Should You Outline Backwards?

Should You Outline Your Book Backwards?

When you think of outlines, you generally think 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. It only makes sense that 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 that sometimes the most effective way to outline is to outline your book backwards.

How to Use “The Domino Effect” to Outline Your Book Backwards

Outlining Your Novel 500

Outlining Your Novel (affiliate link)

When I begin outlining a story, I usually have only a handful of scenes in mind. My job during the outlining period is to connect the dots between those scenes. I 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 outline your book backwards.

The Occasional Problem With a Linear Outline

For example, in the work-in-progress I’m currently outlining, I know one of my POV characters is going to be waylaid and injured seriously enough to knock him out of commission for several weeks.

However, I don’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 (when he meets another character at a dinner party), and building one plot point upon another, until I reach my next known point (when he’s injured).

But because my chain of events is based on what’s already behind me (the dinner party), more than what’s away off in the future (the waylaying), my attempts to bridge the two are likely to be less than cohesive.

By the time I work my way to the waylaying, my progression of events could have led me to something entirely different—and squeezing in the waylaying becomes a gymnastic effort instead of a natural flowing of plot. Plus, the fact that I have no idea what’s supposed to happen right after the dinner party means that I’m likely to invent random and inconsequential events to fill space until I figure out what needs to happen.

My solution?

You got it: work backwards.

Learn How to Outline Your Book Backwards

Starting at the end of the plot progression—the waylaying—I started asking questions that will lead me to discover the plot point immediately preceding.

  • How was he 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?

If I know these things, I’ll know how I need to set the scene up, and if I know how to set the scene up, I’ll know what scene to put in the previous slot in the outline. Eventually, I can work myself all the way back to the dinner party.

Suddenly, I have a complete sequence of events, all of which are cohesive, linear, and logical enough to make my story tight and intense.

Facing the wide unknown of a story can be 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 plot 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.

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Should You Outline Backwards?

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Hmm, what an interesting idea. I’ve never looked at outlining this way, and though I’m newish to outlining, I think I may try it–maybe even for my NaNo project. I’m partially through the outline now, and probably don’t have much left, but I did run into a roadblock recently, so going to the end and working backwards may get me out of my rut! 🙂

    What a great tip!

    (Also, thanks for linking to my blog!)

  2. Hope it helps you past the rut! And you’re very welcome for the link.

  3. I’ve never thought of starting your outline by doing it backwards…but it makes so much sense. Great way to have to make yourself work around different situations!

  4. I don’t outline backwards *all* the time, but it really is great for thinking around problems.

  5. Loved this post. I worked backwards on my first novel a lot because it is a mystery–for exactly the reasons mentioned.

    Actually, I wrote both forwards and backwards–my first few chapters came first, then the climax chapter, and then I worked toward the middle.

  6. Sounds like working backwards works for seat-of-the-pantsers too, then!

  7. Well, since I’m stuck, I think I’ll try this. I know what I want to happen down the road, but getting there is the problem.

  8. I’m working backwards for a YA fantasy novel I’m planning. It’s really helpful for figuring all the parts out.

  9. @Lorna: Even if outlining backwards doesn’t end up being your thing, mixing things up when you’re stuck is always a good idea.

    @Scribbler: I’ve never outlined an entire novel back to front. It’s usually just sections.

  10. Great post! I’ve done this before in some senses… if I’ve gotten stuck on a chapter and jumped forward to something else, then worked backwards to figure out how to get from the first one to the next one.

    I’ve also written the ending first. Then worked back from there.

    Congrats on your new book! How exciting! I left you an award on my blog this week. I don’t know if you do that sort of thing, but I’ve been reading your blog for a while and really enjoyed it, so I thought I’d link you to some of my other writer friends who otherwise might not know you.

  11. Writing the ending first has always intrigued me, although I’ve never done it.

    Thanks so much for the blog award! I don’t usually post them on my blog, but I definitely appreciate them! Which blog is it on? I’m not finding it. 🙁

  12. You’re too fast for me! 🙂

    I set it to post at midnight… in 20 minutes. It’s on the Some Mad Hope one. I just didn’t want to stay up until midnight notifying everyone! 🙂

  13. Well, then, I shall look at it then! 🙂 Thanks so much, Heidi!

  14. The timing of your post is perfect. This week I’ll begin outlining my second novel and the backwards approach might just work for me. Thanks!

  15. Great idea. I can see where backwards outlining could be very beneficial especially for writers of mysteries and thrillers.

  16. @Sharon: It’s definitely worth a shot! Good luck with your new story!

    @Tamera: Yes, I think it’s particularly crucial (at one point or another in the production) for mystery writers, simply because their endings have to be so tight.

  17. I’m too busy reading BEHOLD THE DAWN to read your blog post today. I kid you not, I’m loving it.

    This is another book I wouldn’t have chosen myself. Knowing you wrote it, gave me the push. Once again, as with A MAN CALLED OUTLAW, I find myself intrigued by the story you’ve created.

    You are one heck of a writer. You waste no words and the ones you weave together in your sentences speak concisely and clearly. There’s never a dull moment. I love your characters.

    I’ve gotta go. Your book is calling me.

  18. Interesting method for working through plot problems. Thanks for the idea.

    I usually do mini-outlines (chapter, scene, maybe even a page) to keep myself on track for what I want to accomplish with the text. Long outlines and I usually don’t get along as well.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

  19. @Shaddy: You know how to make a girl smile, don’tcha? 😀

    @Elizabeth: Everybody has to find the writing style that works best for them. Outlining backwards is just a temporary technique, for the most part.

