Wednesday, February 18, 2015

K. M. Weiland on Outlining Your Book Backwards

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as well as Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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 outlines are those that are constructed backwards.

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.


For example, in my work-in-progress The Deepest Breath, which I’m currently outlining, I know that 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.





Starting at the end of the plot progression—the waylaying—I start 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, blank unknown of a story can be scary. 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. And the result is a story that falls into order like a row of expertly placed dominoes.





Jill here. 

Ever try outlining backward? Share in the comments below or feel free to ask questions.

To love on K. M. Weiland this month and to thank her for sharing with us, we're giving away a paperback copy of her book. Enter on the Rafflecopter form below.





87 comments:

  1. I've never outlined backward before, but I may try this now that I'm in the editing stage. It might help me make sure all my scenes are connected. Thanks for stopping by GTW, Ms. Weiland!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the great advice, Ms. Weiland! I love your blog. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Neat! Outlining has never been my strong point, but this method might work for me, 'cause I always know where I want my books to end--it's just getting there. Thanks so much for sharing, Ms. Wetland.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Huh. I might have to try this method. Maybe it'll work better for me than normal outlining. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I never actually created an outline before, or ever thought about using one. But reading this post it sounds super helpful, and this method sounds terrific. Thank you for this inspiring post!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post - I'm really excited to try this method as I've just started the first draft of a new novel :) And thanks for the giveaway!!

    ReplyDelete
  7. What a great idea! I never thought of that. I'll have to put it straight to the test with the plot I'm working on. This came at just the right time because I was having a bit of a hard time coming up with some more worth-while scenes. :)

    Thank you!!

    ReplyDelete
  8. K.M.Weiland, thanks for posting on Go Teen Writers! I follow your page and find your advice helpful. Thanks for everything you have taught me!

    P.S. I tried outlining backwards once and it really helped me avoid the pointless scenes. Trying to outline from the beginning left me with a lot of "filler" material while I was trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B. So this is a great idea!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you for the post and stopping by GTW, Ms. Weiland! :) I have your two books (Outlining and Structuring), so I was so excited when the two workbooks came out; I picked them up right away. :D Thank you so much! I love your outlining techniques, and was so excited for a hands-on workbook to get even more out of it. :) I haven't done the entire process yet--NaNo rolls around before I get through the extended outline--but I'm excited to do the whole thing . . . and the outlining backwards. Thank you for all that you do, Ms. Weiland!! It's a blessing; I've learned so much. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Just yesterday I read about outlining backwards on another writing blog. I can't wait to try it. I think filler was the main reason my first novel didn't work.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank. you. I've outlined most of my WIP but there's one place where I'm not sure how to connect these two scenes, but was afraid of creating filler, so this is a great idea! (I'm going to go try it right now!) :D
    -Deborah

    ReplyDelete
  12. I have never actually thought about outlining my book backwards. I might have to try it some time.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I've heard about this once or twice before. I've tried it between plot points I was stuck with, but never a whole novel. It' such a cool idea, though, and I might well try it on a whole book someday! Thanks for sharing! :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thank you for posting on GTW, Ms. Weiland! I've always resorted to working backwards on the trickiest bits when I'd be stuck figuring out filler otherwise. Don't know why I wait for those moments instead of trying it more regularly. :)

    ReplyDelete
  15. This is great, maybe I should start outlining backwards instead of trying to go forwards and writing by the seat of my pants :) I have a feeling that a lot of my foreshadowing will actually come to be. Thank you for posting!

    ReplyDelete
  16. This is great, maybe I should start outlining backwards instead of trying to go forwards and writing by the seat of my pants :) I have a feeling that a lot of my foreshadowing will actually come to be. Thank you for posting!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thanks for sharing with us, K.M.! We loved having you on Go Teen Writers! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thanks for the post! I haven't ever tried to outline backwards although it seems like a great method. I generally write the few scenes I have in mind then fill in all the middle stuff. Sometimes I'll have squares that say "something happens here to get my character to do/feel/say X"

    ReplyDelete
  19. Fascinating idea...
    I often start my writing with my ending, so this is exactly what I need. It is true that it's often really difficult to find a path from an unrelated beginning and end. Will be trying this soon. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  20. I am definitely going to try this next time I write a story! My writing is always so contrived because I'm trying to fit important elements of the plot in, and at the same time make sense of all of the other things popping up in my story. I'm a bit of a pantser, but I want to try some good backwards plotting and see if that helps me. (-:

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Reverse outlining is a good approach for a diehard pantser. It lets you work off your spontaneous creativity without corralling it too much.

      Delete
  21. Interesting idea - I think I'll try it next time I work on my novel.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I'm not much a plotter, but maybe I'll have to try this... Thanks for stopping on Go Teen Writers, Ms. Weiland!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's important we each find the process that works best for us - whether it's plotting or pantsing. But I always encourage authors to experiment. You never know what useful new trick you mind find!

