Merriam Webster defines Reverse Engineering as the process of disassembling and examining or analysing in detail (a product or device) to discover the concepts involved in manufacturing in order to produce something similar.
How does this work in story telling? Well one way is to disassemble three key elements of a story that attract agents, publishers and readers, and then reconstruct these elements into your story idea. If you have a story idea, you can hold it up to the test of reverse engineering and see if you have all the elements of a compelling tale.
If you’re still working on your idea, taking a well-known story and ‘reverse engineering’ it helps you to understand key elements of a solid plot.
Three of the key elements that can be found are the hook, the conflict and the stakes. I’ve disassembled the basics of Jane Eyre as an example.
This is an event that sends your main character off on a goal oriented journey from which there is no turning back.
Rejected by her foster family, with no money, love or marriage prospects, morally upright Jane Eyre must take up a governess position at isolated Thornfield House, in the employ of the enigmatic, brooding Mr Rochester and his French ward.
The next thing you need is conflict. What stands in the characters way?
Jane starts to get a glimpse of a life of material comfort and social equality, and soon begins to fall for Mr Rochester. Despite the attention of other more rich and beautiful women, and strange sounds and a presence in his house, Mr Rochester declares his love for Jane and proposes marriage. But their wedding is called off mid ceremony when the presence reveals itself to be Mr Rochester’s insane wife.
The next thing is the stakes. What is at stake if you character fails to take the journey? What is possible if they do?
Rochester’s wife is violent and will attack Jane if she remains. Although Rochester begs, Jane cannot live with herself if she stays with a man who is already married. So homeless, rejected and heartbroken once again, she wanders through the countryside, facing certain death. When she is rescued by a young vicar and offered a teaching job, she tries to forget Rochester, as she did her unkind foster family. But soon Jane must choose, between her heart and her head, between a life of comfort and the magnetic pull of a flawed and deeply troubled man.
Taking a well-known story and ‘reverse engineering’ it helps you to understand key elements of a solid plot. Go back and check how your story holds up against these elements. Reverse engineering helps cement the principles of a hook, conflict and stakes into your consciousness, so that as your story unfolds and the plot moves forward you are able to hook your readers, create enough conflict to hold their attention and drive up the stakes so they cannot put your book down.