Today we’re talking about one of my favorite revision tools, the reverse outline!
So, first off, when can you use this tool? Anytime after you have a completed first draft. Whatever that looks like for you, if you have words down from the beginning to the ending of your story, you should be able to use this.
What is it exactly? The reverse outline is a spreadsheet that helps you break down your story to analyze its individual pieces BUT ALSO lets you easily look at it as a whole. After all, it’s hard to see where exactly your plot and romance beats fall when you’re just looking at page after page of words. This tool should also help you see what scenes are doing a lot of work, which ones may not be moving the story forward much or at all, and can help you keep track of important consistency details like which characters were present in a scene, when a scene took place, etc.
Here’s a reverse outline template you can use: Reverse Outline Template
And I’ve also created a brief example using the early scenes of my book, Second Star to the Left: Second Star to the Left – Reverse Outline Example
You’ll notice that this spreadsheet is primarily broken down by scenes. Yes, there is a column for chapters too, but it’s important to really focus on each scene and make sure it’s doing work for the plot and the characters. One scene can often equal one chapter. Or it could be several chapters. Or maybe a few short scenes make up one longer chapter. This will vary, but every scene in the book should be important and resulting in movement for the characters and/or plot, which is why we break things down at a scene level.
This template is just that, a template. You can add or remove columns as you see fit to help you analyze your story.
So, how do we get from the blank template to a completed one?
I suggest sitting down with the template and your manuscript open. Read through your manuscript, starting at the very beginning (do NOT try to fill this out just from memory). As you go, fill out the spreadsheet for each scene you read, based only on what you’re seeing the pages. If you already notice something you want to add, change or tweak later, make a note of that in the ‘to-do’ column of your reverse outline. Do not tackle any edits (other than minor typo corrections) at this point.
Keep reading and taking notes until you’ve reached the end of your manuscript.
At this point, you should have all of the rows and most of the columns filled in on your spreadsheet.
Now is when the analysis begins!
Start with the big picture items, namely the major plot and romance beats. When you look at the outline of scenes and word counts, do these things fall where you want them to? Is the midpoint truly near the middle? Are the plot points roughly where you want them to be? Does the relationship arc move too quickly or too slowly? This is a good point to figure out where you may have too much going on (and thus be slowing down the story), or where maybe you need to add more. Leave yourself notes on this in the spreadsheet. Maybe everything is falling where you want it. If so, great!
Once you’ve identified all the major changes you want to make (I’m talking adding, cutting, or moving scenes, adding and removing characters, changing plot points, etc), it’s time for another revision pass. Go and make those changes.
Once you’ve finished all the major changes you want to make, update your reverse outline and analyze it again. How does the story feel now? Look good? If so, move on to smaller changes.
The reverse outline can be great for helping you track the little details of your story too and making sure things are consistent throughout.
For example, if you track the date and location where scenes happen in your spreadsheet, you can easily confirm and correct references in your manuscript. I.e. If a character says “the party is in two days” and you’ve kept up with your spreadsheet, you can see if that’s accurate. Same for what characters appear in which scenes, when character learn vital pieces of information, etc. Think of it as a guidebook for your story. Now, instead of going back and rereading scenes and chapters to remember what happens and the details of it, you can just refer to your spreadsheet. So much faster, right?
There’s also an unexpected bonus that comes from completing a reverse outline.
See that description column? Well, if you add all those descriptions together, you’ve mostly written the dreaded synopsis! You might need to weave in a little of what the characters learn and their situation at the beginning of the story, but the heavy-lifting is done.
There are so many ways you can use this tool to help you revise and edit your story, and I’ve just listed a few of them. I highly encourage you to download the template and give it a try for yourself. Maybe it’s not the method for you and that’s okay, not everything works for everyone, but you never know until you give it a try.
Hopefully this makes analyzing and revising your manuscript a little bit easier. 😊