The Reverse Outline Shines Again

In today’s Journal

* Quote of the Day
* Topic: The Reverse Outline Shines Again
* Sigh… More Controversy
* Of Interest

Quote of the Day

“October 1st… Climb back on. That’s what I will be doing.” Dean Wesley Smith

“I finally get it now. There really is no danger of over-describing. If it’s coming from the [POV] characters instead of my own brain, it makes sense for the story because it’s what they’re feeling, sensing, experiencing.” Chynna Pace, mentoring student

Topic: The Reverse Outline Shines Again

I can’t forcefully enough express the importance and usefulness of the reverse outline.

For those who haven’t heard the term before, at its most basic, a reverse outline is exactly what it sounds like: instead of constructing an outline (conscious, critical mind) and then forcing the characters and story to conform to it (this is ALWAYS a horrible idea), the reverse outline is something writers create after the fact.

The reverse outline is most useful as a quick reference as you write: If a character you introduced in Chapter 3 comes onstage again in Chapter 8, what was the color of that character’s eyes or hair? What was his or her profession (if it matters)? Was s/he tall or short? Quick-witted or dull? etc.

Quickly referring to a reverse outline for such details is much quicker, less confusing, and less disruptive than searching back through the novel to find that information.

Dean Wesley Smith uses reverse outlines too. He keeps his on a legal pad laying beside his writing computer. He adds to it with a pen at the end of each chapter. I keep mine on a text document that I open with Notepad. For me, that’s easier. Whatever works for you is fine.

Include General Nice-to-Know Information—I’m not sure what information Dean puts on his RO other than the short chapter summaries.

For mine, I put the title of the novel at the top, the number if it’s in a series, then a list of the primary characters and their attributes (hair and eye color, height, build, profession, etc.) Of course, I add to that list as I go along and new characters appear.

Next I make a list of any cities, towns, villages, buildings, businesses, and other significant places. I add to that list as I go along too.

The Actual Reverse Outline—Below that, the actual reverse outline begins.

I list the chapter numbers vertically along the left margin. I’ll write a brief chapter summary alongside each of those AFTER I’ve written that chapter. Again, I’m not planning and writing what WILL happen or even what I WANT to happen. I’m writing what DID happen. Hence, reverse outline.

What I Do—As most of you know, when I write fiction, I roll off the parapet of my novel and race through the trenches of the story with the characters. I try to keep up, and I record what happens and what my characters say and do. Because after all, it’s their story. They, not I, are living it.

I write for about an hour at a time, and that equates to a major scene or chapter. When I’ve finished a session, I take a brief break, if only to walk away and back. When I come back, I cycle back through what I’ve just written.

Cycling is sort of like revision, but its done by the characters and from the creative subconscious, not by me from my conscious, critical mind. I’m not “looking for” things to correct or fix as I read. I’m just reading for pleasure.

But as I read, I rest my fingers on the keyboard so my characters can touch the story as they deem necessary. Cycling through a 1000 to 1400 word chapter generally takes only a few minutes, as long as it takes to read.

Once I’ve finished cycling, I click on the Notepad text document that holds my reverse outline to bring it to the front. Next to the chapter number, I write a few quick sentences about what happened in that chapter. (After all, I’ve just read it.) Then I click Save, then go back to the whitespace in the manuscript, and start writing again.

Now to the “new” use I’ve found for my reverse outlines. As I was writing my current novel (another novel in a series), some characters and situations from my previous novel in that series started to reappear.

Of course, I couldn’t remember every detail about them. I wrote that novel in August 2021. For a moment, I felt a little sick to my stomach. I thought I would have to make time to read over my previous novel to get those characters and situations back into my head. Not that I don’t enjoy reading my own work—I do—but I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the novel I’m writing now.

Then, I had a lightbulb moment: I remembered I’d probably written a reverse outline for that novel. I hate to admit it, but I don’t create a reverse outline for every novel I write. But I checked in the folder for that novel, and happily, I had created one for the novel in question.

So instead of spending a few pleasurable hours last night reading that novel, I can spend a several pleasurable minutes today reading over my reverse outline, then get back to writing the current novel.

Barring any major life events, I’ll finish this novel around the end of this month. Knowing me, I’ll start the next one the following day.

I can’t begin to tell you how good it feels to be back and walking in tall cotton. I’m working with several folks who are focused and serious about the craft, and I have a novel flowing out of me like it has somewhere to be. Can’t get much better than that.

Sigh… More Controversy

There’s more controversy over me teaching WITD, and I really don’t understand. Why does anyone care what I teach? If students try WITD and it works, they’re ahead. If it doesn’t work for whatever reason, they’ve lost nothing. So what’s the downside?

Anyway, to read the latest (both Anitha K’s comment and my response), click

I enjoy a good argument as much as the next person, but refuting claims and stating positions takes up far too much writing time. Maybe if I were routinely mired in the old plot/write/revise/critique/rewrite/edit/polish thing, I wouldn’t mind so much. But the way I write has only one step: Write.

Anyway, completely my fault. I ended a writing session, and when I came back from a short break, instead of going directly back to the story I decided to check email. I need to stop doing that. (grin) I kid, but seriously folks, I don’t care how you write.

If your conscious, critical mind tells you WITD will never work or will work only if it’s altered to include some critical mind input, that’s fine. But please don’t email me or leave comments about it on the site. You won’t be telling Journal readers anything they can’t find from thousands of other sources on any given day.

And you definitely won’t convince me because I’ve been there and done that. Frankly, I’d rather stop writing fiction altogether than go back.

If you’re willing to learn to trust yourself—if I can help you escape the drudgery of constructing a novel and assist you in finding the freedom of WITD and Heinlein’s Rules—email me. I’d be happy to help you move forward to where I am. But I will never go back to where you are.

As I said, been there, done that, and I don’t even want the t-shirt.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Restart Motivation” at

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1250 words

Writing of Carmen Morales (novel, tentative title)

Day 1…… 3007 words. Total words to date…… 3007

Total fiction words for September……… 6284
Total fiction words for the year………… 72715
Total nonfiction words for September… 15150
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 143380
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 216095

Calendar Year 2022 Novels to Date…………………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 0
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 0
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 67
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: Along with discussing various aspects of the writing craft, I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. WITD is “the only way” to write, but it is by far the easiest, most liberating, and most fun.

2 thoughts on “The Reverse Outline Shines Again”

    • Obviously I don’t believe I misconstrued anything. If I misunderstood, I apologize. If not, we can agree to disagree. Whether, what, and how you or others choose to write is none of my business in any practical way.

      If you read my response to your original comment, you’ll see why I don’t consider WITD any sort of “process/system.” See, I don’t like things being misconstrued either, and WITD being a “process/system, like every other writing process/system out there” is a faulty, inaccurate basis for the rest of your argument. That was the controversy to which I referred. I always allow a free exchange of ideas in comments as long as they’re respectful, but the keyword there is “exchange.” Perhaps I should have just written in response, “Okay, thanks,” then signed off.

      In your original comment, you also wrote, “For some people, the big picture is enough.” Personally, I have to assume they “see” the entire story before they begin. “Others may need more detailed steps. Yet others may need a map/outline just so they can deviate from it.” (Ahem. Or so they can adhere to it.) None of these choices address the writers who simply convey the characters’ story (WITD). For those folks, having no picture at all except the one that unfolds as they write is perfect. For them, it’s enough that they’ve been welcomed by the characters to witness and report the characters’ story.

      That’s all I’m saying. If nobody is threatened by that, wonderful. That is as it should be. And if they are threatened by it, maybe they need to check in with themselves re their self-confidence.

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