Revising the Novel: Reverse Outlining

Apparently this thing I’ve been doing has a name: reverse outlining. I write and write and write, then I go back and try to make a map of what I’ve done. The map is often only readable by me, but when I glance it over from start to finish I can get a rough idea of how much of the novel takes place in present moment scene or summary, versus how much takes place in flashbacks to the past (or the occasional imagined scene or flash forward). In the case of my novel-in-progress, the first reverse outline I did was after I reached my first pass-through with the story itself from beginning to end. In addition to getting a sense for scene, summary, and backstory, I color-coded my map (or reverse outline, as Jeff Vandermeer in Wonderbook would have me say) to indicate which character I was using my limited 3rd POV narrator on at the time. When I was finished, I could follow my story through (and around and under) time as well as “weigh” various characters and how much attention had given to each.

Later–after the grumpy paid editor, after the structural deconstruction to try and set some very basic things right–I’m finding this technique is needed yet again. This time around, I’m reverse outlining each and every single scene in the novel, and each action within that scene. Lots of writers do this on notecards, I guess, but I’m new to novel-land and there’s a snowstorm and I didn’t have any notecards. So, my Levenger Folio it is…

And so far, what I’m learning is that I did manage to solve some of the major clarity and
structure issues of the novel during my previous structural deconstruction (I never called it that before–but I’m referring to what I’ve been working on for the past three months…the tough stuff, the slow slog, the nitty-gritty fix-it-now-or-kiss-you-novel-goodbye kinds of changes that have made me want to pull my hair out). That’s a relief and I was overdue for one, so I’ll take it. But I’m also learning that there are some scenes I need to give more attention and space to, in particular, those ones that I now understand were formative for Nathan, my protagonist. This didn’t occur to me earlier because I didn’t know Nathan well enough.

The other thing reverse outlining is teaching me is that the additional characterization I added during my structural deconstruction was both effective and ineffective. It was effective insofar as I’ve definitely created distinctly different men in Spartan Platoon. It was ineffective in that I’ve somehow managed to fail at physically describing almost every single one of them. Actions, reactions, personal issues, preferences–yep and yep. But hair color? Body make and build? Uh…

Which brings me to the other facet of reverse outlining above and beyond scenes and action, and that is character relationships. Thanks again to Wonderbook, I’m mapping who feels what way about whom and how they’re all connected. Kindergartener stuff, I know, but, well, have I purported to be anything else? Hah. Not really. I’m proud to be learning (stomp, crash, wail) and will report back as I get further in. So far I’ve reverse outlined 11 scenes and am just 40 pages into the manuscript. I’m not even going to say how many characters I have (too many)…

  • Bernadette Stockwell

    Thanks for this information. I’m feeling muddled by the concept of the reverse outline, but I also feel that it will help with continuity and character development.
    Press on!
    And thanks again.

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