Creating a Reverse Outline

Hi Folks,

In the interest of full disclosure, I first posted this as a blog entry on April 2 in my Daily Journal at

To continue the discloure, this is a technique I learned from Dean Wesley Smith. I find his openness and instruction (inadvertent and otherwise) pretty much invaluable.

But to the topic at hand.

Anyone who knows me or has talked writing with me for more than five minutes knows I don’t outline. If I’m going to take the time to outline, I might as well just write the story. If I wrote an outline, I would already know where the story’s going, what’s going to happen, etc. So then why bother writing it?

If I wrote an outline and then followed it, I, not the characters, would be telling the story.

I would be “directing” everything. I would be the almighty, all-powerful writer on high. Ugh. I don’t even begin to want that job. I much prefer to go in blind and just write off into the dark.

I much prefer to allow the CHARACTERS to tell the story. After all, they’re the ones who are living it. I’m just their recorder.

I don’t wanna lie back on a cloud, occasionally checking to make sure all the people I created are doing and saying what I tell them.

I wanna be down in the trenches, running through the story WITH the characters, and entertaining the snot out of myself. Or rather, allowing them to entertain me, just as they will entertain the reader.

However, I DO create what I call a “reverse outline” as I write. When I finish a section, a major scene or (in my current WIP) a chapter, I take a moment to make a few notes on a Notepad document. This consists of only a few sentences per chapter.

Now as I recall, Dean keeps a legal pad next to his computer and makes notes longhand. For me, typing it into a Notepad document is easier than writing longhand.

In my reverse outline, I list the chapter number on the left. Then I add significant items such as

  • which characters were in the scene and how they were dressed,
  • any major events that occurred in the scene, with appropriate details,
  • any major descriptions in the scene, and so on.

That way when my characters surprise me with something and I need to cycle back to add a bit of description or a foreshadowing or something, I refer to the list.

This is a TON easier than scrolling endlessly as you look for a name or a word or a phrase or what color shirt a character was wearing. It’s also a lot easier than even having to use the Find function to search the document.

Anyway, in my current WIP, at well over 63,000 words in and thinking I was finished, I decided to hold off publishing. My subconscious (that little voice) told me there was more to the story.

Okay, fine. But for some reason I didn’t create a reverse outline as I wrote this novel. And of course, when I realized I was going to have to splice in some new scenes, I wished I had.

So I took almost three hours of what should have been writing time to go back through the entire novel. Not reading it, but just going from one chapter to the next and making a few notes about what happened, who appeared, significant descriptions, etc.

And that led me to want to pass along this really useful technique. In fact, if you write off into the dark, this technique is invaluable. And if you don’t, if you’re still outlining, well, as they say in Texas, “Bless your heart.”

Try it. You’ll like it. (grin)


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2 thoughts on “Creating a Reverse Outline”

  1. I have never outlined before hand. I think it would feel too stale to me, like a school assignment. I usually let general topics (for my biographical writing) percolate for a bit but don’t have any idea what I’ll actually say until I start writing. Then it tends to just flow and I’m often surprised by my approach, what story I tell, and how I tell it. I never realized I was writing into the dark until your posts enlightened me. Then again, maybe it’s not writing into the dark when it’s memoir writing because I know how everything ends. I just don’t know how I’ll tell the story until I’m writing it. It flows of it’s own accord. Anyway… I can see how a reverse outline would be very useful. Thanks for another great post.

    • Great point, Sara, that with memoir you know how it ends. That’s really the only difference between memoir and fiction. Nonfiction is facts. Both fiction and memoir are memories of events from the point of view (through the writer) of a character or characters. With memoir, the events have already happened. With fiction, they haven’t.

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