The Re-Write: What’s a Retroactive Outline?

Hi, Everybody!


If you’re reading this post, you’re either anticipating finishing your first draft or have finished it already. I’d like to applaud you: *clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap!*

It took me SO long to finish my first draft. After I finished it, I ended up with all these awesome ideas I wanted to put into the manuscript. So, I did some research and came across something called retroactive outlining.

Retroactive Outlining is basically making an outline for the story you ended up writing, instead of the one you planned for. We all know that you can start out with a concrete plot line, and about 150 pages into writing that manuscript, wacky sh*t can start going down. A retroactive outline helps you visualize the story you completed and enables you to add in any cool stuff you forgot during the first draft. Then, if you are like me and want to do a rewrite before editing, you can start your rewrite with a comprehensive roadmap to follow.

My second outline was about 25 pages long. Plus, I had to rework the last third of my novel because I botched up some sequencing. Still, all things considered, it was amazingly useful having a guide to follow when I would get confused. If you’re interested in using a retroactive outline for your rewrite, or any sort of map for your novel, here is the process I used for mine. I hope it helps 🙂


1. Consult Your Creativity

All those rogue ideas that popped into your head after you typed that last sentence? Write ’em down. I use a note app on my phone to capture all of them even when I’m in the car or something, but any notebook or scrap piece of paper will work. Just don’t lose them;) Once you’ve gotten them written down, it’s way easier to organize them for step two.

2. Decide on Your Story Structure.

Are you separating your story into two halves? Adopting the three-act structure? Did you have a structure in mind when you started? Now’s the time to decide on one. Make a rough draft of how you’ll separate your events. You’ll use this as a guide for step three. For my story, I’ve got three parts, since I’m using Three Act Structure loosely based on the story arch mentioned in this post. My three acts go something like:

– Main and Supporting Character Introductions and Inciting Event

– Main Character Trains and Adjusts to New Living Situation

– Main and Supporting Characters Pursue the End Goal for this Novel (novel #1 out of a hopeful 3 part series)

I know that’s really vague, but hopefully it will help.

3. Organize

Now is when you drag out your first outline; the one you wrote ages ago when you started. Or, if you didn’t do one then, just summarize your story (I like to use either bullet points or Roman numerals, personally). Any format that makes sense to you is fine. Reorganize your original outline so it matches the structure you chose from step two, and create a linear chain of events for your novel. From here, select the rogue ideas from step one that can logically fit into your story, and plug them into the correct places. This way, you should have a pretty comprehensive new outline that a.) follows the new progression of events for your story and b.) contains all the ideas you want to add to your manuscript.

4. Scan Through for Pacing

Take a break from writing here, and scan through your outline for pacing. This is something I wish I had done more of, as I got pretty bogged down in Act Three. Make sure everything is happening in the order it should be, and that all of your information reveals are in the correct pacing for your new chain of events. You can’t have characters knowing something three chapters before they’re supposed to find out. This way, during your rewrite, you’ll have a smoother transcription from your first draft to your rewritten manuscript.

5. Finalize Your Retroactive Outline.

Make sure you have all of your main events in the correct order. Check to ensure your new ideas fit the main character’s arch and the story’s plot. Double check those information reveals and triple check your main story line. Make sure *everything* is the order you want it for your rewrite.


Next, it’s time to get started on your rewrite, which I’ll write about in my next post. It may take you a few weeks, or maybe even a few months. Move at your own pace and stay focused, and you’ll complete your rewrite in no time. In my opinion, it’s a lot easier editing a rewrite than a skin-and-bones first draft. During the process, you can correct any errors and make any changes to the overall story, then flesh them out or clean them up later in your first edit.

Thank you so much for your patience as I get used to posting regularly again. I really hope these articles are helpful. If you have any ideas or suggestions for future topics, please let me know! Writing a novel is some pretty intense work, and I want to provide you with all the help and support I can through these posts.

Chase those authorly dreams!



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