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 500When 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.

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Should You Outline Backwards?

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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!

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