OUTLINING IN REVERSE
By Mike and Ayan Rubin
“A White Hot Plan,”
Recently released by the University of Lafayette Press
As a husband-and-wife writing team who have authored award winning thrillers, the first question we often get asked is how we are able to have a single “voice” in our novels. The second is how carefully do we plot our books before sitting down to write.
The answers to both of these questions are interrelated. Before we start writing, we’ve talked through the key characters and their motivations, and we know the beginning, middle, and end of the story, although we don’t yet know all the subplots or minor characters. Part of the fun in writing is to see how these develop during the writing process. Mike does the first draft and has a great ear for dialogue. Ayan does the second draft and, with her experience in television production and as a script writer, concentrates on the visuals and pacing. For the third draft, we sit down together and work through the book, each defending things we have altered in the other’s draft. Our goal is always to eliminate anything that slows down the reader. We want readers to say to themselves, at the end of a chapter, “Okay, I’ll just read a few more pages to find out what happens next.”
Although we never begin with a written outline, we “outline in reverse.” In other words, once we write a chapter, we jot down general information concerning that chapter on a spreadsheet. As each new chapter is drafted, the essence of its contents gets added to the spreadsheet. This helps us in several ways.
First, it aids us in keeping continuity straight. For example, did characters do or say something in chapter 14 that is unintentionally at odds with what they did or said in chapter 3? Keeping an outline in reverse helps us avoid inadvertent continuity errors that can creep into a manuscript.
Second, a reverse outline is extremely useful in keeping time frames aligned, especially in a novel like A WHITE HOT PLAN, in which three story lines intersect. First, there’s Starner Gautreaux, a disgraced former New Orleans detective relegated to being a deputy in a rural Louisiana parish and reduced to writing his quota of speeding tickets. Second, there’s Kenny Arvenal, who’s being groomed by a secretive group to be a suicide bomber who will bring destruction to the New Orleans French Quarter. And then there’s Truvi Brady and her eight-year-old daughter who are headed on a school bus to the French Quarter where her class is to perform at the festival where Kenny plans to detonate a huge explosive charge intended to level blocks and blocks and kill thousands.
Third, a reverse outline is invaluable when we’re trying to locate something we wrote in a prior chapter so that we can check, expand, or correct the foreshadowing we built in while composing earlier portions of the manuscript. Although a computer can electronically search for words, it won’t help us find concepts we had introduced, plot points we had staked out, or twists and clues we had added. That’s where a reverse outline comes in handy.
Fourth, once a manuscript is finally completed and it’s time to write a synopsis, a reverse outline provides a quick way to review the entire story line in detail.
We’ve found that the reverse outline method saves us from being straight-jacketed into a pre-ordained plot. We prefer not to spend time creating a detailed outline in advance because we do not want to tire of the story before we even start writing it. Likewise, employing the reverse outline method in conjunction with our intimate knowledge of the main characters and the primary arc of the novel before committing anything to the page lets the story and characters evolve as we write while simultaneously enabling us to see where we’ve been. It’s like having a back-up camera in a car. You need to pay attention to what’s in front of you as well as what’s behind you to assure getting the clearest and broadest view possible while avoiding problems along the way.