Pansters, please don’t abandon this post before you give it a chance. I promise I’m not here to tell you planning your story before writing is essential or to shame anyone for their pantsing ways. No, today, I’m here to give you (as well as plotters, plantsers, and all other variations of writer) a powerful self-editing tool to help you see your story in a way you haven’t before: the reverse outline.
The word outline often calls to mind writing essays in elementary school, complete with Roman numerals, correct indentation, and more often than not, a headache. But there’s another, more flexible way to look at your story structure, regardless of how much (or little) you plan.
What is a reverse outline?
A reverse outline is exactly what it sounds like—an outline, only you work backwards. Where a typical outline (which may or may not have Roman numerals) is used to plan a story from start to finish and provide a kind of map for the writer, a reverse outline is more like sticking pins in a map to show where you’ve already traveled. It’s used to show what happens in a story that’s already written, and that helps you see how your characters got from where they started to the end of the story.
What do you need to include?
As with most aspects of writing and editing, there’s a sweet spot between too much and too little. Through some trial and error, here’s what I’ve found works best. For each scene, include brief notes about:
Chapter and page range (beginning and ending page for chapter)
POV character (if more than one POV in the manuscript)
What happens in the main plot (external goal and conflict)
Why it matters (internal goal and conflict)
How it leads to the next chapter or scene (consequence of the characters’ actions)
How you address each subplot in that chapter.
* Pro tip! If you’re drafting, you can make a reverse outline easier on yourself by noting these elements for each scene as you go. Put it right in the document in a comment or start a new document so it’s easier to copy and paste later. *
Does it involve Roman numerals?
The format is up to you. The most helpful formats I’ve found in my client work are bullet points, story card/sticky notes, spreadsheet (you know I love a good color-coded spreadsheet), or synopsis-style. It depends on how visual you want to make it. Don’t be afraid to experiment to find the format that works best for you. If you don’t know where to start, I suggest bullet points. But if Roman numerals are your thing, go for it!
How does it help?
A reverse outline allows you to boil your plot and characters arc down to their basics. This means instead of reading 80,000-100,000+ words to analyze these big-picture elements, you can see their progression (or lack thereof) in a much simpler way.
* Bonus! A reverse outline can be a huge help when writing a synopsis. *
So what are you looking for?
Once you have your reverse outline, there are a few issues to pinpoint:
External conflict/plot arc
Plot stems from external conflict—your character needs to reach their goal, and something (many things) stands in their way—so every scene needs external conflict. Every. Single. Scene. Your protagonist’s actions need consequences. That, combined with outside forces (other characters, nature, etc), must create obstacles for your main character(s) to overcome. If you don’t have enough conflict, your character needs more obstacles. Just make sure these are organic to the story, not something that will feel like an afterthought.
Internal conflict/character development
In the same way that plot is a product of external conflict, character development comes from internal conflict. This is a result of what your character thinks and feels in regards to the events of the plot. The best way to show this is through thoughts, emotions, visceral feelings, body language, and actions. Keep in mind where you character is in their development arc and make sure their internal conflict is in line with the particular part of their arc.
Agency simply means that the protagonist is the one making decisions and taking actions—then dealing with the consequences. So make sure they aren’t following someone else around or only reacting to the things that are happening around them. They need to take an active approach to resolving the conflicts of the plot.
You want the pacing to have a nice ebb and flow in the action and tension with an overall upward climb as you reach the climax. So watch for red flags that you either have too much happening all at once without giving the reader a chance to recover in between or that there isn’t enough happening to hold the reader’s interest. Are there scenes where your only goal is to impart information? Does (basically) the same thing happen in several scenes that are close together? Do you have a big flashback in the middle of an action scene? These are some indications the pacing may be off.
Structure and plot problems
Getting a bird’s-eye view of your plot can help you suss out issues that looking at your writing on a line-by-line level can’t. Make sure you’re hitting the important plot points at around the right place for the structure you’re shooting for (most stories follow a standard three-act structure—I have a post planned for that soon). Does everything make sense? Does the plot flow logically from one event to the next? Are there gaps that force a reader to make a leap in understanding? Does your ending resolve the goals you set out in the beginning? Did you set out those goals in the beginning?
Don’t just jump into revisions. Take some time to consider how to fix the problems you’ve uncovered. Once you know where your story needs help, make a plan to address the issues. Sometimes this means a rewrite (especially for early drafts), and sometimes this is a matter of layering in more interiority or making sure specific questions get answered clearly. Each revision will have its own issues, but having a plan can make a huge difference in how effective the results are.
So whether pantser, plotter, or somewhere in between, a reverse outline can help you get a high-level perspective on your story, and that is invaluable in the revision process. Have you ever used a reverse outline or similar tool? Let me know! Comment here or tweet me @jenichappelle