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Unraveling your narrative with a reverse outline

Have you ever found yourself lost in the labyrinth of your own writing? Do your characters often run away with the plot? Are you staring at a manuscript with hundreds of pages, wondering where your storyline veered off course or if your themes are as cohesive as you intended? Whether you're a plotter or pantser, these can be familiar questions and feelings, and it can be difficult to know where your plot may have started to go wrong. Author, meet the reverse outline!

A reverse outline can be a handy tool for helping you find the knots in your tangled narrative. Even the best plotters who have created a detailed outline prior to writing can benefit from the insight of a reverse outline. While a traditional outline serves as a road map for what lies ahead in your writing journey, the reverse outline is akin to retracing your steps, unraveling the threads of your story to see how they weave together. It's a retrospective analysis and a magnifying glass for scrutinizing the structure, pacing, and coherence of your manuscript.

In this blog post, I'll discuss the parts that make up a reverse outline and why creating a reverse outline for your book can be a game changer.

Parts of the reverse outline

There isn't a single "right" way to create a reverse outline, but I am going to share what has worked for me. The first step is simple: open a new Word doc (or Google doc or document on whatever word processor you use), put the book title and your name at the top, then start with Chapter 1. Each chapter will act as a heading with each scene in the chapter appearing beneath it in bullet points. Following a dash or underneath the chapter header, you might include information about the time/location of the scene. Feel free to change font/typography or typographical emphasis (bold, italic, etc.) or font size for each outline element to make them visually distinctive and easy to read for you. Example:

Chapter 1 – time/location information

  • Scene 1

  • Scene 2

  • Scene 3

The key element

As you reread your narrative, you'll fill in three types of information for each scene for which you will need to choose three colors. I always use red, blue, and black, but any colors will work as long as you know what they mean!

In black font, I record the events, the facts, (essentially, a summary) of each scene. Who was there? What happened? (When and where are included by the chapter number, but if there's a change mid-chapter, then feel free to note that in the scene summary.) If you can, include the "why" of the scene. Literally, why did the events of this scene occur? What connection do they have to a previous scene?

Then, in red font, I note a key element of the scene. There may be more than one key element in any given scene. The key element is another type of "why" of the scene. It answers the question: Why is this scene important? The key element might be a piece of the plot that moves the narrative forward, a clue or red herring, character development or backstory, world-building information, or the development of themes/motifs. The key element has to support or influence the plot in some way. If a scene lacks a key element or if the key element is weakly connected to other parts of the book, then this can be a red flag, which alerts you to revise to strengthen the connection or to remove the scene entirely if it's not salvageable.

Finally, in blue font, I leave myself notes or questions related to anything (the summary or the key elements or lack thereof) in the scene. When I provide a reverse outline for an author, this is my opportunity to ask them questions that will guide meaningful revision. You might also note incomplete scenes, where you might insert a new scene, or chapters that can be expanded, split, or condensed to improve pacing.

Once the reverse outline is complete, there are many discoveries that can be made.

Rediscovering your narrative arc

Every compelling story has a beginning, middle, and end, but sometimes in the midst of writing, these essential sections of the story can become muddled. A reverse outline helps you step back and see the overarching trajectory of your narrative, including identifying key plot points, character arcs, and thematic developments, as well as moments of foreshadowing and the way subplots are woven in. This bird's–eye view empowers you to strengthen the foundation of your story, ensuring that every moment serves a purpose in driving the plot forward.

Mapping themes and motifs

Themes and motifs are the lifeblood of any book, providing depth to your storytelling. However, they can often emerge organically during the writing process, leading to inconsistencies or missed opportunities for reinforcement. A reverse outline allows you to track the evolution of your themes throughout the narrative, highlighting where they are introduced, developed, and resolved. This not only ensures thematic coherence but also enables you to strategically weave motifs into the fabric of your story, enriching the reader's experience with layers of meaning and symbolism.

Fine-tuning pacing

One of the greatest challenges in writing is maintaining momentum and keeping readers engaged from beginning to end. A well-crafted narrative should ebb and flow, balancing moments of tension with periods of reflection. Through a reverse outline, you can assess the pacing of your story, identifying areas where the narrative slows down or rushes too quickly. By analyzing the distribution of key elements, you can strategically adjust the structure of your manuscript to heighten suspense and create a smooth trajectory that propels the reader toward the book's climax.


So the next time you find yourself lost in the labyrinth of your own writing, remember to step back, take stock, and create a reverse outline. You'll gain insight into your narrative arc, subplots, character development, pacing, thematic depth, and the structural integrity. Your story—and your readers—will thank you for it.



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