The Journal: On Reverse Outlines

In today’s Journal

* Topic: On Reverse Outlines
* Today
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Topic: On Reverse Outlines

A patron wrote to ask me, in part, to explain reverse outlines in more detail.

While I’m writing a novel, occasionally I have to fact-check something that happened earlier in the novel. That might be a place name (name of a town or building, etc.) or an aspect of a character description (eye color, hair color, what they’re wearing, etc.) or a timeline item (what time they left the bar, etc.) if correct timelines are important to the story.

Using a reverse outline is easier that searching for the fact I need using Word’s search tool. And it’s far easier than scrolling back through the previous chapters until I find what I need.

So first, a definition —

A reverse outline is basically a brief synopsis of each major scene or chapter. It’s called a “reverse” outline because you fill it out as you write the book AFTER each chapter is written.

This is in no way an outline in the traditional sense. It isn’t any kind of “plan” that you force on the story. It aways occurs after the fact.

I take a break after writing about 1000 words. When I come back to the novel, I cycle back through what I’ve written. That’s usually when I fill out my reverse outline for that chapter or major scene.

Sometimes, however, when I’ve finished cycling I get right back into the book, and writing the story ALWAYS takes precedence. When that happens, I wait and add to the reverse outline for the past two or three chapters at the end of the day.

I don’t keep a reverse outline for short stories. Shrug.

I DO keep a reverse outline for novels and for series. (The reverse outlines from individual novels in a series can be compiled to create a series bible.)

For one-off novels, I don’t usually add the last few chapters to my reverse outline. Why would I? As I near the end of the novel, the reverse outline has already done its job.

For novels in series, I usually DO add even the last few chapters to the reverse outline because characters, situations, and settings might return in a future novel in that series.

Constructing the Reverse Outline

I keep my own reverse outline in a text (.txt) document in Notepad. At the top is the title followed by the word “notes.” (That also becomes the title of the Notepad document. So I have my Word file titled “Novel Name.doc” and my reverse outline file titled “Novel Name notes.txt”.)

Below the title, my reverse outline is composed of three parts:

First I list the character names and what they do in order of appearance (if the characters and what they do matters). I add to this list each time a new character appears in a chapter.

Second, I make a list of place names (if necessary). Place names might be towns, cities, buildings, parks or whatever. Usually these are significant settings or destinations.

Then the actual reverse outline begins. In the actual outline, I write a sentence or two about what happened in the chapter. That is generally Who did What and Where it happened (setting). If I switched to a different POV character in that chapter, I write POV SWITCH right after the chapter number. If I write two major scenes (different settings) in one chapter, I write BREAK and then a sentence or two about the second scene.

If I wrote a thorough description of the character or setting in that chapter, I add DESC (also in all caps so I can see it easily) after the character name or place (setting) name. That tells me exactly where I can go in the book later to find the description.

So if I’m writing about Character C in Chapter 17 and I need part of his description, I can look at my reverse outline and see plainly that I described him back in Chapter 3. This is a huge time saver.

Then, in a bit of overkill, at the end of the document I add a full character description for each major character as a quick reference if I think I might need it later. That almost always includes height, weight, hair length and color, eye color, any distinguisihing marks (scar, shape of nose, cauliflower ear, etc.) including their clothing.

This isn’t something you “have” to do. But if you’ve ever spent minutes scrolling back through a novel to find a character’s eye color, a reverse outline can be indispensible. Just sayin’.

Here’s a screenshot of part of the reverse outline I created for my latest novel, The Cazadores Lounge and Lonely Place (The ellipses indicate where I cut out chapters to create a better sample):

NOTE: If you can’t read the graphic well enough or if you’d like a full example, email me at

Today I’m going to file this edition of the Journal early. Later today I’ll read and study, and maybe write some fiction. I’m fully aware my Feb 29 deadline looms, but I honestly believe once I start my next novel, it will fly. So no worries. (grin)

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

FWIW see “Keeping Track” at If this will help you, go for it. Seeing the numbers grow below does this for me.

See “Faux Writing Instructors” at

The Numbers

Fiction words today…………………… XXXX
Nonfiction words today…………… 900 (Journal)

Writing of

Day 1…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX

Total fiction words for the month……… 9589
Total fiction words for the year………… 75133
Total nonfiction words for the month… 4850
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 36110
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 111243

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 2
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 5
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 47
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 201
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31