Reverse Engineering Your Novel

Stickies on a whiteboardOne of the nice things about working on the Writer’s Knowledge Base is that I see A LOT of writing articles pass by. I don’t have time to read all of them, of course, but M.E. Summer’s post “Kate Beckett’s Murder Board: Reverse Engineering Your Story” caught my eye just from the title alone. “Reverse Engineering.” Hey, that’s a technical term and I’m a technical guy (plus I probably know what she’s going to say and it’s right up my alley.) Then, there’s this “Murder Board” thing and that puppy sounds interesting!

Check out M.E.’s post and then come back. (I’ll start the Jeopardy music…)

Nice post, right?


I thought so, too. I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot due to my work on my novel writing software so I knew about the nature of the issues in the post. However, I came away with an observation and a question for myself:

  1. “Reverse engineering” your story is outlining after the fact
  2. Could Hiveword solve the presented issues?

Outlining after the fact

If you reverse engineer your story you are effectively making an outline from what you wrote pantser-style. Then, you examine the outline and look for a broad range of problems. That’s cool if you want to work backwards like that but it leads to what I’ve been calling rework.

Outlining first or after the fact ends up with the same artifact (an outline) so there’s no loss there. Doing it after the fact is naturally faster. I should say seemingly faster but I’ll get to that in a moment. Then, you study your reverse engineered outline and look for problems. M.E. mentioned some of the ones she looks for:

  • Scheduling mishaps
  • Dropped subplots
  • Extraneous fluff
  • Missed opportunities

Thing is, when you find any of these things you’re going to have to do some rework. Hopefully, the rework isn’t too extensive but you never know. That’s why I said that, sure, doing the outline itself after the fact is faster but the total time to novel completion is not. In fact, I’d argue that the time to market is faster if you outline first.

Of course, as soon as the reverse engineered outline is done it’s a high-fidelity representation of the story. That is, until you change the story as a result of corrections. It’s easy (and OK!) to deviate from an outline but nobody said you can’t update the outline as you go. It’s relatively painless (depending upon your system) and you’ll always have a high-level representation of your novel.

Seems to me that outlining first saves time and can prevent carpal tunnel. (Hmm… “Prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.” Maybe I should use that in my marketing efforts!)

Essentially, doing an outline first allows you to see the story in its entirety and make changes while they are less costly in terms of time and rework.

M.E. mentions that a “painstaking outliner” probably doesn’t have these problems and that reverse engineering an outline is a way to help pantsers. So she knows the choice that she and her fellow pantsers make. I think the concept that M.E. presents is a great boon for pantsers. But, outline first or outline afterward, it’s still outline time!

Can Hiveword track the concrete examples M.E. gave?

As mentioned above, that’s a question that came to mind while reading the post. After all, these are issues I’m trying to solve and the post listed a bunch of concrete examples (including one commenter who tracks phases of the moon!). Turns out the answer is a mixed bag.

I’ve categorized the issues that M.E. presented below along with how Hiveword might help (if possible).

Setting inconsistencies (travel, weather)

Hiveword can help here since you can easily see the characters and setting by scene. If a character is at Setting X in one scene and Setting Y in the next, you know there’s some travel involved.

Plot and dropped subplots

For plot, M.E. specifically asked “How did she know X when she doesn’t find out about Y for another three chapters?” That’s tricky for Hiveword to know and really depends on the nature of X. Judicious use of tags might help. (I explain tags below.)

The dropped subplot part is handled by Hiveword. In the screenshots you’ll see a rudimentary example of the plotline visualizer tool. You can easily see how subplots weave in and out and when they end.


Hmm, this is a tough one. Hiveword lets you describe a character in great detail. You can also assign those characters to each scene. But M.E.’s example question was “Would she be talking to him again so soon after he did Z?” which Hiveword really can’t answer since it’s a judgment call.

Realism, scheduling mishaps, extraneous fluff, missed opportunities

I’ve grouped these together because Hiveword is of no help here. These issues simply require a human brain.

Moon phases, time between scenes, and events at points in time

I’ve grouped these together because Hiveword addresses all of them with tags. Tags are simply arbitrary words or phrases that you can attach to scenes, characters, settings, or plotlines. Tags are powerful because they are Hiveword’s extension point that allows writers to track whatever they need to.

A tag could be a date, a phase of the moon, a critical happening/event, a marking of the first plot point, etc. Since you can have multiple tags all of these could exist at the same time.


So, Hiveword fared reasonably well in its ability to track the provided items. Some things, though, simply require a brain. Sorry about that!

Check out the Hiveword screenshots for an idea of what can be tracked. Though you won’t see much use of tags there I think that the loose, custom tracking they provide can tremendously help writers.


  • Outline before writing or after — you’re writing an outline either way
  • Outlines can be a high-fidelity living thing, kept current as you write the prose
  • Outlining first saves time and rework
  • Hiveword can help!

By the way, if you want to call Hiveword a “Murder Board” I’m cool with that. 😉

How about you? Do you reverse engineer outlines from an existing work?

Image by kowitz


2 thoughts on “Reverse Engineering Your Novel”

  1. Brilliant! I tend to destroy my outline in the process of writing, but I’ve discovered that a program called Scrivener can help me with that. It allows you to view your scenes in prose form but also in notecard form. In notecard form, you can put a scene summary, notes, tags, labels, etc. If you move the order of the notecards around, the prose shifts too, so you can easily reorder scenes and see if that helps with plotholes, pacing, and so on.

    Scrivener + the resources at Hiveword = win! Recently I was looking around at writing resources on researching… specifically how do you know when you’re done!?! Hiveword was great for that. Thanks for creating something so helpful!

  2. Traci,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing. Sounds like Scrivener can do the trick.

    I’m glad you like the Writer’s Knowledge Base. Stay tuned for some cool new features coming soon!

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