Outlining Backward

I distrust most writing advice I see online, but yesterday’s article by Charlie Jane Anders on io9.com includes some advice I agree with.

This article, “One Weird Trick For Cutting Down Your Novel,” is mostly about using outlining to see where your story is structurally weak, and where you might cut content or remove entire scenes, if they’re redundant.

Many writers don’t believe in outlining in advance. They feel doing so robs the actual writing process of the “magic of creation,” which they consider the fun part. These writers argue that once the outline’s written, they already know what’s going to happen, so they have a hard time getting motivated to actually write the story out.

I believe in outlining. I think it’s important that a story have a basic structure, and that every scene contribute something. Writers who go by the seat of their pants often end up including scenes that are digressive or redundant, just because they’re having fun following their muse through the story.

If you can’t outline in advance, I get it. What you might do instead, though, is what I call the reverse outline.

If a standard outline is an advance plan for a story, a reverse outline works in reverse. It looks at a story that has already been fully written, and outlines the structure, and the function of each scene. Reverse outlining often reveals that a given scene ended up not really serving any purpose, or did something that is repeated elsewhere.

It might also reveal that the story’s shape is broken. A story might have intersperse scenes that move the story forward with scenes that stop and think, or establish atmosphere or character, or look backward. An outline might reveal you’ve created a big lull in the middle of your story, maybe several scenes in a row where nothing much happens.

It’s a way of seeing your entire story at a glance. Zoom out, like a painter standing back across the room to take in the whole picture at once. This is especially useful if your story is too long, and you’re looking for places to cut, but even if it’s not about cutting, the reverse outline can help you find weak spots that need shoring-up.

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