If you have finished the first draft of your novel, congratulations! Take a break. You deserve it.
One week later, you come back and read what you wrote. How do you decide what to keep, cut, and fix?
Reverse outlining can help. This is especially helpful if you didn’t outline your novel or strayed greatly from your outline while writing the first draft.
WHAT IS IT?
Reverse outlining is when you take your complete first draft and reduce it to its most basic form. This allows you to analyze the storyline in brief. Much like outlining, you have creative freedom in style and detail.
Determine what your main plot is and what your subplots are. What are the major events in each? Where do they intertwine? How do your subplots further your main storyline? I like to do this on paper. I draw columns for each plotline and make a list of the main events for each. I then draw arrows between major events in different plotlines to show how they intertwine. Keep an eye out for subplots that don’t have climaxes or don’t connect to the main plot. If you find these, you know you have to work on these plotlines while revising.
This is especially helpful if your story is mostly character-driven. Describe what happens to each character over the course of the novel. How do they change and why? If a character doesn’t change, they are flat. Are they important to the story? If they are, the plot probably affected them as much as they affected the plot. Every character should change, and this reverse outlining method can allow you to see if you accomplished that. In addition, you want to make sure there is a reason behind every change. Did your characters ever make a decision completely out of character? If so, how can you fix it?
You can choose to summarize your overall story briefly and see if the order of events is logical. However, I think the most effective way to use summarization as a reverse outlining technique is to write one sentence about each chapter. If you are struggling to write something important about a chapter that contributes to the overall idea of the story, you might want to focus on that chapter. Is it important? Does it contribute to character or plot development? How can you better intertwine it into the overall story?
You can take a reverse outline using any of these techniques and revise it to improve your storyline before jumping into revising your entire novel. It can be less daunting to look at and revise a few pages, especially when compared to an 80,000 word novel.
Do you reverse outline? What is your favorite method (feel free to name one I didn’t mention)? Let me know in the comments!