Kate Beckett’s Murder Board: Reverse Engineering Your Story

Kate Beckett of CASTLE has a secret weapon. This weapon gives her the power to neatly collar every culprit within a cool forty-five minutes each week. Thanks to this particular tool, she has the highest arrest rate in the precinct. And no, the secret weapon is not Richard Castle’s pretty face, or his crazy theories, or his cappuccino machine.

Pop quiz! After examining the body and talking to Lanie, what is the first thing Beckett does when trying to solve a murder?

If you said “roll her eyes at Castle,” then you’re right about it being the first thing she does but wrong about it having anything to do with solving the murder. If you said “start a type-A version of a serial killer’s creepy collage,” then ding-ding-ding! You win at crime-procedural quizzes! Kate is not Kate without her trusty murder board.

***SEGUE ALERT: What the heck does this have to do with writing? Well, I’m about to tell you…

After finishing the bulk of my most recent novel, I realized that I didn’t have a clue how much time was passing between each scene. This led to all sorts of inconsistencies about setting (Why is it suddenly warm and sunny? How did she get from point A to point B so fast without teleporting?), plot (How did she know X when she doesn’t find out about Y for another three chapters?), character (Would she be talking to him again so soon after he did Z?), and realism (If A happens on a Monday, and B needs to happen on a Friday, how does she realistically avoid the villain until then?).

If you’re a painstaking outliner, then you likely haven’t got these kinds of problems. But if you’re more a pantser, like me, there comes a time in the organic growth of your novel when you need to find and eradicate these inevitable inconsistencies. For me, the easiest seek-and-destroy strategy involves reverse engineering my novel—in other words, filling in a backward timeline.

Let’s go back to Beckett for a second. When she comes on the scene, the murder has already happened. She’s effectively at the end of the story. She needs to figure out everything that happened leading up to the murder to figure out who the murderer is. And what does she always start with? Time of death.

For your novel, time of death is any point in your story that must occur at a certain time. If your villain has to cast a spell on the solstice, then make that point your “time of death” and work backward (and/or forward) from there. If you don’t have any points that must occur at certain times, pick a season you want the story to take place during and adjust your dates/times from there according to the amount of time you want between each plot point.

If there are multiple points that must occur at certain times, then mark them all in your murder board first before filling in the other events. When I did this for my novel, I found several places I needed to cut back on events and other places I needed to fill in to make the required dates work. (FYI, I used notebook paper, but a whiteboard like Kate’s would probably be more efficient and require less scribbling.)

As you fill in all the events that happen in your novel, patterns start popping out. If you’re constructing your story well, there’s a warp and weft of action and reaction, cause and effect, which carries your characters through to their fateful conclusion. If something’s off, you can tell in a glance. It’s like taking a step back and seeing the forest rather than the trees.

Flub-ups to keep an eye out for:

  • Scheduling mishaps—Be true to your world. If your protagonist is in school, remember to account for that. If it’s a Wednesday, she’s probably supposed to be in school instead of chasing bad guys. You can write around that, of course. She can skip school, or if she’s not a skipper, you can mention it’s a school holiday or just skip over a few uneventful days in your narrative to get to the weekend. The point is to be mindful in your writing so that your reader doesn’t have to wonder about it.
  • Dropped subplots—In my experience, subplots are the true heart of the story. They are often more character driven and provide substance to back up the external events of the main plot. But they are also pretty tricky to weave in. It’s easy to introduce them in the beginning and then unconsciously drop them until the end, which can leave the reader with a slap-dash, wow-that’s-awfully-convenient feeling instead of the thoroughly satisfied feeling you’re going for. Seeing the forest will help you tighten up those subplots, weaving them in through the middle better.
  • Extraneous fluff—Many stories struggle with flabby middles. Tightening up the subplots will help add texture to the middle, but if you want your story to fit into that size-6 slinky black dress, take a hard look at your timeline to determine if every scene is doing all the work it can. I personally think every scene should have at least two, if not three, purposes. Each must somehow advance either the main plot or a major subplot. If one of your darling scenes is a side-trip to Disneyland that has nothing to do with your characters saving the imploding world, and you just can’t cut it because it showcases how the characters are reconciling with each other, then find a way to make that trip to Disneyland matter to the main action. Take another scene you care less about that does move the main action forward and combine it somehow with the Disneyland scene.
  • Missed opportunities—Capitalize on your theme by weaving in small moments of character self-realization as well as imagery and/or allusions that illustrate it. Use foreshadowing to add depth to your scenes. The murder-board timeline gives you the perfect perspective for where to fit these extras in without them coming off as heavy-handed.

For Kate, the murder board helps her build the story that tells her who the villain is. For writers, the murder board showcases the story as it currently exists so it can be tweaked and prodded into perfection. In both cases, it provides the sometimes painful and always uncompromising truth. What you do with that truth is up to you.

