The Reverse-Outline (Outlining for Pantsers)
I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo, but I am about half-way through writing a first draft of a novel. This is a big deal for me, because up to now I’ve almost-exclusively focused on shorter fiction (short stories and then, more recently, novellas).
I made one previous attempt at a novel, back in late 2010/early 2011, with disastrous results. (Alas, The Sober Assassin was a 120,000 word practice novel that I never even sent out to an agent or publisher because it was just too sprawling and incoherent. It was a Kurt Vonnegut / Phillip K. Dick -inspired mess that was an utter failure in all respects except that it served as an excellent learning experience).
This time, I feel much more confident. I have a much better idea of my relative strengths and limitations, as a writer, and I’ve adjusted accordingly. This is a dark, literary horror novel. (My elevator pitch? Edgar Allan Poe meets Hubert Selby, Jr. That might be a poor elevator pitch, though, because relatively few folks who know of Selby. So maybe I should say “Edgar Allan Poe meets Darren Aronofsky” instead. There. Better?)
Unlike many writers, I don’t outline my books ahead of time. I’m what you call a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer (panster, for short). I’m a pantser because I really need to spend time inhabiting the disturbed thought processes of my protagonists before I have a sense of what they would do.What are their motivations and goals? How do they see the world? I usually don’t find that out until I’ve written a few chapters.
But I have, quite often, outlined my stories when I’m part-way through. This is kind of a reverse outline. I look at the structure of what I’ve already written and make sure it all gels, that it’s coherent, and that my pantser instincts haven’t gotten the best of me by assembling a piece of fiction that doesn’t add up. So the outline serves a different function. It’s not there as the writing equivalent of a storyboard, tracing out the plot ahead of time. It’s there as a revision tool, to “look under the hood”, so to speak, analyze what’s been written, evaluate how well the plot’s working, so far, and maybe gain a sense of where to take it from there. I want to avoid loose ends. If I raise questions for the reader, I want to make certain that I’m answering them within a reasonable time frame — to give them some satisfaction, and to keep the pages turning. (Granted, there may be big questions which won’t be answered until the last act. But there should be smaller questions the reader asks which are answered relatively quickly). A steady diet of question/answer/question/answer often provides the reader with a satisfying pace.
Today I used a specific format for this outline, and I thought other pantsers might enjoying seeing it and trying it out for themselves. I’m adding it to this blog post as this .pdf —> Reverse Outline for Pantsers
Note that this is just one format. I stumbled across reverse outlining on my own, but it turns out I’m late to the party. Plenty of people have written about using this approach before (just by Googling “reverse outlining”, I was able to find many, many articles on this approach; some focused on student essay writing, some on fiction writing). Maybe take a look at some of them, get some different ideas of how they might work for you, try the techniques out, and see which (if any) are a good fit.
Feel free to try it out and/or let me know what you think about this idea in the comments section below!