Monday, January 11, 2010

Reverse Engineering An Outline

I have long had a good idea about the plot of my story, Gods Among Men, and a high-level outline for the first half of the story.  Lately, as I have been working on my new website and planning to forge ahead with writing new material, I have come to realize that it would be useful to have a brief chapter-by-chapter outline of the whole story. 

This goes back to my natural inclination as a plotter, as opposed to a pantzer (someone who write “by the seat of their pants”).  My plot is convoluted enough to easily get lost in, so I need a road map to guide me. 

Having made that decision I was now faced with the prospect of actually writing the outline.

The Insights of A Child

As a child I loved to solve mazes, to trace a line from beginning to end through a convoluted collection of passages.  And as a child I discovered something that shaped my thoughts to this day: Most mazes are easier to solve if you start at the end and work backwards.

All mazes have a plethora of choices at their beginning, false paths and dead-ends design to confuse and confound those trying to solve them. 

But almost all mazes have only one route open to the end, a predefined choice essential to completing the puzzle.  And while the path back may be littered with choices, it is often easy to spot which ones dead end and which lead back to the beginning.

And so in life I have often found that if you want an end result, it is easier to plot your way back from that end result than to decipher how to move forward from where you are.

And This Relates To Outlining How Exactly?

As I tried to wrap my mind around the effort of creating a chapter-by-chapter outline, I came to think about the insights into my story I had some months ago.   Those insights focused upon my realization of what the ending must include, and what was required to get there. 

And that I discovered is the key to the outline I shall create. 

Starting at the beginning and going forward to the end is hard and treacherous.  It is easy to get lost in the details, to pursue sub-plots and minor character arcs that go nowhere. 

Starting at the end, however, and working backwards is much easier.

The finale is about Damon and Artemis, the end of their character arcs and the conclusion of the plot.  A known point I must reach. 

So what must happen immediately before to set up that scene?  I can answer that question, and in doing so write down the outline for the preceding chapter.

That preceding chapter will also include the ending of plot threads and arcs for lesser characters.  Those endings must be setup by chapters that come earlier in the story.  Now I know what to write down for those even earlier chapters. 

And so on and so forth, until I reach the parts of the story I have already written.  Back-tracing through my maze of a plot to my known beginning.

It may seem an odd technique, but it is one I have used often to solve difficult problems.  And when faced with a thorny plot is a useful way to sort out the wheat from the chaff.


  1. Nicely worded blogpost. I agree that making an outline is very much like unlocking a maze, whether you do it forwards or backwards. No matter which direction you go, it helps to have a map of where you want to get to in your head. Otherwise, you are just wandering around aimlessly, hitting walls randomly, never knowing which ones to work around or which ones to leave alone. Nice analogy.

  2. Thank you. I felt it was appropriate. Certainly I often feel like I'm wandering around in a maze. Especially when trying to figure out how to tell my story.