  20. When I write my posts I sometimes have an idea but most often tend to write backwards or from the middle. Then the beginning just happens. Sometimes, as tonight, my thoughts did not stop and I ended up writing 1 post and then 3 more future ones. It is funny how if I let my creative side take over, writing just happens. And most often, the outcome is unexpected from I originally planned.

  21. Yep, it’s great because it definitely works well for nonfiction as well.

  22. Great idea about outlining backwards. I did that for the second novel I wrote. I even wrote my two last chapters after the first two. I needed that definite endzone for my bizarre, twisty story, to make sure everything was heading in that direction. Then I was able to build in those clues and strange threads, and make sure everything was tethered to that end.

  23. “Bizarre, twisty” stories are hard enough to write when you know where you’re going! They’re nearly impossible (without serious, serious rewrites, anyway) to get right without a solid outline.

  24. Yep, did this for books 2-4 of my current series, and books 1-4 of my next series.

    However, books 2-4 could use some fleshing out, as the kids are going to want the sequel RIGHT away after I read book 1 to them after Christmas.

    Of course, they won’t get it. I can’t write that fast or they’ll yell about how they never see me.

    Speaking of which, gotta run home and write some more of book 4!

    Love your blog, Katie!

  25. Sounds like you’re the master of backwards then! How awesome that your kids are so eager to read your writing. Great Christmas present!

  26. Hey, found your blog through the Yodeling Dwarf.
    I’m a follower now. You’ve got my interest!

  27. Thanks for stopping by, Reesha! Hope you enjoy the blog.

  28. outlining backwards… I really like that idea. I can see why it would be very successful. Thanks for the pointer 🙂

  29. I’m actually surprised at the number of people who have commented that they outline backwards consistently – or entirely. For me, it’s just a tool, something to get me past the tricky parts.

  30. I heard once you should plan out your ending and then write your book in order to get to that point.

  31. I almost always have an ending in mind when I begin. But some people find that defeating. For them, the whole point of writing is discovering what the ending is.

  32. This post was especially for me. I am outlining for the first time, and the uncertainity of the events ahead is more than unsettling.

    I love the idea of an overall picture.

    I will be glad to play around with outlining backwards. It sounds like an interesting method.

  33. Glad you found it helpful! For me, outlining is what keeps the big picture from being overwhelming. It’s the road map. Have fun with your experimenting!

  34. Great idea! I am currently on a road trip and have found that mapping backwards was a great way to plan. So this post really struck home for me. Thank you.

  35. Funny how real life mirrors fiction (or vice versa), isn’t it?

  36. Please see my blog and the reviews on amazon.com for your book, Behold The Dawn.

  37. Shaddy, you’re such a dear! Thanks so much for the lovely review. 🙂

  38. I don’t normally double-comment but thought I would since I have an extra point to make –

    Back when I was a kid, (too many years ago) I started about 15 novels during my hs years.

    Those books I started with a cool idea – One was: Kids that find an ad for an airplane cheap, buy it, tow it home by shipping the wings, get a VW engine, and drop it in, get the plane running, and go on an adventure.

    They happen to have an airfield at home (crop-dusting legacy).

    That’s what I started with, and got to the point where the plane was working, and they had to get somebody who was a licensed pilot to show them ‘how to fly’. Then…

    I got stuck. What happens next!? It’s a way-cool idea, but I had no goal in mind, no overarching plot, no direction. I wrote to the end of the first main objective, and couldn’t get further.

    I think when you just ‘sit down and write’, you start with an idea, but without an outline, your story will stall when the creative flow runs low.

    I try to tell my kids and friend writers that outlines are essential, not just a ‘neat idea’ for pinhead organizing freaks.

    I can safely say that without one I wouldn’t have completed any books at all – the books I started ‘way back when’ are a silent testimony to that…

    So… all that to say, whether you write back to front, or plot front to ‘where the heck will this take us’, you need the outline to get past the writers blocks that will undoubtedly come along.

  39. Great thoughts! I’m glad you double-commented!

    I wrote only my first novel without any kind outline. My outlines have gotten progressively more in-depth with each book. And I think it shows. The better my outline; the better my story. Hasn’t failed yet!

  40. What a wonderful idea. I never thought to plot backwards.

    This year a took a class that taught me how to plot, but I often times found myself frustrated. Then, when I actually got to the process of writing, the stories felt forced and choppy.

    This morning I put to use your advice, and what started to evolve has a much smoother and natural flow. Thanks for the wonderful advice, and thanks to Shaddy for leading me to your site.

  41. Excellent! Glad you were able to make a breakthrough!

  42. This is a very interesting concept which I will definitely try. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  43. Hope you find it helpful in your own story plotting!

  44. I haven’t thought about it that way. It surely will make the process a lot easier. Since the high times comes to mind easily, but thinking about the events leading to them are quite tricky. This, I guess, will make it easier.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The causal links between the “big” scenes can get tricky. We know we want two different and important things to happen, but it’s not always clear how to link them. Reverse outlining is great for that.

      • Yeah! And if you have an idea that the third plot point of the story would be the war between humans and dragons, it gets more harder to figure it out how would you get there, unless of course, you reversely make the events leading to it 😀
        (That’s what I am going through.)

  45. robert easterbrook says

    I’m going to fully try this on my next book. 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.