Your turn! How have you used timelines (reverse or otherwise) to help you structure your story?

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, and her evil overlor--er, cat. TRUST ME, I'M LYING, a YA mystery, will be released by Delacorte in Fall 2014.
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15 Responses to Kate Beckett’s Murder Board: Reverse Engineering Your Story

  1. great post. i’ve used timelines to make sure i’m keeping track of my subplots and hitting the major points/scenes i want to include with the right pacing. mine look more like a bell curve to show the build up of tension and the climax of each plot line, then the resolution, but serve the same prupose. it’s an interesting idea to start at the climax and work your way backwards, like with the “time of death”. may have to play around with that to see how it differs.

    • mesummer says:

      Thanks, Valerie! I wish I could plot things in a forward direction, but I tend to be oddly backward in a lot of ways. LOL. I’m attempting to do so in my latest project, but I’m having a hard time seeing the forest when the trees haven’t even planted yet. When you create your pre-writing timeline, do you do so chronologically, or do you jump all around, filling in bits as you come up with them? Thanks for your comment!

      • the benefit of using the bell curve is that it is so basic and adaptable that you can start out as skeletal as you want and add ideas as you think of them – which is what i do. it is just a basic guide to get you started. that’s about as much pre-planning as i can handle. i totally stole the idea from jim butcher, by the way, and adapted it to how i write. he calls it a story arc. see his website for some great writing ideas and description of how to use it here: http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/4053.html

  2. A M Jenner says:

    I keep track of my timeline on a computer spreadsheet. I have the dates going down the left side, sometimes with the moon phases listed so I know how muhc light there is for a night scene. I have either characters or places across the top. It’s really helpful for me to see it this way, because then I can build in travel time when necessary. Once, my spreadsheet bought a character an entire extra week to live!

    A M Jenner

  3. This is an excellent idea! I’m currently using Story Engineering to outline a re-write, and I have a great Midpoint, Second Plot Point, Second Pinch Point (all terms from the book), but the first half is teetering and tottering without much direction. Maybe instead of working forward I need to start at the Midpoint and work backwards. What a great post :)

    • mesummer says:

      Thank you for the comment and the compliment! I’ll have to check out that Story Engineering book. I’m finding that structure of story is often something I overlook when I’m drafting. Maybe if I can get it right going in, then I can spend less time on the revision end of things. Thanks again!

  4. Pingback: I Started the Re-Write! « Rebecca Enzor

  5. Pingback: Subplots «

  6. Joannah Miley says:

    Great post and great idea. I am currently revising my first novel. When I envisioned the plot I clearly saw the main events that ended acts I, II, and III. From there I just had to fill in the details, always knowing that I’m heading to my next guidepost (the scene at the end of the act).

  7. I just read this article and between “ah ha” moments, I saw the answers to many of my story creation questions. Great advice here and I will be implementing many of the suggestions. Thanks for the great information.

    • mesummer says:

      You’re welcome! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! Keep us posted about how it works out and let us know any tips or tricks you figure out along the way. Good luck!! 😀

      • I’m not sure I could offer more than what’s already been out there except the advice to know what you’re trying to say, know where you want the story to go, and to realize that the writing never stops. I’m currently working though a novel I’m working on that started out as adventure and then was changed to mystery and boy, has the last month been filled with hair raising (and hair pulling) moments. But it’s all good because I enjoy all of it. :)

  8. Repurcussion says:

    Whatever works for a writer, works for them and I would be the last to discourage a painstaking factual outliner IF they are actually completing books that people like to read. However it has to be said that the world is full of wannabes, people who like to think of themselves as writers, who waste an inordinate amount of time indulging in the fantasy that they are working on their book, who never produce a finished work because of time-wasting nonsense that is validated by calling it world-building, or constructing detailed biographies of their characters that are not relevant to their story, or – yes – timelines like the Becket murder board. Beware getting anal about details that don’t matter. Nobody should be able to teleport from Oregon to Washington D.C. in 15 minutes, but getting hung up on realistic drive times from Midtown Manhattan to Queens is nothing but a colossal waste of time.

    • Mary Elizabeth Summer says:

      Sooo…you’re a writer, then? I agree that people often get hung up in the details and go down “research” rabbit holes that take up way too much writing time. I have done so myself. But obviously I disagree with you about the power of timelines and consistency in story. One small inconsistency can piss off a reviewer enough that they give you a one-star review. <–speaking from experience here. Also, a decent copyeditor will question you on every single stinking detail, so it saves boatloads of time to have that all worked out prior to that stage of the publishing process. <–also speaking from experience here. But, hey, thanks for stopping by and lending your opinion! Write on, my friend, in whatever awesome way that makes you happy.

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