      Delete
  23. Working backward may not seem sensible, but it really is effective! I often outline and/or write the end of the story and then work backwards.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, if you already know where you're headed, it becomes relatively easy to figure out how to get ther.

      Delete
  24. @Linea: It’s a great technique for editing as well, especially if you’re dealing with tricky continuity issues.

    @Melissa: I’m so glad you’re finding the blog useful!

    @Samantha: Sue Grafton says that “If you know the questions, you know the answers.” It’s kind of like that with outlining. If you know where you’re going, you know how to get there.

    @Sarah: It’s a fun brain exercise if nothing else!

    @Bianca: I’m a tremendous advocate of outlining (as you probably guessed!). It makes the whole process so much more sensible, stress-free, and, ultimately fun!

    @Brooke H: Have fun with it!

    @Brooke Faulkner: Yes, this is a great method for avoiding filler in between important scenes. It allows to create connecting scenes that actually matter to the plot.

    @wisdomcreates: I’m all for outlining forward, backwards, sideways—whatever helps! :p

    @Patience: Cool beans! I hope you find the workbooks useful!

    @Keturah: Thanks for reading!

    @Michaella: Well, you know what they say about great minds. ;)

    @Deborah: Sounds like just the ticket!

    @Mary: It’s definitely worth trying. It won’t be useful in every instance, but there are certain tricky plot scenarios that can benefit immensely from reverse outlining.

    @Amanda: I’ve actually never used it on an entire novel. I usually use it between plot points as well.

    @Kelsey: It’s a technique that I find most useful on the tricky bits as well. Some scenes progress so well in a linear fashion that reverse outlining would be repetitious.

    @Jessica: Nothing wrong with outlining forwards too. Both techniques, used together, only strengthen each other.

    @Jill: Thank you so much for having me!

    @Lauren: Sounds like you’re essentially outlining backwards already—just in pantser fashion!

    @Miriam: And if there’s one important thing that needs to happen to create continuity in a story it’s a linked beginning and end. Reverse outlining is definitely a great way to achieve that.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I am actually rather terrible at any sort of outlining, forward or backward.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Some writers just don't get along with outlining - and that's fine! The goal for any of us should simply be figuring our a way to optimize our creativity.

      Delete
  26. I've never tried outlining a story backwards, but it's a really interesting idea. I always have the ending in mind when I'm writing a novel, but then I usually go back to the beginning and start plotting from there. I'll keep this method in mind as I'm sure it will prove useful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Essentially, you're already outlining backwards!

      Delete
  27. Ooh, this sounds really neat, Ms. Weiland! I think that I might try this! Thank your for stopping by! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  28. Thank you so much for this post, K.M! I'm terrible at outlining, but I'm the kind of person who really needs some kind of direction before plunging in head-first. I've heard of working back from the end of book before, but you made this really understandable.

    I do have a question: How do you know when you've outlined enough? Do you plan every scene, or every chapter?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well I usually do my outlining by scenes, because I don't always know when I want there to be a chapter break. Until after I've written through everything I can't always tell when the best spot to stop is =)
      -Deborah

      Delete
    2. My own outlines are very in-depth. I plot the story out scene by scene. I love this approach, since it creates an outline that guarantees a solid, well-structured story, But there's definitely no reason you *have* to outline this thoroughly. Many pantsers find a happy medium just in outlining their major plot points.

      Delete
  29. This is an awesome post! I think I have a somewhat different approach to plotting, and I do work backwards to some extent, but I don't usually start out with a mental list of scenes that I want to execute.

    This should still be a good tool, however! I'd love to win the book!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Every writer's process should be just as unique as she is. We can learn from the tips and techniques of other writers, but ultimately the most important thing is finding and perfecting the process that is right for *us.*

      Delete
  30. This sounds like a great approach, Ms. Weiland! I just started the brainstorming stage for a book, and come to think of it, this what I did today for a scene sequence .... now, to get the scene sequence to connect to the beginning and the end, and work out what all this nebulous "brutal training at space academy" in the middle entails, and I'll have some semblance of an outline. XD

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ooh, I'm writing a novel involving space, too, Miri. I'm actually revising it right now, but I have to go back to the drawing (writing?) board and re-brainstorm almost the whole plot for my third draft rewrite. It's almost like I'm writing another novel in the same world and with the same characters and some of the scenes, but with a different plot.

      Delete
  31. I've never tried this but I have heard of it and want to try it out. And I love K. M. Weiland's blog! It's been so helpful for plotting out my current WIP. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Awesome to hear you're enjoying the blog!

