Getting Started Writing: The Reverse Outline
For this blog series, we're looking at the steps I like to go through at the beginning of a writing project. So far, we've talked about collecting and reviewing content, creating character templates, and creating a reading list. This week, we finally get started writing! Or, at least, chat about how I keep things organized as I go. I want to share a trick I use during drafting, prepping my material in order to create a reverse outline.
When I say 'reverse,' I don't mean backwards, last chapter to first. What I mean is, an outline created from the material already written. I prefer to plan out characters, motivations, goals and know what the end game is, but at the same time, pants my way through the chapters in order to get to that point. All that said, a story needs a skeleton, a framework that keeps the arcs in place, the catalyst stamped at the front, and the climaxes slowly building tension throughout the novel.
The framework is a must at some point in every story. It's this skeleton all (most) fiction is built around, the 3 Act arc that readers expect in their stories, though the details differ drastically. I use an outline to help build that arc, but I don't create the outline until I'm done writing.
But! ... Instead of going back and lumping the work of the framework together at the end of the first draft, I keep track of everything as I go, a few seconds here and there that end up saving a lot of time later on. Personally, I hate feeling like I've wasted time, and this is my way of managing my writing time so it makes sense to me.
Before we get started, I want to share that I use Scrivener, and the screen shots I use for the examples show how the software helps with this organization. That being said, this is a simple exercise that is easily transferred, whether in a word processor that supports bookmarking and comments, or in a separate notebook or spreadsheet.
The concept of prepping / creating the reverse outline is simple. As I work my way through the first draft, I write a short description of what happens in each scene, and I title it, just like you would in an outline, but this work is done during the project, not before. I don't use roman numerals, or even chapter numbers, because at this point chapters may still move around. Instead, as I have a big cast, I label each chapter based on which character's viewpoint is being shown, and how often they've shown up. So in the screen shot, you'll see E1, which is Ember's first chapter. N1 is Nicu's first chapter. Easy, right?
This allows for so much flexibility in moving things around, yet keeping an eye on what's going on. It also allows for quick changes in order, as all I have to change is the number on the label in order to slip it into the correct place. For the chapters labeled with a +, those chapters had not existed in the first draft. The plus allows me to keep track of this new material, a sign that I need to pay special attention moving forward to make sure the information in it and surrounding it flows into the story as if it had been there all along.
As I write, I also use Scrivener's notecard feature to write a few sentences about each scene. This is another time saving tip that comes in handy once I'm ready to mold what I've written into the 3 Act story framework, using the micro jumps found in Save the Cat Writes a Novel. I don't have to worry too much about that part, yet, since we're still hacking through the first rough draft, but I do want to have all these little pieces of information ready once it's time to build the whole picture into something cohesive.
Then, at the end, I have my outline. Chapter 'titles,' mini descriptions, and the start of a framework I can build on from there. It's how I wrangle in the pantsing side of me and provide a head start to the planning that is always necessary at some point in the writing process. It's how I find the holes that I plug with the + chapters, and create a cohesive story line from start to finish - even though the story did not start out that way.
Whether you're a beginner or have long since started, has any of this struck home with you? What pre-writing set up do you work on, or are you a dive right in writer? Anything you'd like me to elaborate on, or a different topic you'd like me to blog about? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.
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