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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
writing trick 
15th-Jun-2003 09:19 am
Sidneyia inexpectans
I hope most people actually know about this one already, but it's one of the few things I know that's equally helpful (for me) with both fiction and nonfiction, and since I just did it this morning on the Hamlet chapter and thought, again, Thank god I was taught this, it seems like a good thing to mention.

Also, I'm still feeling vaguely crummy, though with no actual symptoms, and this gives me something to do.

The trick is called reverse outlining. Students invariably have to be talked out of the (often nearly unshakable) belief that this means making an outline from last paragraph to first. That is, in fact, wrong. Reverse outlining reverses the process of outlining, not the order. It's like drawing the blueprint of an already existent edifice.

What you do is, you take an already written chunk of text, as, for example, my Hamlet chapter, and you go through it and write down on a separate sheet of paper, the ideas of each paragraph. The by-the-book method is to write each paragraph's topic sentence, but I find that actually not so helpful, as my arguments and progressions of ideas tend to be a little too complicated. So I do it by ideas. And come up with something like the following:
I. Garber and Prosser
II. revenge tragedy plot
III. revenge plot vs. subplots
IV. the Ghost
V. beginning of play
VI. the Ghost (Freudian); Garber's argument
VII. Ghost & Claudius (Freudian)
VIII. death of R&G
IX. Claudius (Freudian)
     Ghost (Freudian)
X. Polonius
XI. Gertrude
XII. Ghost (plot)
XIII. deaths of R&G
XIV. Doubles for Hamlet
XV. 3.4
XVI. Claudius; ending of play
XVII. Horatio

My charming and talented beta heresluck and I call my habitual method of composition duck with one foot nailed to the floor: I waddle in circles, quacking as I go. You can see this happening in the reverse outline, as I keep circling back to the Ghost, and to 3.4 (the closet scene). But this is something that is extraordinarily difficult to see when looking at the chapter in its raw form; I know I'm doing it, but, for instance, I had no idea the Ghost CAME BACK so many times. There's a certain appropriateness to that, as form mirrors content, but it's also lousy writing. I also hadn't realized that I'd brought up Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and their untimely demise twice. But now that I've done the reverse outline, I can look at the structure of the thing without getting sidetracked by the content, and hopefully (my plan for today) move things around so that, for example VII and XI are grouped together, likewise VIII and XIII, and my explanation of Garber's argument, instead of being by itself in VI can go where it belongs in I. And all those damn twiddly bits about 3.4 can be put with the big close reading in XV. I can also, maybe, finally figure out which order my main points ought to go in.

Maybe some people's brains works better than mine, but I can't do this sort of thing without actually making the reverse outline. No matter how much I want to believe I don't need it, I always discover in the end that, yes, I really do.

It's superlatively helpful for nonfiction, but I've also found reverse outlining helpful with my fiction. The act of writing down, on a separate sheet of paper, what each scene accomplishes tends to throw into brutal prominence those scenes which are doing nothing at all, or when there are two scenes that are doing exactly the same thing, or when a scene is doing something that is in fact not necessary. It was also crucially helpful when I was writing LW(3), because the plot was so complicated I couldn't keep it all straight in my head. It's also a trick I've used when I know something's wrong with a story but I can't put my finger on what. And, unlike regular outlining, it doesn't interfere with the creative process. You already HAVE your finished story or whatnot; this is just part of drafting and editing.

Like I said, maybe everybody knows about this already. But it's the only clever writing trick I know, and it seems a shame not to share.
15th-Jun-2003 08:46 am (UTC)
Wow, this is interesting.

I have two methods of composition myself: one only works for very short stories, and is not so much a method of composition as thinking-to-paper.

The second method I have described in the past by saying "it's like stepping-stones". I know where I'm starting from. I know where I'm going to. I have stepping-stones to get through the story with. I write the story going from stepping-stone to stepping-stone. These are not necessarily scenes, but things that have to be accomplished: I need M to know what A said about Z, and I figure out a way this can happen and write that.
15th-Jun-2003 10:13 am (UTC)
Yes, this is one of the really useful tricks. I tend to use it more for fiction than for nonfiction, but then nonfiction I outline (forward) much more heavily to begin with.
16th-Jun-2003 07:14 am (UTC)
Ooh! Must try this.

Will ponder it more later...must work now. Boring day work.
22nd-Jun-2003 01:54 pm (UTC) - okay, this is cool.
And no, I didn't know about that trick. but it looks good. I'm going to apply it to the 20K words that hit a screeching halt last year...
22nd-Jun-2003 02:01 pm (UTC) - Re: okay, this is cool.
Oh, ouch.

I hope this trick helps.
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