      Delete
  32. Thank you, K.M.! I have never heard of this before. I was having problems with connecting the events in my story, but I'm going to try outlining backwards and see how it goes! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  33. I like to let the story write itself! Why get stuck on the idea of him being waylaid? Perhaps he has a better plan.
    Still, if that is the true heart of the story, then working backwards, asking yourself questions about the causation of the scene seems to be the best move.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is a good point. No reason to get stuck on a certain plot point if it ends up not being the best thing for the story.

      Delete
  34. Definitely haven't tried that! I'm prone to logic fails, though, and my plots often start out as a character and a premise, so thus far I'm sticking with chronology - will experiment with next ms.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Reverse outlining is actually fabulous for identifying and correcting logic fails!

      Delete
  35. You would think to go backwards...crazy 😉

    Very nice of you to comment back to people, that takes a lot of time!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My pleasure! I love interacting with writers.

      Delete
  36. I haven't tried backwards outlining, but I can see right away how it would help me. I have several key events that I can't seem to tie together. Definitely going to try this and see if it works.

    Thanks for the idea!

    ReplyDelete
  37. I have used this tactic a few times and I would have to say that it is one of my favorites. For me, as crazy as it sounds, it's easier to know the answer before I know the question. Keep up the good work K.M. Weiland. I have been and will continue to enjoy your articles.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Just figure out how his chest got so hurt and what she was wearing at the dinner party and you'll be more than halfway there.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Excellent post! I used to be a pantser but I'm trying plotting now, and plotting backwards should help. Thanks, Ms. Weiland!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We really don't have to categorize ourselves. Some writers before a mashup of "pantsing" and "outlining." Nothing wrong with either. Just find whatever works best for you!

      Delete
  40. Ooh, this is interesting! Good ideas, Ms. Weiland!

    ReplyDelete
  41. I've heard a lot about backwards outlining, but haven't given it a try yet. Maybe next time I get stuck I'll give it a shot! :)

    ReplyDelete
  42. I may just have to try this:) I need to get past my mammoth writer's block and maybe this is the trick. Thanks so much!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is a *great* exercise for getting past writer's block. Anything that makes you look at the problem from a different angle is a good thing.

      Delete
  43. this is so me. most of my stories are written... backwards. outlining is kinda hard for me because of this so i'm really thankful that i found this site and read K.M Weiland's pointers about this (Hi Ms. K.M! It's me, Wyleign from twitter! :D )

    thank you very much for this and thank you also for the giveaway. thank you for the chance!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey! Thanks for stopping by, Glad you enjoyed the post and found it useful.

      Delete
  44. This is amazing advice! *scurries to make a note of it in a current WIP* I've done this before, but never described it like you did, or made a specific point of doing outlining this way. But I think this is just what I need for one of the stories I'm working on! Thanks for posting this! :D


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great! Always fun to come across just the right trick for just the right story.

      Delete
  45. This is cool. I thought of writing chapters in reverse order once, although I'm not entirely sure it would be a good idea.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It might be a fun experiment. However, I would recommend the technique of outlining in reverse over drafting in reverse. It's important to know where a story is going in the first draft, but you'll also miss out on a lot of important subconscious developments if you're not drafting chronologically.

      Delete
  46. Wow, you're right! I have tried this reverse-plotting on one of my recent projects--which is essentially plotless; it's that bad--and I actually managed to weave a plot that makes sense. Not an amazing plot, but at least it can be called a plot. I am definitely going to use this method for my next projects, God willing. Thank you so so so much for this invaluable lesson!!

    ReplyDelete
  47. I'd always wondered how to write a mystery, thank you for this post! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! This is a great technique for writing mysteries. It's very helpful in realizing what clues would exist and where to plant them.

      Delete
  48. This is where being dyslexic is helpful! My thoughts are always jumbled and backwards! :)

    ReplyDelete
  49. I think I've done this before, but never really thought about it has 'Reverse Outlining'.
    I want to thank you for the helpful things you've written about writing. I am currently working through your 'Outlining your Novel' workbook, and it is so very helpful! Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad you're enjoying the workbook! Makes my day to hear it's been useful.

      Delete
  50. I was thrilled to see K.M Weiland posting right here on Goteenwriters, I love both GTW and HelpingWritersbecomeauthors, and it's amazing to see you all come together to give us top of the line writing advice we can count on. Thanks a bunch to all of you for being so helpful!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yay! Awesome to hear you're enjoying the site.

      Delete
  51. Thank you so much for this post! I always struggle with plotting my story ahead of time, which later leads to a lack of conflict in my story. A lot of the conflict is actually in the mystery/backstory that I figure out as I go along. I think working backwards will help me see where I'm going and get there a lot more efficiently.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely. Backstory is tremendously important for creating subtext, but we also need it to contribute to the conflict in the main part. Reverse outlining is great for figuring that out.

      Delete
  52. This is a very interesting method! I'll have to try it out while plotting my next book.

    ReplyDelete

Home