KM Weiland on Reverse Outlining

I am THRILLED to feature writing guru K.M. Weiland on the blog today to discuss Outlining. As a reformed panser, I have seen my writing evolve by embracing outlining techniques. And while I’m not a full outliner yet, it is a tool that helps me at certain stages during the writing process to form stronger story structure and character development.

Katie’s book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success guides writers with a step-by-step approach to developing and writing a novel. One of the story mapping techniques is Reverse Outlining, a creative approach to help writers build a strong, cohesive timeline in their novels. Read on for an excerpt straight from the book!

Reverse Outlining

When you think of outlines, you generally think about organization, right? The whole point of outlining, versus the seat-of-the-pants method, is to give the writer a road map, a set of guidelines, a plan. An outline should be simple, streamlined, and linear. An outline should put things in order. So you’re probably going to think I’m crazy when I tell you one of the most effective ways to make certain every scene matters is to outline backwards.

During the outlining process, we have to create a plausible series of events, a chain reaction that will cause each scene to domino into the one following. But linking scenes isn’t always easy to do if you don’t know what it’s supposed to be linking to. As any mystery writer can tell you, you can’t set the clues up perfectly until you know whodunit. Often, it’s easier and more productive to start with the last scene in a series and work your way backwards.

For example, in my outline of a historical story, I knew one of my POV characters was going to be injured so badly he would be unable to communicate with another character for almost a month. However, I didn’t yet know how or why he was injured. I could work my way toward this point in a logical, linear fashion, starting at the last known scene (a dinner party), and building one scene upon another, until I reached my next known point (the injury). But because my chain of events was based on what was already behind me (the dinner party), more than what was away off in the future (the injury), my attempts to bridge the two were less than cohesive.

Had I outlined these scenes in a linear fashion, squeezing in the injury might have become a gymnastic effort instead of a natural flowing of plot. Plus, the fact that I had no idea what was supposed to happen between the dinner party and the injury meant I was likely to invent random and inconsequential events to fill the space.

My solution?

You got it: work backwards.

Starting at the end of the plot progression—the injury—I began asking questions that would help me discover the plot development immediately preceding. How was the character hurt? Where was he hurt? Why did the bad guys choose to do this to him? Why was he only injured, instead of killed? How is he going to escape?

Once I knew these things, I knew how I needed to set up the scene, and once I knew how to set up the scene, I knew what to put in the previous slot in the outline. Eventually, I was able to work myself all the way back to the dinner party. Voilà! I now had a complete sequence of events, all of which were cohesive, linear, and logical enough to make my story tight and intense.

Facing the wide unknown of a story is scary, and putting one foot in front of the other, when you’re unsure of the terrain, can be overwhelming. But when you can work your way backwards from a known point, finding your way becomes as simple as filling in the blanks. The result is a story that falls into order like a row of expertly placed dominoes.

 

K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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Kathy
Kathy
3 years ago

I’m sure I’ll do great with this idea. I do mazes backward all the time. It’s a lot easier, somehow. Thanks for the tip.

K.M. Weiland
8 years ago

@Tom: Honestly, a big part of sticking with a story is nothing more than sheer determination. We all get sick of our stories, for one reason or another, somewhere in the middle. Unless that feeling is a sign of a larger problem that needs fixing, the best thing we can do for ourselves and our stories is just to power on through.

@Lori: It’s marvelous how the techniques we use to find success in other areas of our lives and professions can actually bring the same measure of success to our fiction!

@Sheri: If you know where you’ve been and you know where you’re going, it’s actually not all that difficult to figure out how to get there. Think of the scenes in your middle as one domino running into another and creating the chain reaction that is your story. After that, it’s just a matter of figuring which dominoes you need to use to get that reaction.

Sheri M Cook
8 years ago

I know my beginnings and I know my endings…it’s the MIDDLES I struggle with. I think your book OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL would help me so much. Thank you for the great tip to work backwards.

Lori Oster
8 years ago

Love this post!

I teach academic writing, so we often begin writing with our final claim in mind. How is it that I never applied the same theory to my creative writing?

I struggle with planning, in general. I’ve always been a let-the-movement-of-the-pen-guid-you sort of gal, so outlining, in any form, has never been my strong suit.

Thank you for a great post!

lorioster@hotmail.com

Tom Farr
8 years ago

I struggle with keeping myself interested in a story I’m writing all the way through.

farr_tommy(at)hotmail(dot)com

K.M. Weiland
8 years ago

@JessG: The thing to keep in mind about outlines is that there are no set “rules” for them. Your outline can be as unique as you are. So just keep hunting around, improvising, and refining until you find exactly the right method for you.

