A Visual Guide to a Reverse Outline

107k Words. 76 Scenes. 16 Pages.

What you’re looking at is an essential document for the complex operation that is transforming my first draft into a revised draft. It’s scary, isn’t it? I like to think that it’s beautifully organized.

That’s the entire scene by scene outline of the first draft of Stormsong – don’t worry; there are no spoilers. The color coding is a key – Green means the scene requires very little changing in order to fit in the first draft. Yellow means the scene is mostly ok but will definitely need tweaking for continuity and new details. Orange means the scene is probably going to change dramatically, but the bones will still be there. Red means this scene is headed for The Island of Misfit Words (what I call the file that holds all my cut words, in case I can scavenge them later) and something entirely rewritten will take its place.

How did I Do? Final tally: Green: 15 Yellow: 19 Orange: 26 Red:16 = 76

Okay but what the heck is that?

It’s called a reverse outline, and it’s a fantastic tool for revising your work. It’s a bit intimidating to do, outlining the book you just wrote. I never want to do it. I just want to get on with the revision, but for me, that’s almost always a mistake. The reverse outline shows me exactly what’s going on in my story: strong scenes, weak scenes, scenes that need a little help, and when I’m organized, I can make seemingly impossible tasks into a one step at a time to do list.

I have my own system for analysing the strengths of my scenes, which is customizable depending on what I need to work on the most. You can find a great explanation of the reverse outline on Janice Hardy’s blog, Fiction University, which is where I originally learned it. She gives a rundown on what scenes should contain that will get you started, or figure out what you need to track the most.

For a more complex outline that covers pretty much everything you can imagine, dive into The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne – his Story Grid of the Silence of the Lambs is even scarier and more organized than mine.

What did you use for your columns?

From Left to Right:

  • Scene number and word count
  • Synopsis of the Scene’s events
  • Characters present in the scene – First name in the list is POV
  • The scene’s function in the story, and what plotlines it includes (red ink is political plot, blue ink is magical plot)
  • Notes on what needs to change in order to make the scene fit the aims of my revision

I’m maybe talking about this out of order, but the thing I needed to do was consolidate plotlines, so it wasn’t simply one character working on their own plot but multiple characters coming at the two main plots from different angles, so my columns reflect that. But if I had unclear or inconsistent motivation, I could track that, or if I wanted to track a character’s changing internal attitude, I could do that, or if I wanted to evaluate my story’s pacing, I could do that too.

Does it only work for plotters?

Nope, pantsers can do this too. What you need is a finished manuscript, though, so get those stories finished! If you’re super wise, you could probably do a detailed, all purpose outline grid as you went through the story, so the reverse outline would be done when you are. But I am not that wise, myself.

How long does it take?

I did mine in two days. Now let me be clear. I did mine in two days of splendid isolation, with nothing else to do besides feed myself and wash dishes after, with luxurious naps and frustration breaks playing video games. It might be that you need a week to do this, or two weeks, depending on how many distractions you have to deal with and how practiced you are at it.

But actually, I put off doing this. I full on whined about it. It’s so tedious, so much work, it will take forever, I don’t wanna, the whole shebang. But when I put on my big girl pants and went to work it was about five to seven hours to complete.

What will it do for me?

It will point out the weak points in your book.

That’s a little freaky, and maybe you don’t want to know how much work you have ahead of you. Maybe you want to think the book is fine. I always do. I always think, “this time I did it.” haha! No. This time, I did a little better than last time, and I have a lot of work ahead of me. So know I know that one of my favorite scenes, one of the coolest things I think I did…is smack in the middle of that one page that is solid red and it has to go. But before I did the reverse outline, I thought it was fine. Making this fancy color coded table brings clarity, and to figure out what needs to be fixed, you need to be clear on what’s working in your story, and what isn’t.

What will you do now that you have this?

My next step is to take a week and a day in splendid isolation and write out a scene by scene outline of the story, test-driving the changes I want to make. This is what I think will work best for me and my process – I like to test things before going in and writing them, outlining in detail doesn’t kill the excitement for me, and I want to get another set of eyes on my outline/detailed synopsis before I get started. I have a lot to do in a short time, and Future Me will thank Past Me for laying out exactly what I need to do so I can get it done quickly and well.

If I wasn’t so organization and structure driven, I might just use the reverse outline as a cheat sheet and just go for it, fixing the scenes by intuition and imagination alone. Or I might just write a three page synopsis of the revised story and use that. Now that I have a clear picture of what I wrote, I now have a clear idea of what I need to do to bring the story up to the next level.

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