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Reverse Outlining isn't Sexy, but It Works

Updated: May 15

Purple sky with lightning. Tag line Reverse outline isn't sexy but it works.

Reverse outlining isn’t sexy, but whether you are a plotter or a pantser, this much-underused technique is invaluable.

A reverse outline doesn’t mean start at the end and work backwards. 😊

It involves writing down what happens in each chapter and its scenes after the book is written.

You want to note major plot points and agents of change for a character’s development as well as if the scene contains action, relationship, information, suspense, or emotion. Best-selling crime fiction author Jess Lourey uses the anacronym ARISE to keep track of these storytelling elements. She says each scene should have two of these elements.

Create a separate document. At the top of the page put the title or number of a chapter and under it, write what plot points happen. Below the plot points, write a sentence for each scene. Then assign it the elements of the ARISE it contains.

Chapter 1

Main character’s normal life. (Plot point)

Inciting incident. (Plot point)

Pivotal choice that changes the main character’s life and starts their growth. (Agent of Change)

Scene 1: MC is taking care of and talking to her sister and her mother at home. A,R,I,E

Scene 2: MC’s sibling is chosen for a fight to the death, but MC volunteers to their place. A,R,I,S

Scene 3: MC says goodbye to her friends and family. A,E

Scene 4: MC is whisked away to the city where the fight will take place. A,S,E

This chapter and the scenes within are great!

After each chapter and scene is outlined and given their designations, examine the chapters and scenes as a whole.

Ask if each has a plot point and two of the storytelling elements.

If you find a scene that doesn’t, mark it and jot down an idea for revising it.

It could be possible that your fiction novel would be better if the scene or even the chapter were removed. If your manuscript is too long and removing it is a valid option, note that and a thought about how to make the scenes/chapters flow without it.

I hope I haven’t frightened you off yet because there are more benefits to this technique!

With your after-its-written outline, the time spent on subplots and secondary characters will reveal itself.

It’s possible you’ve spent five chapters on the first subplot and only one chapter on the third subplot, but the third is more important than the first. Or maybe the second subplot, that only takes five pages, doesn’t support or enrich the main plot enough. Mark what you feel is a problem and a suggestion about how to solve it.

Maybe you’ve given more scene time to a secondary character than your main character. It was unintentional, but with the outline, you will notice this easier and during revisions, you can shift the focus back onto the main character.

When letting the writing flow, these things may not be obvious, but with a reverse outline, you can identify these issues and set yourself up with a plan for revising.

Reverse outlining has multiple benefits, including flow, plot, importance of scenes and chapters and character scene-time. You should consider using this technique, many successful fiction authors do!

Happy Editing!

Kristin Noland – Speculative fiction and crime fiction editor

Special thanks to Jess Lourey for inspiring this post. I learned a lot from her at the Midwest Writers Workshop!

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