Monday, June 1, 2015

Forwards or Backwards?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: The other day a writer friend who was struggling with a plot asked me if I played chess or was good at strategy games, and if so, did it help with plotting?

My answer was a horrified "No!" NO to both questions! My dad tried to teach me to play chess but instead of learning strategy I made up stories about knights and rooks and bishops. My dad could always beat me at gin rummy because I'd forget what cards he was holding. Same with the bidding domino game 42, which my family played passionately. I loved listening to the click of the dominoes and making patterns with the dots, but...  Hmm, it's becoming obvious I'm not a gifted forward thinker.

So how do I plot a complicated mystery? I explained to my friend that I figure out where I think the various parts of the story should end, and then I work backwards, figuring out what things have to happen to get from the end back to the beginning of the story. Is that weird? I do know other writers who only work forwards, but I've always thought it must be really difficult to stitch the pieces together.

Fellow REDS, how do you do it? Do you plot backwards or forwards? And are you good at strategy games?

(I am, by the way, reasonable good at crosswords and Scrabble, so am not completely game challenged!)

HANK PHILLIPPI  RYAN: So fascinating!  I am:  Forward, forward, forward. Absolutely.  Otherwise there's no "this, because of this" to it. And things happen for a reason--because of what happened before. I am a complete cause and effect writer.  I am so impressed, Debs, that you do it the other way.

Scrabble? Love it--and was unbeatable. Until I met Jonathan. He KILLED me, because he plans ahead. Which I can never do. (So I refuse to play with him anymore. He's just too intimidatingly good.) Chess? I still tried to do it step by step, which  spells doom.  And cards? Yeesh, you are supposed to remember? Not me. No way.

HALLIE EPHRON: We'll have to match Jonathan up against Jerry one day on opposite sides of the Scrabble board. I refuse to play with him because I'm a lousy loser. I am pretty good at bridge (better than my husband), and you do have to see a way through from start to finish and come up with "what if's" along the way. So it's not unlike plotting a novel except that SOMEONE DEALS YOU THE CARDS. Oh, how I wish someone would deal me some cards for a novel and then I'd just have to see my way through from start to finish. The ending is always the same in bridge. Someone wins. Someone loses. And you always run out of cards.

 LUCY BURDETTE: Funny Hallie! I'm a decent bridge player too, except for remembering the cards and planning the play out. Okay, I should amend--I'm good at bidding:). I also love Boggle.

With writing, my editor has sort of adjusted to the fact that I don't seem to know what will happen in a book until it happens. At some point in the writing though, I do skip ahead and write a chapter or two close to the end. That gives me something to shoot for the rest of the book. So it's forward, forward, forward, skip ahead, back, back, forward. No wonder I'm feeling dizzy...

DEBS: Hallie, you have just given us the REDS official motto! So it's not unlike plotting a novel except that SOMEONE DEALS YOU THE CARDS. We all want someone to deal us the cards... But in the meantime, we'll have to muddle along by whatever method works best for us. 

But does the backwards or forwards mindset apply to reading as well as plotting? READERS, do you try to stay a step ahead of the writer and guess who done it?  Or do you just go along with the story, then think back over how it was put together when you get to the end? (Assuming, of course, that you were surprised... We'd like to think you were.)

You can probably guess that I fall into the second category, although if the mechanics of the plot hit me over the head in the first couple of chapters, I will probably give up on the book. What about you??

P.S. Lucy, what's Boggle?

P.S.S. Don't you love the red knight in the chess photo? How appropriate. 

P.S.S.S. And one last note, thinking of that master of the crossword, Colin Dexter. Now there's someone who knows how to put a plot together!


  1. I'm impressed that some of the Reds play bridge. If nothing else, I love the sound of that. Forwards or backwards, march on, one foot in front of the other. I confess that when I am asked to read a book by an author prior to publication, I start with who dun it so I can figure out if the book works. When I read for pleasure, it's start to finish, but I do keep track of my guesses. Good glimpse into the Reds' processes! Thanks.


  2. Oh, how I have often wished I could think forward. sigh.

    Donald is the forward thinker, the chess player and he beats me horribly at Scrabble.
    I get so excited when I have the letters and a place to make a really fun, very long word. Who cares if it only reaps 8 points. Donald will plan and be patient and make a 4 letter word worth 120 points. No fair!

    So, Scrabble is the game we play. And Canasta. We love to play canasta.

    Donald is good at Jumbles, I'm not.

    I am pretty good with a crossword puzzle though.

  3. I remember some Agatha Christie novels that had suspects playing bridge -- their alibis for the time of the murder. Anyone know which book that was?

