What's a reverse outline, and how can you use it to revise your novel?
You might have heard about reverse outlining as a helpful revision tool, perhaps even from me in my free draft-by-draft revision guide. But what exactly is reverse outlining, and how does it help you revise your novel? That’s what we’re covering in this post!
What’s a reverse outline?
No, a reverse outline isn’t an outline that you write backwards, from ending to beginning. (Although that can be a handy way to map out your story before writing! I’ve heard it’s an especially useful technique for mysteries and thrillers.)
A reverse outline is an outline you write after you’ve finished your draft. Instead of you following the outline as you write, your reverse outline instead follows the story you already wrote.
This is especially useful for pantsers, who do little to no outlining before beginning to write. It may not be quite as useful to you if you’re a heavy planner who always sticks perfectly to your outlines, though.
→ Don’t know whether you’re a pantser or a planner (or somewhere in between)? Here’s a blog post that’ll help you figure it out!
How do you create a reverse outline?
The nice thing about reverse outlines is that you’re just recording what’s already in your book—no imagination necessary. They’re very easy, if perhaps a tad tedious at times. But the benefits you get from making one will make up for the hard work you put into it!
First, gather your materials. Some people prefer to outline on notecards (either digital or physical), while some prefer to outline list-style. If you’re reverse outlining by hand, I recommend having multiple colors of pens or highlighters available for color coding purposes.
Next, start reading your draft. As you read, take the following notes:
Scene number (if each chapter contains multiple scenes)
Main characters involved
Side characters involved
A brief (one or two sentences) synopsis of what happens in the scene
A brief reason or purpose for the scene
If you’re outlining on note cards, then one card will have all this information on it for one scene, with a separate card for each scene.
Above, I recommended color coding. You could use the colors in many different ways. For example, if you’re writing multiple POVs, you might assign one color to each POV character. Or maybe, if you have several subplots, you assign a color to each of those. Or perhaps, if your story takes place on two separate timelines, you could have a color for each timeline. Your imagination is the limit!
Now, since I know a lot of you learn better by example, here’s an example using my NaNoWriMo project from last year:
Setting: hallway outside Reckoning Room
Main Character: Skyla
Side Characters: Jovi
Summary: Skyla and Jovi watch their classmates emerge from the Reckoning Room looking stunned and weak. Their anxiety grows as their turns approach.
Purpose: Build tension before Skyla's Reckoning in the next scene; improve the bond between Skyla and Jovi
If you’re already an outliner, you probably have something like this from when you were planning your book. Rather than creating a new outline from scratch, for planners, I recommend comparing what you wrote to the outline you already have and making changes to reflect the actual book. If you didn’t deviate from your outline at all, then great! If you deviated a bit here or there, just update those sections. Save yourself the work!
If you’re somewhere between a pantser and a planner, then you may find yourself mostly filling in the gaps in the outline you already have. That works, too!
Basically, we want this reverse outline to be a quick look at your book in a nutshell.
How can a reverse outline be useful during revisions?
After reading the above section, I’m sure you can imagine how useful this can be.
You can quickly see where and how often specific characters appear. That makes it easier to add missing characters back in or to balance out multiple points of view.
You can trace your plot from beginning to end, which makes it easier to spot any holes to fix or opportunities to expand or be more efficient. It also helps with the interweaving of multiple subplots.
You can assess the variety of your settings. You might, for example, discover that 80% of your scenes take place in one specific setting, and decide to change it up a bit more.
You can evaluate each scene for its relevance more easily. For example, you might find that you have three separate scenes that all serve the same purpose, and they’d be more impactful if they were combined instead.
All of this is great for the initial stages of revision, when you’re tackling big-picture issues like plot and main characters. This type of bird’s-eye view of your story can be so illuminating when you’re starting your rewrites.
So what do you think? Have you ever created a reverse outline? What method did you use, and did it help during your revision process?
Like I mentioned above, reverse outlining is especially helpful at the beginning of the revision process. If you’d like a guide on the process as a whole, I have one of those! You can download it for free here. And if you’re looking for more personalized revision help, that’s exactly what my Editorial Evaluation service is for! More info here, or send an email to email@example.com to get started.