Reverse engineering your book: a guide to ensure you’re writing the book you want to be writing
Things I hate: reverse engineering! (Not as a concept, just as a subject, in the same way I hate maths because I’m terrible at it but really see the importance of it in, you know, everything)
But even though I would struggle to reverse engineer anything in real life, I’m an English teacher and constantly taking apart writing is quite literally my day job.
At its core, the concept of “reverse engineering your book” is super simple. It means, before you even start writing your book, you ask yourself the question, “what do I want this book to be, and how will I achieve that?”
All the way through both planning and writing you need to ask yourself what you want your audience to be feeling and how you’re going to make sure that happens. It’s like writing an essay of your own story. You remember in school you were probably taught something like, “point, evidence, explain?” You’re doing the same thing here.
If you want readers to visibly see and feel your characters falling in love, you have to write moments where they can see and feel it. It’s not a short process. You can’t have just one short scene and end it with, “Bonnie and Sophie were now in love.” It’s not enough to make anyone feel it and relies on telling over show. To make it believable, you’ve got to slow your narrative right down and show scenes of your characters connecting. Try watching some romance films or reading some more romance books if you’re unsure how to do this. Look at what those examples are doing, and try to capture the essence of that in your writing.
Take a look at the example below. It is taken from our lovebirds’ first meeting. I wanted this scene to show an ease between the two of them, as well as a bit of romantic tension.
I am of course not suggesting that you annotate everything you write to this degree—I definitely don’t! But you should be able to offer this analysis of a scene you’ve written if you want the reader to connect to your characters in the way you envisioned.
That’s romance, but what can you do if you want a fast-paced action scene that has readers on the end of their seats? Brush up on your verbs, limit your adverbs, look at your sentence construction—you’re going to want a mix of short, simple sentences like visual punches, and longer, complex ones that give it a racing, “breathy” feel to it.
In this really short example above, you’ll see the effort that has gone into ensuring that there's no wasted words, that everything serves a purpose, and how it's quick and punchy and propels the action forward. By actively thinking about what each word is doing, I'm creating a stronger piece of writing—or so I hope.
You don’t need to know absolutely everything about your book, and you don’t need to question every line you write, but you do need to know what you want your audience to feel and how you’re going to try and achieve this otherwise there’s a chance that they won’t feel it all.
Does using this mean that absolutely everyone is going to love your book? No, of course not, but it will mean you write a better book that appeals to more people in general.
I have seen writers say, “I just love these characters so much and I don’t understand why everyone else doesn’t!” ask yourself, (and this not intended to sound mean) “why should they love them?” is this character super-sweet? Great! Where is that shown? “Are they a seemingly-cold character with a heart of gold? SHOW THEM STROKING THE CAT.
Ultimately, this all boils down to one piece of advice: you have got to give your audience reasons to feel things. Don’t be afraid to go back into your work and find out exactly what these reasons are.