A House of Cards

I’ve been working on a revision that is doing my head in and I decided I needed to approach it from a different angle. I started to think about what really happens in a novel’s climax and what I came up with was this: it’s like the main character’s house of cards has fallen. Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong.  There is no visible light at the end of the tunnel. For example:

It’s the day of the big meeting–the one Jane has prepared for for months. The one that could mean a major promotion to X. Unfortunately, Jane sleeps through her alarm so she has to skip her shower. Her cat has puked on the outfit she prepared so she dresses in the only other clean outfit she can find. She rushes to her car, spilling coffee all over herself. She tries to start the car but it’s out of gas. She goes to the bus instead. The one that will get her to work 10 minutes before the meeting whizzes past, covering her in mud. The one that will get her there on time comes. By some miracle, it stops. When she gets on, she sees her ex-boyfriend sitting next to the only empty seat. He’s with his new girlfriend. And they’re engaged. Which sucks. It sucks even more when the bus breaks down and she has to sit with them for 20 minutes, listening to their plans for flowers at the wedding.

The first point of this lame excuse of an example is to show how everything goes wrong for the main character all at once. The second is to show you how I used this house of cards method to plot backwards. To do this, you first need to create a “worst day in their life” kind of scenario for your main character (such as the above). Once you have done this, you take each crumbling card (thing that goes wrong) and find a way to plant it before the midpoint of your novel. Using the example above, that would mean establishing things like:

  1. Jane is a heavy sleeper. If it weren’t for her blaring alarm, she’d sleep until noon.
  2. Jane’s cat has a habit of eating people food and then puking it up later.
  3. Jane cannot function without a cup of coffee in the morning.
  4. Jane hates her job but she’d love it if she could get promotion X.
  5. Jane’s boss is very anal when it comes to watching her employee’s hours. She makes it clear to Jane that she can be replaced by someone who isn’t always late.
  6. Jane is bad with money. If she doesn’t get a promotion, she will have to ask her parents for a loan.
  7. Jane rarely does laundry.
  8. Jane hates putting gas in her car.
  9. Jane’s ex-boyfriend dumped her after 2 yrs because he didn’t want to settle down.
  10. Jane hates flowers.

This might sound a little crazy (planning a novel backwards?) but I have to say, I tried it last night and it was the most helpful thing ever!

And now, as an added bonus for the day: you can use this same method to create a first chapter. Just write out the inciting incident you want, identify the cards that fall (or, in the case of the inciting incident, the cards that shake a little), and voila! You’ll have a list of the things that go into your opening chapter.

Category: On Writing