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How a reverse outline can make your story stronger

Recently, I decided to turn a minor theme in my memoir into a major one. I knew this would involve another edit of my manuscript, which I was loath to do because I wanted to work on my next book. Plus, it’d been awhile since I read the manuscript so it would take a chunk of time just to immerse myself in the flow of it again.

I decided the quickest, most efficient way to do this would be to create a reverse outline (one that’s created after your manuscript is finished).

I didn’t create an outline when I began the memoir, because I didn’t know what my story would be. I’m sure that sounds strange—to not know what the story of your life is, but we all have multiple stories inside us—who we are and what has shaped us. Writing is an act of discovery and as time went on, I realized I needed to build out one of my themes to reflect the evolution of my story.

When I heard a writing mentor talk about creating a reverse outline, I inwardly cringed…visions of roman numerals, indented sentences, and my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Neck-Pinching-Vulcan-Beast flashed to mind. But I like to follow in the footsteps of successful writers so I buckled down and did the deed—consciously creating an outline that didn’t look anything like what Mrs. NPVB forced us to make in grammar school.

Mainly, what I needed to know was: who, what, where, when, why,  and how. There are many ways you can do this—it doesn’t have to look like mine or Mrs. NPVB’s. Here’s an example of what I did for each chapter:

Chapter 6: Family dinner: Grandma’s visions & Dad’s jealousy

  • Where: Grandparents house, then ours
  • When: I’m 6
  • Dinner at grandparents house, shows extended family, dad tries to brag about me but doesn’t work, everyone makes a joke out of it.
  • Grandma tells story of her car accident and how afterwards she had flashes/visions of things that came true.
  • Dad criticizes her, everyone gets mad at him.
  • He takes it out on me later.
  • Purpose: introduces family, introduces Grandma had visions after her car accident, shows dad’s temper and jealousies
  • To Do: add a line about his jealousy of Grandma’s storytelling ability and visions

Add other categories as you need them. Earlier in my process, I created a spreadsheet for objects and metaphors—things that were repeated throughout the manuscript.

As you can see, I also use color-coding. Because WordPress doesn’t have the highlighter option, I’ve used green and red here but in my word document, I use the yellow highlighter for “things to do” and fluorescent green for the theme I want to bring out. This way, at a glance, I can see what needs to be done and how often this theme shows up throughout the book. If I don’t see the color green for several chapters, then I better figure out how to fit it in.

A reverse outline can:

  • Give you an overall, bird’s-eye view of your entire project
  • Show you where your blind spots are
  • Help you track major and minor plotlines
  • Keep track of how often characters show up
  • Track anything you want

Creating a reverse outline took me two days but it saved me weeks of flailing around trying to figure out where and what to add to my story.

Even if you started with an outline, it’s helpful to go back and update your original outline or create a new reverse outline. I recommend saving the before and after versions of your outline—something I didn’t do but wish I had. This way you can see, at a glance, what you changed. (I changed my outline as I changed my memoir and forgot to save my original reverse outline).

Have you ever created a reverse outline? Did it help you in any way? Please share.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I always do an outline at the end of my first draft. It really helps me spot lack of continuity, timing issues, wandering off track, and lack of attention to the theme of the book.

    I’m incapable of outlining in advance; when I’ve tried it, I never stick to the outline, so the effort ends up being a waste of time for me. I never heard an outline after the fact called a reverse outline before, but no matter what you call it, I couldn’t live without one!

    September 26, 2011

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