In an interview with Ali Abdaal, Brandon Sanderson, the author of Mistborn and The Way of Kings, shared productivity tips for writers. One that stood out to me was “outline backward, write forward.” By outlining backward, he knows how his story will end, and he can work to fill in the middle and the beginning to get there. This way, when drafting, he will always have forward momentum.
I love this tip because it’s so effective, especially when working on a complicated storyline like a murder mystery or a thriller with a big reveal. This method allows you to lead your readers to that critical moment while misdirecting them with red herrings and weaving a story full of twists and turns. The better you know your direction, the better you can deliver a satisfying yet surprising ending.
By outlining backward and writing forward, you have a destination on a map, which is what you want before you leave for a big trip — or start a big project.
This links with another piece of advice I love, which is that “writing is like traveling at night, all you need is for your headlight to see a short distance ahead, and gradually you will get to your destination.”
As a pantser, I’ve written many stories traveling by a dim light. All I needed was to know where the next chapter was going, and eventually, I’d get to the end. When I write, I don’t always have a destination. I just set out and go. I like it. It’s exciting. When traveling, I like getting lost in a new city. Sometimes that’s the most thrilling experience. Other times you wander into a sketchy neighbourhood and need to get out quickly. The same goes when writing without an outline. It could lead to fun exploration or anxious backtracking.
Most recently, I’ve been using outlines when I get stuck and write myself into a corner. When people ask me what’s the hardest part of writing, I like to say “Act 2”. The beginning flows easily, and the ending is exciting to write, but the middle is the bridge that holds the whole story together. The thing about my bridge is that it can split off into a bunch of exits, causing me to stray off course. That is if I didn’t have a map.
When I get stuck, that’s when I’ll outline and figure out how to reach the end from the midway point. Often, I find that I’m not too far off. I’m usually four to five major scenes from getting to the climax or conclusion. What a relief. I’m not as lost as I thought. Thank God for the map for that peace of mind. Otherwise, I might’ve given up.
Outlining backward and writing forward is not only a great method for starting a project, but it’s also a great tool for getting unstuck. It’s a lifeline that I rely on, regardless of the scope of my story.
As a discovery writer, I can work on a story forever. I can keep sending the protagonist off on bigger adventures, adding more characters, and giving them more obstacles to overcome, but what’s the point if it doesn’t lead anywhere?
If you’ve ever watched a tv series and found the first few episodes encapsulating, but then in the middle, it felt repetitive, and by the time you reached the end, your interest was gone? That’s usually the cause of a meandering second act. If you’re not careful with your second act, you can go from building tension and increasing the stakes to repeating scenarios that don’t add to your characters or plot.
The second act is an excellent point to outline backward and ensure you’re on the right track to wrap up your story. I believe that a piece of solid advice can work in balance with another piece of solid advice. You increase your arsenal of writing tools and knowledge, so regardless of what you want to use, you are well-practiced in using them.
If you’re a discovery writer like me and you sneer at the idea of starting with a complete outline, consider this: start writing, go as far as you can and discover all the twists and turns along the way, but once you reach the middle, once your character is deep in a crisis, jump to the end and outline backward. See where you want to finish, and wrap up your story.
Much like being lost in the real world, sometimes it’s better to stop and think. We can keep writing and writing, hoping that more words can get us out of a jam, but even if we do, it’ll be a pain later during the editing stage. To avoid cutting out large passages, outline backward and write forward from the midway point. When it comes to stories, it doesn’t count unless they are finished. So get to the finish line and bring your story home.
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