After you’ve spent countless hours working on a manuscript, it can be hard to see the forest from the trees. This is when a reverse outline can offer a fresh look at your book’s characters, themes, and plot—revealing what is actually on the page versus what is in your notes or previous drafts. A reverse outline is simply a new outline based on your current draft (rather than an updated version of any previous outlines you may have used).
To make a reverse outline, list each chapter, the actions that the central characters take within that chapter, and any other key details or plot points (such as themes, timeline, or shifts in perspective). I typically use Word, but you can use whatever tools work best for you: Google Docs, Scrivener, Excel, or even physical note cards. Depending on the focus of the revision, I also like to color code each character, theme, or plot thread. This makes it easier to see if there are chapters where central characters aren’t taking action; sections with multiple action scenes in a row; or if story threads, themes, or characters appear inconsistently.
Below is a sample outline of a (nonexistent) romantic thriller that focuses on three core story threads: romance elements are highlighted in pink; clues about the novel’s central mystery are highlighted in green; and action scenes are highlighted in yellow.
This reverse outline shows that the romantic plot threads and clues to the central mystery are threaded throughout the opening chapters, leading to the novel’s first big action sequence. The rest of this outline would reveal whether these elements were less consistent later in the novel. For instance, if too many action scenes occur in a short period of time, those major events can detract from one another. Or if a section of the book is all introspection and no action, those scenes might need to be condensed or reworked.
While making a reverse outline can feel tedious, it can save time in the long run by streamlining the revision process and clarifying key revision areas. Rather than going immediately back into the manuscript file to revise, you can use the outline to brainstorm ideas and to consider larger changes (like moving, cutting, or adding scenes and characters) before making them in the draft itself.
Reverse outlines can be especially helpful if you’re working on a book with a lot of complex elements (such as fantasies, mysteries, thrillers, and books with expansive casts, unreliable narrators, or unique structures). However, I’ve found reverse outlines to be equally useful in identifying gaps in character development, relationships, themes, and other areas of realistic fiction. This versatility is why reverse outlines are one of my favorite revision tools. So if you’re struggling with a difficult revision, considering giving a reverse outline a try—maybe it will become one of your favorite tools, too.
Your Editor Friend,
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