Have you ever heard of reverse outlining your novel? It’s pretty much what it sounds like: creating an outline after you’ve already written the draft.
If you’re a plotter, you might be wondering how that’s supposed to work. But whether you’re a plotter, pantser, or somewhere in between, creating a reverse outline can help you prepare for and work through each revision of your novel.
What is a reverse outline?
Your reverse outline is an outline you write after you’ve drafted your novel. While many writers create an outline and draft based on that, a reverse outline documents your novel draft exactly as it exists.
This allows you to see exactly what state your story is in rather than trying to match an old outline to a fresh manuscript.
One of the reasons reverse outlines are so helpful is that you’re forced to think about the big picture story elements when you’re creating an outline: plot, character development and relationships, subplots, worldbuilding, etc.
It’s so easy to get lost in the minute details of language when you go to revise, and this often leaves major problems in the actual content of your story. When you start re-reading to create this reverse outline, you know you’re there to summarize and analyze each scene rather than worry about commas. This shift in mindset can really help you focus on the big picture for this early stage of revisions.
What should your reverse outline include?
As an editor, there are two things I’d recommend you should absolutely try including in your reverse outline.
First, include breakdowns of scenes rather than chapters. (Not sure of the difference? Check out this blog post!) Your chapters probably have 1-3 scenes each, so breaking your outline down by scene will let you separate each moment out and stay more organized.
TIP: Even though you’re breaking things down by scenes, feel free to still include chapters. I like to do this by labeling my outline with things like “Chapter 1, Scene 1” and “Chapter 1, Scene 2,” etc.
Second, you’re looking for your core scene nuggets when you reverse outline. These are the really important things that happen in that scene to move the story forward. This might be:
- A revelation
- A clue
- A red herring
- Character relationships
- Key worldbuilding information
- Subplot development
- Character arcs
Whatever it is, you should be looking for the information that’s moving the story forward. If you can’t figure out why the scene is important to the larger story, that’s a HUGE red flag for revisions—and that’s exactly what you want to find.
What if you can’t find that core scene nugget?
If you can’t find your core scene nugget, take a step back. It might be something you forgot to put on the page, or it might be a plot hole you need to solve. It might also be that the scene actually isn’t serving the story at all.
I know it hurts, but if that’s last one is the case, it might be time to cut that scene entirely.
Remember, that’s what the revisions process is for. And reverse outlining your novel draft like this is a great way to find those problems now!
What else can a reverse outline include?
Whatever else you want to include is up to you. You might specifically track subplots, character relationships, clues you’re planting, point of view, and more. You can color code key story elements, change fonts if that’s better for you, or do really anything you want that’s going to help you stay organized.
This document is for you and you alone, so make it as simple or as complex as you need/want.
How do you create a reverse outline?
I personally find it helpful to start a fresh document when creating reverse outlines for my own writing. They’ve become a crucial part of my revisions process and have helped me self-edit three novels in the last eight months.
You can use a Google doc, Word doc, or even a spreadsheet. You might even write this out in a notebook if you find that more helpful.
I personally prefer a Google doc or Word doc as these are the easiest for my brain to process. Some writers love spreadsheets. Do what feels right for you!
What do you do after you have a reverse outline done?
Once you’ve finished your reverse outline, take a mini break from the manuscript and come back to the outline with fresh eyes a couple of days later. Read through it and any notes you made for yourself to begin deciding how you want to tackle your revisions.
How I set up my reverse outlines
Below is an example of how I format my reverse outlines. As you can see, I also included a heading for each day in my story; this is how I like to track my timeline.
This is just one example of how you might set up your reverse outline. You can set yours up however you want! But this is a simple place to start if it’s your first time creating this type of outline.
Will you try reverse outlining your next project?
Whether you’re a plotter, pantser, or somewhere in between, I highly recommend you give reverse outlining a try for your next (or current) project. It might be a great addition to your process!
Need help with your project? Contact me for a free, no obligation consultation.
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This is an interesting idea, especially if you are a writer who hates outlining or is so eager and ready to write that outlining just kind of gets in the way. I note though at the end, you show a reverse outline example, but it isn’t reversed. Why does it not start with day 30 (or at some point in the future) and work backward? I’m sure I will feel like a village idiot when you tell me the answer.
Great question! I’ve called this reverse outlining because you’re creating the outline after writing instead of before writing, the time when many authors outline. A reversal of the process, so to speak. I suppose a reverse outline could also be reversing the timeline in the outline (as in, starting on Day 30 / the final day of the story)! 🙂