Sometimes when you sit down to outline a novel, you find yourself at a stand-still after the initial blurb is written on paper. Other times you're able to get through planning most of what occurs but then find that you're having trouble tying these events to the ending you had in mind. When you're out of luck and ideas, it's time to go back to the brainstorming board. When traditional methods of outlining aren't enough to get the job done, what do you do? Today we're exploring the Reverse Outline method as a solution to these common problems.
A reverse outline is exactly what it sounds like. Think of your outline as the bare bones of a skeleton. When you begin you are stringing together each individual bone so that by the end you have the complete structure of your story. A reverse outline is your contingency plan. It's used in the moments where you have every bone down to the feet, but can't for the life of you find the toes. When you find yourself in this situation, where do you begin? According to Arthur Miller, you "start at the end and work backward". Essentially you start from the toes and work your way back up.
For the purpose of this exercise, let's say you're completely starting your outline from scratch. You have your general idea and maybe your premise statement written down but beyond that you don't know what to do next. You've tried some other outline styles, but none of them feel inspiring or effective. You're ready to try a reverse outline.
Use the following tips to help you construct your reverse outline:
1. Figure out your ending first
One thing you should know before beginning this process is that even though you're starting with the ending, it does not mean that that ending is set in stone. Starting with a firm idea, however, is a must. This is because you'll be charting a course that'll give you about 60-80,000 words when all is finished. For that reason alone it's important to know where it will all wind up. Keep in mind that everything leading up to your ending serves the sole purpose of reaching that point, nothing else.
Of course, the hardest part of this process is writing the ending. Endings are tough on their own to create, let alone when your entire outline depends on it. The easiest way to begin is to understand that your ending is the result of an action already taken. It is the resolution to whatever is set into motion at the beginning. That being said, ask yourself:what question or problem are you trying to answer? What is the big-picture point of what you're trying to write? If you can answer these two questions, you should be able to come up with what your ending might look like by using elements that will fulfill those inquires.
What you want to avoid is an ending that is too idealistic or too "together". You want to make sure that your ending will be satisfying to your readers (as this is the reward for reading your story). Make sure you keep some things left to be desired, especially if you're planning on turning your novel into a series.
2. Outline your story simply and briefly
Once your ending is secure, you can turn your attention to your outline. Here you can use whichever outlining style works best for you (see my post on the 7 types of outlines to find out which one suits you best here). Remember that you're the only person who is going to see your outline. Don't worry about how long your outline is or isn't as the case may be. It's going to depend on your story and what is necessary to make it come to life. If you need some extra guidance when it comes to covering your basics, check out how to build a basic outline with these tips.
In this case, working backwards is going to dictate what you write in your outline. An easy way to translate what's in your head to paper is to make a chapter list. Put simply, write out one event or action per chapter. This provides a very loose structure from which you can then go back and work through to develop into something more substantial. All this does is get things down where you can see and make sense of them. If you like, you can use index cards instead. This way you can shuffle these events around till you have the order you feel is correct.
Next take each section and begin breaking down the facts. Write down what settings you may need and which characters take part. If you know the specifics of your characters already, great, but if not this can be simply kept to things like "main character", "best friend", "love interest", etc. You can flesh them out more later. Next take a look at what specific events, conversations, and pieces are needed in order to make your main event work. You can keep this as vague as a bullet list or as detailed as a few paragraphs. It's completely up to you. Once you identify what you need, you can move on to the next chapter until you have a fully completed outline.
3. Give your idea the Litmus Test
If you're still unsure of your story idea, perhaps it's time to put it to the test- the Litmus Test that is. The Litmus Test allows you to see if your idea is strong enough to hold it's weight once you actually start writing.
Answer the following questions to the best of your ability. There are no right or wrong answers, but the goal is to not use yes/no.
1. What about the idea draws you in? What is the most important element to you?
2. Who could the players be? List the main characters AND supporting characters. What types of people could be involved in this situation? Who are the protagonist's friends? Enemies? Try to create a character development section to your planning sheet. Link their relationships to the protagonist and whatever other types of descriptive details you want to add.
3. Where and when does the story take place? You don't have to choose the setting that inspired the idea, but do pick something that you can make concrete.
4. What are the possibilities for conflict? Don't settle for what actually happens. Think outside the box. What could happen based on the personality of your characters? What is plausible considering their location?
Once you have these 4 things, the only thing left to do is WRITE. Write the first few chapters or write them out of order. Once you have the first fifty pages, start crafting your outline. This should give you enough material to work with, but on the off-chance it doesn't, keep writing and try again after the next twenty pages.
Remember, you're not looking for publishable pages. You're looking to develop your story's potential and unlock new ideas.
4. Create a model outline
If you're still having trouble by the time you get to this step, there's one more technique you can try. When all else fails, the best thing you can do for you and your outline is to follow the example set by those who have published before.
Head over to your bookshelf and pull out a well-known novel. The story you choose needs to be similar in style and plot to your own work-in-progress. Look at how everything fits within the novel you've chosen by creating an outline for that book. Now do the same for your own story. Compare the two. Pay particular attention to how the acts work, how quickly the climax is reached, what the ending and denouement is, and how the protagonist was changed or revealed. Take a second look at your outline and revise if necessary.
If you've tried the traditional methods of outlining and still find yourself stuck, a good method to shake things up with is the reverse outline. By utilizing this technique you force your mind to work in another creative direction, ergo unlocking potential that may not have existed before.