The Reverse Outline: One of My Favorite Writing Tools
Have you ever been writing a story where you are just killing, and then, out of nowhere, you get a new story idea? This new idea leads to you putting the first story aside for a bit while you start the new one. Then, when you need to go back to the first story, you can’t quite remember what your original intentions were. Or, maybe you start a new story even though you’re not completely sure where it is going yet. You write and write because the characters won’t let you stop; they’re talking, they’re active, they’re living out their love story in your head. But, eventually, it trickles to a stop, your characters are silent, and you have no idea where the story is supposed to go from here. I’ve had both of these happen because writing almost never goes smoothly, right? Characters revolt. Motivations evolve. New ideas are born. Things just change.
These issues and others like it are why the reverse outline has become such a powerful tool in my writing arsenal. Outlines are awesome when your story develops just as you want it and the book just floats from your fingers, but reverse outlines are for any other situation, when your story bucks your original plan.
A reverse outline is an outline created after you have written some or all of your story. As you are rereading what has been written, you create an outline regarding the story progress, character development, setting, timelines, and all the other good story stuff. This can help you to catch both small and glaring errors. You might realize you accidentally mixed up a timeline, jumping two days back when you should have gone forward two days because you stepped away from your writing for a week or so.
Traditionally, I have found reverse outlines are most commonly used in academic circles for writers to break down their paper’s main points and claims without the supporting details. I did learn about this tool during my years as a Writing Consultant for my college’s University Writing Center, but in my own experience, I use the reverse outline almost exclusively in my fictional writing. I break down major plot points without the details and dialogue.
So you may be asking, why wouldn’t you just create an outline before you write the story? I have an answer for you: While some authors love outlines and can live by those they create before they start their stories, I and several other writers I know don’t usually write like that. Each writer has their own process that helps them create their masterpieces, and my personal process is horrendously scattered and unorganized. An idea comes, usually only a small scene or conflict, and I build my story around that one moment. I’m sure you can imagine what kind of chaos ensues from that. My characters often spend the first thirty pages or so nameless, my stories are very rarely written chronologically, and it’s not completely unusual for my first chapter to be completed just before I begin working on the final chapter. Because of this unruly process, reverse outlines are majorly helpful to me. Once I have written what’s in my head, I can use a reverse outline to find my way to a story. Then, I usually create a second reverse outline at the end just to be sure my story makes sense.
There are a few main uses that I have found for a reverse outline in fiction writing:
Your story has progressed well so far, but you decide to change the end of the book and have to backtrack and rewrite some of the book to fit the new ending. Maybe you have reached the three-fourths mark in your book, and suddenly a new idea hits! You’re really excited to pursue this new avenue, but the previous quarter of the book won’t make sense if you go with your new idea. A reverse outline can help you to determine what plot points can still fit with this new ending and what needs to be changed.
Sometimes, whether you have an outline or not, you can become stuck in the writing process. You reach a point in the story, and you just stall. A reverse outline can help you to build the beginnings of an outline, so you can plot the rest of your story from the point you got caught.
I enjoy using a reverse outline as an extra editing tool for my first read-through just after I have completed my book. As I read, I follow the major plot points and connections and character develop, noting how they progress through the story. Maybe you forgot about a side villain you added to see how she would add to the story but forgot to write about her in the rest of the book. In my personal experience, I realized I switched a character’s name about four chapters in a book one time. It took me forever to catch it because I was so used to both names, and the change happened at a natural stopping point in the story. My reverse outline helped me identify this inconsistency.
Sometimes stories just get set to the side for long periods of time. Life happens, and time gets away from you. If you’re like me, even if large parts of the story are written, you might not have an outline to pick up from. A reverse outline is a great way to help you get reacquainted with the story as you are looking into finishing it. As you reread, the reverse outline can help you review the major plot points and figure out how to continue the story after.
I love my reverse outlines, and I think they are a great tool for any writer. Hopefully, you will find them to be helpful too in your writing process, even if you only try using them once.
*Note: I didn’t provide an example of a reverse outline in this post because I didn't want to make it overwhelming. If you would like me to create a follow-up post in which I provide an example of a reverse outline, let me know by commenting below!