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. *