    I bet Dame Agatha played bridge. And Croquet. I love croquet - how come no one plays it any longer? Here's a thought: how is writing a novel like croquet? (Answer: what's croquet?)

  4. Oh. yes, just like croquet. Except you are banging your head against the wall instead of the mallets against the ball. But you have to go through hoops to get to the end, right? (No one plays it because it isa ridiculous combination of boring, dangerous, and destructive. )

    I ALWAYS try to guess, and sometimes i even look at the end to find out, so I can read it along the way, knowing. It's REALLY educational that way!

  5. Hallie, I think we all played croquet in the 50s and then it just went out of fashion. If I'm remembering right, and if I'm not, it still makes a good story, most of those croquet sets were made right here in Wilton, Maine in a factory that has since gone out of business. Making clothes pins and toothpicks didn't keep them afloat, either. As for plotting, since I never know where I'm going to end up, it has to be forward, although as things develop, I often have to go back and add additional scenes. As a reader, I long ago gave up trying to guess who dunnit. I'm never as smart as the sleuth. I don't play cards or other games or do crosswords. I put together jigsaw puzzles.


  6. Hallie, there was a Christie novel around bridge. Poirot and his writer friend. The names and titles are escaping me. More caffeine is needed.

    As a reader, I'm often going along with the story. Eventually, I'll make a guess. Then I go back after the reveal and see how the author strung it along. So I guess kind of like Debs - and yes, if I can see in chapter 2 where it's going, I may drop it unless the writing is really compelling.

    As a writer, I figure out my rough beginning, mid-point, and climax. James Scott Bell calls this "the golden triangle." Then I plot from point to point. The points may change if my thinking mandates a change. I've found this gives me a rough outline, yet the feeling that I'm not married to it (because it's not a "real" outline) so I stay free to react to the surprises that inevitably happen along the way. Weird, but it works for me.

    At least it feels like it does.

  7. We have finally gotten our Internet service restored . . . guess they’re blaming the much-needed rain although the rain certainly wasn’t heavy or very long-lasting . . . . sigh.

    I’m not much of a card player although I do enjoy canasta. Yes to crossword puzzles and jumbles, Scrabble, and all that. I can play chess, but I’m not at all good when it comes to thinking half a dozen moves ahead . . . .

    Although I don’t consciously try to figure out the “who done it” when I read, I usually know before I get to the big reveal. Once in a while, though, I’m surprised by something I truly didn’t see coming.

    Wasn’t “Cards on the Table” the Agatha Christie story with the bridge game and Poirot’s crime writer friend Ariadne Oliver????

  8. Yes, Joan - that's it!

    I forgot to say that I'm terrible at Scrabble, which always confuses my friends. "But you're a writer." It's not about the words, it's about the planning and math. Flummoxes me every time.

    I also suck at chess.

  9. How hilarious isTHIS??? From Publishers Lunch today, in the "Brilliant Idea We Should Have Thought Of" category:

    Times of London Science Editor and all around sore-loser Tom Whipple's HOW TO WIN GAMES AND BEAT PEOPLE, a humorous look at how to crush your family and friends in an array of classic games, via advice from an absurdly overqualified array of experts, including a mathematician's theory on how to approach Connect 4; a champion racecar driver's advice on how to take corners in slot car racing; a mime's trade secrets at winning charades; and a game theorist's recommendations on the right Monopoly properties to buy in order to bankrupt and embarrass your competitors, to Denise Oswald at Dey Street Books, for publication in Fall 2015, by Rae Shirvington at Ebury (NA).

  10. yes sure, Hank, except apparently none of us knows how to win!

    Boggle is such a fun game Debs--it's making words from letters. And I forgot to mention the game I love even more--Bananagrams. The little tiles with letters on them come in a bright yellow cloth banana. You have to make up words from your tiles that all connect. The fun is in strategically dumping the ones you don't think you can use.

    ps I'm getting the silliest captchas now--they are visual instead of numbers. Yesterday I had to select all the birthday cakes. Today, it's food among a lot of wine bottles...

  11. Hank, I love that! I want that book! And you and Hallie, admitted sore losers, must have it. And wouldn't that be interesting from a character standpoint, to see how people win at various things?

  12. I play bridge well. Really really well. I can remember every card that's been played and after a couple of tricks, pretty know where all the cards are in every hand. I used to play chess a lot and work chess puzzles, and I am a crack hand at crosswords, NYT Sunday edition, in ink.

    But I can barely write my name. So much for that theory.

