The Reverse Outline

The late Terry Prachett wrote, “Read with the mindset of a carpenter looking at trees.” I don’t know about you, but once I became a serious writer, my reading habits shifted. No longer did I waste time reading poor prose and gorgeous sentences could stop any forward momentum as I decoded their construction. Chekov, Doctorow and Waugh continue to amaze me.

Professor Skip Horak introduced to me the reverse outline as part of my Stanford writing program. Our cohort read Toni Morrison‘s Beloved and Michael Chabon‘s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and were provided with brief examples of reverse outlines on each. They were the ultimate carpenter-looking-at-trees analysis! We then had to select books, which contained elements similar to our in-process novels. In this way, the outlines of existing works could provide roadmaps to inform our own. For my novel Finding Grace, I chose The Tiger’s Wife because she jumped back-and-forth through time, utilizing two point-of-view, intertwining generational stories.

Translation bookWhat exactly is a reverse outline? If a normal outline is written prior to any work being done, then a reverse outline is composed on a completed work. It examines craft and is particularly helpful when one wants to see how the point-of-view, dialogue, and exposition work together to create arcs, tension, and narrative.

If you decide to try this on your own, select a work you admire. As you read, take notes in the form of bullet points. If you’ve selected a book, break your outline down by chapter. In the outline, note the following:

  • Point-of-View, Time, Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, and Denouement. If you are unsure of how to identify these, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction is an excellent resource.
  • Note how the author moves back and forth in time.
  • What techniques does the author use to signal transitions? Changes in point-of-view? Consider the use of different color fonts to indicate shifts in POV or time, if helpful.
  • Note the use of white space.
  • What techniques does the author use with dialogue? Notice tags.
  • What kinds of imagery is used? Is it straightforward or symbolic?
  • Where does the author use exposition? How much?

In the end, you’ll have a document that likely only you will understand, but this exercise can be extraordinarily helpful as a learning technique.

Have you used a reverse outline before? If so, what was your experience? If not, is this something you’ll give a try? When you do, please come back to this post and let us know what you learned.

Online Editor’s Note: Little Patuxent Review’s Doubt issue included an interview with Columbia native Michael Chabon by Susan Thorton Hobby. You can order a copy of your own here.


One thought on “The Reverse Outline

  1. Pingback: Enrich your Craft — Stay in the Know | Jennifer Mary G

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