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Plotting for Pantsers - The Reverse Outline

I’ve found the plotter versus pantser a hot topic for people at mixers. For those that don’t know, the terms “plotter” and “pantser” largely came from NaNoWriMo and basically refer to whether you plot your book out before you write it (plotter) or if you “write by the seat of your pants” and write as you go (pantser).

As I’ve gone through my writing journey, I find most people, even the most reverent of plotters and pantsers become “plantsers”, a mix of the two. Personally, I was once an unrepentant pantser. I never knew where I was going until I got there, and I found it thrilling. To a degree, I’m the same now. When I start a new project, I love the feeling of discovery as I go through the book, finding out what’s happening as it’s happening. E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Now, headlights are all well and good but when it’s pouring rain, there aren’t any street lights, the moon isn’t helping, and all that fog won’t let you put on your high beams, well, that drive is turning into a bit of a nightmare. So, what happens then? Some people fight tooth and nail through that fog to the other side. A lot of people give up. Others plot.

That’s where I found myself the first time I became what someone would refer to as a plantser. I was sure I was going to give up. I fought to get the draft done, but it was such a mess. Just a ridiculous assortment of nonsense, and I didn’t even know where to start revising it. I knew it was bad—as nearly all zero/first drafts are, pantser or plotter—but Trying to change from pantser to plotter seemed too extreme, but I'd used up all my panster tricks and had to do something new.

This is where I learned to cheat and borrow a plotter strategy, without taking on the slog of work that I—as a panster at the time—was hoping to avoid in the first place: the Reverse Outline!

This method has literally saved my drafts more times than I can count. It allows you to do whatever you want in your first draft—or zero drafts, as I call them—and get to the plotting in revisions. Basically, the idea is you produce a similar outline to what you would if you plotted it beforehand, just after. Except now that I’ve embraced my plantser status, I plot very lightly before I start the first draft. I know where I’m starting, where I’m ending (even if I don’t know how it ends), and three to five big plot points in between. These pit stops makes the fog a lot less intimidating.

However! For the reverse outline itself, I use an amazing database tool called Airtable. (The free version is perfect for me, but you can upgrade!) It allows you to create spreadsheets (yes, spreadsheets) that are linked together. If you’re not a data nerd like me, do not fret. You can do this by hand: on Post-it notes, on butcher paper, the wall of your office, whatever! I know some people who swear by Scrivener or Scapple, but I’ve never been able to climb their learning curves myself. (And I believe these are paid software.)

There are a lot of ways to do a reverse outline. The way I do it is I go scene-by-scene in my zero draft. Each line in my spreadsheet (or whatever you choose) is a scene, and I can add data to that line. Like, what characters appear in the scene? What day does it happen? What plot line does this scene move forward? Things like that! Here’s a screenshot of one of my outlines:

If there’s interest, I’ll do a blog post giving you a look at my Airtable database and how I use it for revisions. Seriously, it’s magic.

Then, I dive in. What plot lines are less developed? Should this scene happen when it does? Does this scene need higher tension? And on and on. For me, having it in a spreadsheet makes it easier to move scenes around, delete and add them. Airtable in particular makes visualizing everything incredibly easy. One of my writing friends does this same thing with colour-coded Post-its in her writing notebook. Analog is just as good!

The main idea is to take everything you’ve worked on, put it in front of you, and let you make all the connections in your mind. Seriously, pantsers, try it! I know so many of us talk about how drafting is heaven and revising is the worst. This makes revision doable. Create a to-do list based off your outline! Categorize them into small, medium, and large. Start small and build up, checking things off as you go to feel accomplished.

Feel free to comment with your own strategies, or if you’d like more of a detailed how-to. However, how you do your reverse outline and how you use it is pretty unique to each person. Learning about this concept was literally life-changing for me, so I hope you can find something useful from it as well! My method was completely trial-and-error, so I encourage you to experiment.

Good luck!

Do you have a question you’d like answered? Shoot me an email!

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