I like this idea, so that’s the direction I want to go. I still have no clue what the ending is or what it will mean to my characters (since there aren’t any), so I’ll have to keep digging.

In order to open the gates and unleash hell on my world, I’ll need something big to occur, something with dire consequences and a lot at stake. There are many things I can do, but because I want this to be a character-driven story, I like the idea of this “unleashing” to be the result of my main character’s actions.

Yes, there will be a villain, and, yes, this villain will play a key role in the outcome, but it’s the conflict in my character that brings out this dramatic turn of events. Why? Because that’s the kind of story I want to tell.

You can begin to see how my own inclinations are already starting to form a story (albeit a vague one).

So what is this conflict? What decision will my characters have to make? And what, exactly, are the consequences?

Hmm… Okay, do you remember that scene in “The Dark Knight” where Batman has to choose between saving Harvey Dent and saving the girl he loves? I remember watching it and being completely enthralled in his predicament. It’s so powerful to me because it manages to wrap up an entire lifetime of conflict in one simple, terrifying scene. Does Bruce Wayne put his own desires first and save the girl he loves? Or does he do the Batman thing and give up what matters most to do what’s best for Gotham?

His decision, which would have been powerful either way, to save Rachel works to show just how deeply he cares for her. But what happens next? Well, it’s a character-driven story, and bad guys are characters too, right? So naturally, the Joker has a trick up his sleeve. He’s given Batman the ole switcheroo and mixed up the addresses. Bruce finds Harvey Dent, Rachel dies, and the Joker is now one of my most favorite villains of all time.

I could do this. It certainly worked for me, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing in all these years it’s that stealing good ideas is just part of the job.

Still, I’ll want to make it my own, and to do that I’ll need to look within and find the conflict that speaks to me. As a dad with two kids and a wife, a full-time job, a part-job, and a half-finished degree I’m working on, I’m always toeing that line between being a great dad and being that deadbeat who doesn’t have enough time for his family. This is a conflict I constantly struggle with, and one I’m sure many of you can relate to, whether your the dad, the wife who gets put on the back-burner, or the kids anxiously awaiting their pops to fill his seat at the dress recital.

So my MC will have a family, and that’s going to be a big source of conflict. My villain, whoever it may be, will use this to his gain.

Okay, I’m starting to get an idea. My MC is some sort of hero (duh). He’s vital, or else his decisions wouldn’t warrant the kind of outcome I’m hoping for. Let’s go the Batman route and give him an ultimatum. Save your family, or save the city.

Can you imagine? Our villain must be terrible.

So what choice does he make? Well, sorry folks, but if this were me I’d have to save my family. (It’s us against the world, after all.) But if we’re going the Batman route, and if our villain really is the monster I want him to be, then there has to be a twist.

Okay, whip out the flashlights cuz this is about to get dark. Our villain is going to give our hero directions to a “safe” place outside the city where his family is being kept. Only the thing is, they’re not really there. In fact, it’s all part of a bigger, nastier scheme to make our hero seem the cowardly villain!

You see, the villain is going to sack the city… with our hero’s family in it. But he can’t do that with our hero there, so he sends him on a hunt outside the city walls. Worse, when all is said and done, not only will our hero have lost the ones he loves the most, but by the beginning of our next book the entire world will believe he left the city, and his family, out of fear.

Alright, we have something. To be honest, this could be the ending to a book, but I kind of like it being the backstory instead. In this way, the readers meet our character at his lowest of lows. He’s a failed hero, a so-called coward, and he’s lost the one thing he loves the most.

Now we get to watch as this renegade with nothing to lose builds himself back up. It’s not a perfect story, but it’s an idea I’m willing to work with.

The Hard Truth About Creating Great Characters

We live in an imperfect world. It is this imperfection that defines our existence. Everything we do as people, every decision we make, every book that we read, every new car that we buy, is a result of this imperfection. We are filling the holes in ourselves, one decision, one distraction, and one purchase at a time.

It’s this imperfection that leads to art, adaptation, and innovation in our world, for in a perfect world, where all are happy and whole, there is no need to change.