@Robin: Thank you! I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the book.

@Karen: Being able to balance the strengths of both the outliner and the pantser is the way to go. If we can have the best of both worlds, why not go for it, right?

@Deb: Renowned screenwriter and director Sam Peckinpah once talked about how every story needs to hang around a big event in the middle. I like to think of it as the “turning point.” If you can identify that moment, you’ll be way ahead of the game in figuring out your middle.

@Alison: Overly pat endings are a pet peeve of mine. I like it when an author can resolve the issues but still leave the sense that life, in all its messiness, still goes on after I close the book.

@Julie: You’re very sweet! Glad the post hit the spot.

@Kitty: I had a similar experience with my (soon-to-be-published) fantasy. At the time when I started it, I was seriously burned out on another project and didn’t want to mess with a lot of preparation. So I just dove in. And, boy, did I live to regret that decision. Four outlines and as many rewrites later, I’m approaching the end of that very instructive journey.

@Fiona: That’s brilliant! I’m gonna have to give that a try myself.

@Julieann: It’s easy to get lost in the flood of conflicting advice from other authors. The best thing we can do is try to figure out which pieces of advice resonate and which don’t – and keep them and throw them out accordingly.

@Lester: Pantsing would be a disaster in just about any other project – just as it is for many authors. The fact that some of us can get it to work is a testament the creativity and patience of writers.

@Sarah: Most of art is half creativity and half analysis. The logical sides of our brain are rarely wasted in our writing.

@Aimee: Outlining is one of the best ways I know to inspire us to finish stories.

@Lindsay: Thanks for commenting!

@Amanda: Since you already know your ending, you’re already halfway to the solution. Reverse outlining might be just the thing for you.

@Charlie: The book talks quite a bit about character and thematic arcs, so you might find just the answers you’re looking for in those chapters.

@S.K.: Writers aren’t broken. Just our keyboards where we’ve banged out heads against them. :p Thank you for kind comment! I’m pleased to pieces that the book was so useful to you.

@Lenny: Outlining backwards certainly isn’t a cure-all, but used in concert with other outlining and plotting techniques, it can be a huge catalyst.

@inluvwithwords: Great! I hope you find as much success with the technique as I have.

@The Magic Violinist: If you know your characters (and I mean really dig deep into their pasts and personalities), you can identify their core needs. From there, creating a plot is often just a matter of figuring out how to thwart those needs and create conflict.

@Patrick: Thanks for stopping by! Sounds like another good non-fiction tip we fiction authors can learn from. 🙂

Patrick Ross
8 years ago

This reminds me of my journalism training, where you determine what the point of the story is (the lede), and build from there. In a story involving passage of time, it’s not uncommon to start at the culmination, then work the reader backward. Good post.

Given the number of comments here it is unlikely I’ll win the book, but should I do so, please draw again; there are folks here who really seem to want it and I wouldn’t want to interfere with that!

The Magic Violinist
8 years ago

Reverse outlining. That’s an interesting thought.
The thing I struggle with most is creating a plot. Characters pop into my head all the time (and pretty good characters, if you ask me), but I have a hard time thinking of a goal for my characters. Once I think of one, though, I do great! 😀

themagicviolinist(AT)gmail(DOT)com

inluvwithwords
8 years ago

Wow, this sounds like a great book. I just started working my backwards on my current WIP. So far, it has really helped me to make progress.

ruthschiffmann (at) hotmail [dot]com

Lenny Lee*
8 years ago

wow for sure i gotta read this a couple time so i could know better how to go backwards. mostly i dont plot stuff but im learning how to do it and how it could help. so maybe learning how to go backwards sometime could be a big help. cool post. i always learn lots when i come here.
…hugs from lenny

S. K. Garriott
8 years ago

Ms. Weiland has written a great, practical guide to getting that book written. On top of that, she is extremely responsive to questions and comments; very approachable. You won’t regret reading it. It changed my view of the writing process and helped me see that I wasn’t broken.

Charlie
8 years ago

I think this is a great post that will help seasoned veterans and rookies alike. Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, breaking out of the box is usually a good idea.

I have no idea what I am. I struggle with every part of writing, but I’m still trying. I have an easy time with creating a picture in the reader’s mind, but haven’t figured out how to create depth of character, tie scenes together, keep a plot going, or anything resembling a full book.

I need help! I think this book would be one stepping stone to getting me on at least the Junior Varsity team of writing.

Thanks for the great post!

