There are a ton of resources available for making outlines of existing work written by somebody else, and a lot of advice and guidance on formats and techniques to use when making an outline. Finding instructions or a format to use isn’t hard. What is challenging is knowing which instructions to follow or format to use.
The easy answer is that it depends on you, and the circumstances, and there are no universal recommendations.
It’s easy because it’s true, but also, not very helpful. Following is a discussion of how to figure out what approach is the right one for you and your particular circumstances.
First, let’s recall what a reverse outline is: An outline made from something complete, rather than in preparation for making it. This is a tool meant to help you see what’s there. Think of it like a microscope; you can use it to examine everything from the cells in a leaf to DNA in the nucleus of a cell. And like with a microscope, you’ll set it up differently depending on what you’re looking at.
Which brings you to the first question you’ll want to ask when approaching a reverse outline: What are you trying to understand? Make a list of all the craft elements you’re interested in. Take a note or two about why they interest you. Think about ways they might relate to each other and how you’d like to represent that in the outline. You don’t need to include everything in one space, and your final product might be more a collection of outlines than a single thing. That’s okay.
The second question to ask is how you want to represent it. Are you a notecard person? Into spreadsheets? Want to pin photographs and post-it notes on the wall and connect them with string, serial killer style? Whatever it is that makes you happy, go for it!
Most reverse outlines are going to have a visual element, because most people find that useful for helping them see patterns and structure, but if that doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it.
That said, experiment! If you’re an outliner in general, the way you do outlines when you plan might have very little to do with what works for you when you’re making a reverse outline. Try the thing you are sure doesn’t work for you. Give it a solid twenty minutes of sincere effort. If it’s still not working, drop it and move on.
Next question: What level of detail do you care about? If you’re looking at three elements that are all book-level elements, and one that’s a scene-level element, you might have trouble working them into the same outline. You might want to focus on a few select scenes in great detail for the scene-level, or even line-level elements, such as imagery or word choice. You’ll want to look at the book as a whole for larger elements like structure. Other elements, like exposition, might fit at a variety of levels.
Also, put some thought into what you’re going to do with the final product. If this is just a tool for you to get insight into how a piece works, and once you’ve done it you never need to look at it again, then a sprawling board full of carefully placed tokens might work super well. If it’s something you need to carry with you to refer back to, you might want to choose something more durable or portable. If you’re going to share it with other people, put some thought into how much sense it’ll make to a brain that isn’t yours.
And one, extremely important question for you to ask before you get started: Is this just a procrastination technique? Procrastinating is awesome! Doing it by studying something is a great technique! But also, don’t let making a reverse outline be the kind of project that stops you from starting the project it’s meant to help you tackle.
If you’re endlessly tinkering with your format or the fine detail of your outline, it might be time to move on and get back to work.