Hey, you came back! Welcome back, I have homework for you.
Haha, by homework for you, I mean homework for me. So, last week, I got started on really diving into the worldbuilding I needed to develop for SPACE RACES. Personally, I struggled on getting started, because it’s hard to know what pieces you’re going to need until you need them. I’m a sparse writer by nature, and I have to really push myself to include deeper details, especially on a second draft. Fingers crossed that I addressed a lot of the questions I had for myself and my CP had for me! We’re about to find out, as I get into my next step: the reverse outline.
Week Two: Reverse Outlining
Okay, let’s get into it. Reverse outlining is a way of taking inventory for the words you actually wrote. I am a plotter, to a very normal degree:
For my first draft, that means creating an outline using a mix of K.M. Weiland’s novel outline format – hold up, wait, sorry, no. This started with a three page synopsis working through the general story idea, from beginning to end. Taking that synopsis, I then created an outline. From there, I created story cards using Lisa Cron’s STORY GENIUS. For me, that means a story card for every scene, showing a few key things: what happens and what the consequence is and why it matters emotionally. I highly recommend STORY GENIUS as a resource, as I started reading it for fun and ended up with a full outline for a novel by the time I finished it.
However, as you write, you realize all the things you planned actually don’t work here, or they work in a new wonderful unexpected way, or they kind of work but it works better like this instead. Which means that the carefully plotted novel you worked so hard to plan, to organize, to build cards for, actually isn’t the thing sitting open in front of you, right?
This is where reverse outlining comes in. It requires re-reading your draft and really taking a holistic look at it. We’re not looking for errant commas or really bad turns of phrase. We’re looking for structure. What does this scene do? How does it add to tension as it currently exists? I’m looking for the what and the why. There’s a lot of ways to do it, but the most common one you see across the vast internet of writing blogs, is notecards. Your handy-dandy 3x5s.
Me? I like to make it difficult.
Keeping everything on as few pieces of paper as possible allows me to see everything all at once. That’s 20+ chapters lined on just over 3 pages, including minor doodles. (I probably should have saved this for writing my one-page synopsis, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). That’s what I’ll do for SPACE RACES this week. I’ll start with these simple one-sentence descriptions of the action point for each scene, and from there, create a new set of story cards.
If you haven’t read STORY GENIUS yet, when I say “story card” it’s similar to what some other people do for their scenes. Here's a screenshot of a blank one. It has a spot for the main ACTION POINT, or the general Plot Thing that needs to happen in this scene. From there, I'll fill in the CAUSE column, which includes two sections, The Plot and Third Rail. I'll leave it to Lisa Cron to explain it, but essentially I list the thing that happens and the emotional reason behind it. For the EFFECT column, I'm listing the next action, the consequence, and also the emotional consequence.
For me, it really helps taking advice from the writers of South Park, filtered through Katherine Locke, for when I’m filling out the EFFECT column: making sure I’m using ‘therefore’ and ‘but’ instead of ‘and then’. And then leads to the kind of stories that kids write, where it’s just a series of crazy things happening: and then pennies fell out of my butt! (A good plot point, I’m going to steal that, thanks Little Jimmy!). Using “however” and “therefore” or whichever version you like is a great way to think about the consequences of a plot point.
I highly recommend reading STORY GENIUS (as in, I linked to it multiple times and I’m not even getting money off it), because she’ll work you through the how of building a story card.
Once I’ve updated/created my new story cards, I like to look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair. No, just kidding. Kind of. I like to print all the story cards out and get to grips with all the plots that are happening. I highlight where subplots make an appearance, make notes to fill in some of the emotional beats, or details I want to make sure get added to the next draft.
Now, I have a map. A colorful and convoluted, but accurate, map of my book, as it exists right now. I know what subplots have started to emerge, what tension is being developed where, and I can look at the whole thing at once without tearing my hair out. I’ve also updated my worldbuilding doc as I read with any questions I haven’t answered, any proper nouns I want to keep track of, any details I want to make sure I refine. Here’s everything important all laid out nicely.
Time to smash it to pieces.
But, that’s next week’s problem! For now, I’m just going to focus on doing inventory! And possibly investing in new highlighters.
FYI: A lot of writers use Scrivener to make their story/scene cards. When I got started writing last year, I wasn’t ready to invest money into something, and also Scrivener seemed difficult to learn for what I wanted it to do. It may be something I get into later, but for now, what I created was a Google Slides doc with a Master Page template. Every time I need a new card, I add a new slide and it automatically numbers it for me. I can rearranged them by dragging the slides, and the numbers update. This is basically all I needed it for, so I haven’t made the migration to Scrivener.