Amanda Hopper
8 years ago

I have written half of a YA novel and the ending scene. As a pantser, I am having trouble filling in the missing scenes. I love the idea of a backwards outline! Thanks for the insight!

ahoppertx@gmail.com

Angela Ackerman
8 years ago

Thanks everyone for sharing your processes and struggles. I like reading about how your experience in other jobs has helped to improve your writing processes as well.

Happy writing, everyone! 🙂

Anonymous
Anonymous
8 years ago

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Lindsay N. Currie
8 years ago

Great post and fantastic insight!

Aimee Katherine
8 years ago

That’s such great advice! I never finish anything so perhaps I should start planning stories more often 😀

Sarah Nasello
8 years ago

Great post – so creative. I use this approach when projecting revenue goals in my business, a reverse P&L if you will, but never thought to apply it to my creative endeavors. I love this! Thank you for sharing, and for a chance to win!

Sarahnasello@gmail.com

Lester D. Crawford
8 years ago

My experience designing and building computer systems taught me many things about planning (one does not create global computer systems by “pantsing.”) My expertise in structured, n-tier, object oriented system design channels my method of storytelling. I do top-down, bottom-up, forward-analysis, and backward-analysis as I work through repeated iterations of the telling of the story, each pass adding more details, more depth, and more density.

Your description of reverse outlining validates my methods and makes me feel good about myself. (I believe that is one reason I like K.M. Weiland’s “Wordplay” blog — it legitimizes my labors.)

My current project is five volumes totaling about 500,000 words. There is one main story arc in five phases, multiple sub-plot arcs, and multiple character change arcs. Reverse outlining is crucial for designing the reveals, setups, and foreshadowing required to sustain the story. Often I know the destination, but I must discover the path. Reverse outlining does that for me.

Thank you for your guidance.

I look forward to winning the book. I am in constant need of continuing education.
Lester [at that there] LesterDCrawford [period] com
http://www.TheDragonUniverse.com
The Dragon Universe on Facebook

Julieann Wrightson - Author of The Wild Hunt

I am a budding author and I would love to have a copy of this book. I am tackling my first novel and I want to plot it out first however I am confused with all of the advice that is offered. I found advise that KM Weildman has given is brilliant and it resonates well with my writing style. Even if I do not win I’ll buy a copy anyhow. Thank-you for this oppotunily…….

Fiona Ingram
8 years ago

I really enjoyed this post. Something that helps me is writing a synopsis of each chapter after it is finished. Then I read the entire manuscript chapter synopsis backwards. It works even better reading the whole manuscript in reverse because you pinpoint how your characters arrive at various stages in their journey. It’s amazing how the story makes sense or nonsense as your mind works in reverse.

Kitty's Blogspace
8 years ago

ojh contact info is bidelia78@yahoo.com

Kitty's Blogspace
8 years ago

Normally I use an outline, for a guide of sorts, but for NAno I went with just an idea and let the story write itself. It’s a nightmare to revise because it has no solid plot. It was supposed to be a ‘coming of age story’ and instead I spend 100 of 150 pages with the MC adjusting to her new way of life. -_-

What was I thinking? I know how It’s supposed to end… But getting from beginning to ending just isn’t working with the first draft I have. 150 pages. over 82K words and no discernible pot. Talk about frustrating!

I wonder if this book would help me fix this mess?

Julie Musil
8 years ago

K.M. is a genius, and this is BRILLIANT! I love the idea of working backwards. I’ve never tried it before. Thanks!

Alison K Hertz
8 years ago

Thanks for this suggestion. I am struggling with the closure at the end of the book. I don’t want to wrap it all up with a bow. I want to leave the reader satisfied that questions were answered but wanting to know more and continue reading about the main character. I will see if I can come up with the end and then work my way there logically.

Deb Marshall
8 years ago

erm, my contact info is

justdeb at debamarshall dot com

Deb Marshall
8 years ago

I am a forever struggler with the murky middle. Great post and thanks for the giveaway!

Karen S. Elliott
8 years ago

I work all sorts of ways, outlining, panster…And I often write, or at least, imagine the end first. How I want it to come out or the final scene. I write a lot of horror, so it usually ends badly. I am “writing” one novel, and I’ve been outlining that to death. I think it’s time to actually start the novel.

Robin McCormack
8 years ago

I have the book now and super super awesome. I have a hole in my story now and just what I needed – a reminder to try reverse outlining. Highly recommend K.M’s book.

JessG
8 years ago

Awesome giveaway! Thanks for the tips on reverse outlining. I’ve been trying to figure out how to work with certain storylines and I know I need to outline but it’s by far my biggest weakness in writing a story. I am a panster writer and I get so many holes or other problems in the story if I can’t follow some type of an outline.

jessicagobble@gmail.com