Likewise, it is this desire to be complete that leads to conflict and chaos. In a world shared by billions, with limited land, resources, wealth, and food, it only makes sense that one must go against another to achieve what makes him or her feel whole. Most of us do this indirectly, unaware of the consequences. You got that job? Great! But what about those who didn’t? The single mother of four, the college student forever indebted to her university, the sixty-something-year-old man who never could get it together. Disturbing, no?

Others take a more proactive stance. These are the warmongers, the cheats and scoundrels, tyrants, pirates, and… the list goes on. Those who knowingly put themselves before others in a bold attempt to gain the things we all desire.

So here we are, a people warring with one another, fighting for jobs, for prosperity, for companionship, and so much more.

I’m reminded of this fact when thinking of what makes a story. Because in every great story, you’ll find a cast of characters at odds with one another, each with their own motivations and desires, fighting tooth and nail to achieve the impossible. Like us, they want to fill the void.

It’s why almost every Disney movie begins with a beloved character dying. Death has a way of digging its claws into those left behind and excavating their cores, tearing past the flesh and into the sweet, gummy center of our heroes and villains. What’s left is a gaping hole, a void to be filled.

But Death isn’t the only creature lurking in our midst. There are, sadly, an innumerable amount of ways in which one may find himself a desolate wasteland beneath his skin.

And as our characters strive to fill those holes, here we are. Authors, creators, gods. We have at our fingertips the claws that will do that excavating. The click-clack of our fingers upon the keyboard gives sound to the surgical incisions we make into our characters’ souls as we scheme against, betray, and deceive them.

And yet, many of us struggle to fulfill that role. We make characters who are bland and lifeless, we play out the same tired tropes again and again, as if we don’t really know what being a person is like.

The point I’m trying to make here is this: We *are* our characters. We know what it means to yearn, to hurt, to fear. We know what it takes to break someone down or build them back up. We have around us *billions* of real world human examples. Seriously, look to your left. Is there a person there? No? Okay, then look to your other left. Still alone? Grr…

Okay, fine. Forget all that. Here’s what I want you to do. Take a moment, and look within. Grab a flashlight ’cause were going in deep. Take inventory. What’s there? Find the empty spaces. Poke around. If it hurts, take note. These are the things that make us human. These are the things that move us forward and force us to change. The things, which you do not have, or you DO have and wish you didn’t, these are the things your characters need. Use them.

Are You Creatively Constipated? Because Here’s the Remedy.

I sometimes wonder if 100 years from now the last remaining shreds of humanity will look back at us with our cute fitness watches and snarky but mostly useless AIs (i.e., Siri, AKA the Furby for adults) and curse us for our greedy, untamable obsession with the machines that will one day become our masters (AKA Slaughterbots, AKA the Children of Siri).

Okay, so maybe technology won’t lead to the demise of our species (or it might!), but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a hindrence in our lives. Especially for those of us who are more creatively inclined.

Consider this, ye fellow artists. When are you most creative? While streaming The Walking Dead from Plex on your PC to the Roku 3 connected to your 64″ 3D LED HDTV?

Probably not.

How about in the john, while scrolling through Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Tinder/4Chan/LinkedIn (why?)/reddit?

Again, probably not.

If you’re like me, you’re probably at your creative peak when driving (unless you’re a “multitasker”/invincible teenager who can text and drive because you’re smarter and have better reaction time than everyone else) or in the tub. In the car you have music, scenery, and a pair of hands and eyes that are devoted to keeping your ass from driving through a tree. In the bath, you have the soothing sounds of running water and a virtual safe-zone from electronics because water and electricity just don’t mix well.

I know I’m not the only one who comes up with my best ideas in the tub. Hell, the word “Eureka!”, attributed to the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes, came from the tub when he discovered volume displacement.

And reddit, one of my all-time favorite ways to waste my life away on the internet, even has a whole subreddit for posting Shower Thoughts.

Case in point: The person who would proof read Hitler’s speeches was a grammar Nazi.

So, what am I getting at here? Dump technology? Go without phones and computers for the rest of our lives? Am I out of my mind?!

No. The point is… be bored.

And don’t just be bored, make time for boredom. Seriously, are you struggling with creativity? Having trouble pushing out fresh ideas? Tired of sitting on the toilet for hours complaining to your Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Tinder/4Chan/LinkedIn (seriously, why?)/reddit friends about how creatively constipated you are?

