I’m still on an outlining kick, and it seems like I’ve been talking about outlining a lot lately. Maybe because I’m pushing my way out of the messy middle of my current work in progress, a sequel to my superhero novel After the Golden Age. Last week I tried something that I don’t think I’ve ever done before, at least not in a formal way, as in writing it down on paper: I outlined the story backwards.
I know how I want the novel to end, and I’ve got the first half pretty much nailed down, but that second to third act transition was kicking my ass. I’ve got what feels like a thousand balls in the air, and I have to catch them all neatly and elegantly in the next twenty thousand or so words.
So I wrote a summary of the ending and worked backward. I jotted down a lot of questions: what problems do my main characters need to solve before they can arrive at the scene of the final confrontation? Which characters are actually going to be at the final confrontation? What steps needs to happen before that? How do they all come together in order to make that final confrontation happen? What exactly do they need to know, and how can they find out? It’s pretty systematic: where do they need to be in the scene before the final confrontation? What happens in the scene before that? And finally, I’ll meet up with the part of the book I’ve already written, and I’ll be able to work out how they get from here to there.
This has been incredibly useful. Answering that list of questions tells me exactly what I need to set up that final confrontation, which had been floundering before this, as I tried to figure out how to make to work. All those balls I’m juggling? I’m starting to see how they need to line up to set up that last sequence of events. I’d gotten to the point where I was stuck, writing scenes without really knowing where they fit. Now, I’m seeing the bigger picture, and the pieces really do come together. I’m probably going to need to do a lot of cutting and pasting, rearranging scenes that I’ve written out of order. It sounds tedious, and it is, but it’s also rewarding because I know how much better it’ll look when I’m finished.
And now I have another tool in my toolbox: outline backwards.