    In reading a book, I often figure out "who dunnit" but I don't try very hard. I am more likely to pay attention to elements of the story, working out their raison d'etre. I presume that if a character shows up, there is a reason. If the color blue turns up here and there, there is a reason. And of course, if there is a gun on the mantel, eventually it will go off. Or fall off

    I have so much admiration for you who can turn a group of seemingly disparate elements into a thumping good read. Thank you, all of you, but especially you Deb.

  13. Yes, brilliant, Debs, to describe someone's character around their emotions around winning. Hmm. I do it with Jane, a bit, she's very competitive. ANd CHarlie. But sore loser is a cool idea…hmmm.

    Yes Lucy, LOVe Bananagrams!

  14. I have a low threshold for frustration in games that require strategy. And, yes, Mary, you are so right about Scrabble being a strategic game as much as it is about words, which explains why my husband can beat me at Scrabble. He's a brilliant strategist at games, and is one of those people who can count cards, know what cards have been played, in card games (he is a whiz at Spades). I usually just want to have fun in card games, but he is most serious about it all. A game that is my husband's family game and became ours is Aggravation. You would think that a marble game would be fun and light, but you would be wrong if you played with my eighty-seven-year-old mother-in-law. She is the ultimate strategist in this family game, and there are some family members who won't play it with her anymore because of her intensity, which was passed along to my husband. The rest of us do enjoy Aggravation, but we just aren't as invested. Of course, my MIL and husband are mathematically minded, too, so that goes along with the strategic thinking. I just don't think ahead in games much, so if I win, most of the time it's dumb luck.

    Lucy, I'm a Boggle and Bananagrams fan, too. They are just plain fun. My daughter and her family play the Bananagrams game a lot. Hank, I am definitely going to buy that book, and I may give it out as a gag gift to family members. Crossword puzzles frustrate me, but I've decided to make a new effort with those. My son and his girlfriend love doing crossword puzzles together.

    Does anyone here remember the old card game Rook. My parents played it, and I have an old deck of theirs. I've often thought of learning to play it, just as a tribute to them. Monopoly was always big growing up and still gets an occasional play.

    Reading. I do not want to know what happens at the end before I get there. I'm very much a forward reader, and I've even been known to cover up a page when I'm getting to breakthrough part, so that I don't glance over at the other page and see it before I've read the entire build-up to it. I do often use sticky tabs to mark places that I want to come back to after I finish reading, to piece together what happened. Since I don't write fiction, I'm not sure how I'd approach writing, but I think I might actually employ your method, Debs, of working backwards. In other writing, I often know where I want to end, and write to reach that point.

  15. Cards on the Table, yes. But there was another Christie (a play, perhaps?) where supposedly the suspects were playing bridge all evening while the crime was committed. But then the detective discovered the Ace of Spades was on the floor, out of sight, so that broke apart the alibi, since they couldn't possibly have been playing with an incomplete deck.

    And then there's Duplicate Death, by Georgette Heyer, one of my favourite mysteries. The murder takes place during a duplicate bridge party.

    I was good at Scrabble until I met Norman (25 years ago) and found he played defensively, something that had never occurred to me.
    Things to remember:
    Never open a triple word play for your opponent, unless you're making a seven letter word
    If there IS a triple word open for use, and you CAN'T use it, make a play that opens up a second one, so your opponent can use only one of them.

    He still beats me more than I beat him, though he denies it.

  16. As a reader, I only go backwards if the book is so bad, I guess the ending right away, then leaf back through to see if there was anything interesting I might not have guessed at. Usually I want to go straight through, and like Kathy Reel, have been known to hide the opposite page so I can't get ahead of myself if the book is so good I want to savor every word. Sometimes I will stop, reread a scene, or go back and reread the development up to a scene, just to enjoy the writing a bit more before I move along.

    When writing, I sometimes have a general idea of where the book is going to go--but more often than not, the writing is the journey, for me. I hope for surprises as I go along, because I lose interest if I try to plot too tightly.

    As for games. No to bridge, no to chess, no to strategy and remembering lots of details. On the other hand, I seem to have an inordinate amount of extraneous details floating about in my brain, because no one, not even random strangers, will play more than 1 or 2 games of Trivia Crack with me. Where this information comes from, I have no idea! But I love to play Scrabble and Boggle and will be looking for Bananagram.

  17. I used to be a good card player (especially cribbage) and a quite decent Scrabble player, but haven't played either in some time.

    This summer. When we're on vacation. Read and play cards and Scrabble. Sounds like a plan.

    I am heartened by Kathy Lynn Emerson's report in the comments that she frequently goes back and adds scenes to the plot comes together. I am coming down the home stretch on Joe Gale #3 and am trying to march forward, forward, forward but have the sneaking suspicion there will be some holes to fill when I get there.