Then be bored. And just in case you doubt me, know this: The idea for this post came to me — like a fairy in the night — whilst I was in the bathroom… because I forgot my phone.

Boredom, folks. It helps you make things.

Rulers of the Realm with George R. R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Diana Gabaldon, Joe Abercrombie, and Lev Grossman

Hi, folks!

I wanted to take a short break from my Calculus induced, sleep-deprived hiatus to share an AMAZING video with you from this year’s San Diego Comic Con.

In this video, panelists Joe Abercrombie, Lev Grossman, Diana Gabaldon, George R. R. Martin, and Patrick Rothfuss discuss epic fantasy, world-building, maps, and other literary goodness.

I found this video to be enlightening, hilarious, and inspiring. PLEASE do yourselves a favor and check it out.

Why Writing is like the Pit from The Dark Knight Rises


“There’s a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth… Hope. Every man who has rotted here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy… So simple… And like shipwrecked men turning to sea water from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope.”


You know the Pit, right? It’s the prison where Batman is taken after being defeated by Bane in the Dark Knight Rises.

Bane’s quote regarding the Pit resonates with me on many levels. That notion of hope leading to despair is a troubling one, and its something I’ve been struggling with for a long time as a budding artist.

You see, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. It wasn’t until I turned eighteen that I began taking it seriously, allowing it to consume the majority of my conscious mind, reading book after book on how to craft sentences and how to write the first five pages of a manuscript. How to build characters and worlds, paragraphs and scenes. When I’m not writing, chances are I’m thinking about it, talking about it, or, more often than not, fantasizing about it.

I remember when I first started, how simple it all seemed. I had ideas, I had pens and paper, I had time. And so my journey began. A long and cumbersome journey. Fast-forward eight years and I’m still here, clinging to this hope that some day I might make a career out of this.

Only things are different now.

The thing is, I’ve failed practically every attempt I’ve made so far. Eight years into this gig and I’ve barely made a chink in the wall. No published works, no prospects, no promising stories. I’ve made progress, sure. I’m certainly more humble than I was before. I can handle criticism, to an extent, and I do write with somewhat improved ability. But for the life of me I can’t help but feel that nag of despair, that inner-voice telling me that this is it. That no matter how hard I try, I am doomed to spend the rest of my life dreaming about some day becoming a published writer.

And this is where the Pit comes in.

The Pit is a prison. A big-ass hole in the ground with a large well rising up from it. What makes it so disparaging is that any man is free to leave, so long as they have what it takes to scale the walls of that well and climb out.

But who has what it takes? Everyone? Me? How do I know?

Now, some might say that a true writer doesn’t need to be published. If you love writing, and you do it, then you have succeeded. I love that idea, and I don’t mean to discourage anyone who lives by it. But the thing I love about writing isn’t the act itself. It’s what it can do. It’s the sharing of ideas, the impact it has on other people’s lives. Stories shape the world, they become a part of the people who read them. That is my ambition. Not to be rich or known, but to share my thoughts and ideas with others. To bring joy or hope or enlightenment to my readers. And for that to happen, I must have readers with which to share. And before THAT, I have to have stories and ideas worth sharing.

Others might say, “Hey, maybe writing just isn’t your thing. Maybe its time to try something else. Like, oh I don’t know, something you’re good at.”

But that’s the problem. THIS is what I want. Not because I want to want it, but because I simply DO.

Sure, there’s a part of me that yearns to turn away from it all. To call it quits and find something else to strive for. Ah, but there’s that glimmer of light just above. That open sky where all of our dreams come true. Not too far, no, but just out of reach.

Besides, how can I quit aspiring to the one thing I wish to be?

The fact is, I can’t. Like those in the Pit, I’m here and there’s no way out but up. And like so many before me, I can spend my life staring up at that sky and wondering if I have what it takes, or I can grit my teeth and work toward being the thing I wish to be.

Here’s the deal. It’s doable. People do get out. But no one gets out by whining about it, or sitting on their asses daydreaming about what goes on outside. No, the ones who get out are the ones willing to push themselves to the limit. To get up every day, do some damn push-ups, and make themselves better, stronger writers.

Because there’s no other option. At the end of the day, I AM a writer. Do I have what it takes to climb out of the Pit? Maybe not. Do I have what it takes to try?