Ink-Stained Scribe

NaNoWriMo Outlining Workshop Part II - Plot, Subplots, & Scenes


Last post was focused on getting your characters, conflicts, and motivations solid. This post is all about the nitty-gritty plotty-wotty stuff. Before you start, you're going to need some supplies:

  • Note-cards (preferably the lined variety, in several colors)
  • Writing utensils
  • A notebook (if you like to keep brainstorming materials all together)
  • scratch paper (if you need to spread it out)
  • your character/motivation/conflict notes from the last workshop.


Using the information you’ve come up with, write a one-sentence description of your story’s main conflict that includes:

MC (Motivation) + conflict + Antagonist (Motivation) + Action + Consequences

Action in this case means the course of action your character must take in order to overcome the conflict. The consequences are, predictably, what will happen if they fail.

Don’t worry--this sentence will suck, and it’s not your back-cover summary; it’s a way to boil down the conflict between your most important characters. It will sound disgustingly vague until later in the process, when we will modify it a bit. You may find that you have to reach into a later part of the story, when your characters have a bit more information to form motivations that are more directly in opposition with the antagonists, to do this part. That's fine! Just make sure that their motivations from the beginning have a bearing on how the story plays out.

A headstrong princess who wants to be a great queen is kidnapped by a charismatic general who wants to use her against her kingdom, and she must find her way home in time to warn them of approaching war.

If you can actually boil down your character's course of action to a set of choices, the sentence will be a lot stronger. In my case, I'm certain this was the difference in my query letter between getting and not getting a request.

A headstrong princess who wants to be a great queen is kidnapped by a charismatic general who wants to use her against her kingdom, and she must make a choice: break her promise to her rescuer and rush home to prepare her kingdom for war, or risk her life to free the brave slave-boy who gave up everything to save her.

Both of those sentences sort of sound like crap, but you can see where I'm going with this--I know the major conflict between my protagonist, my antagonist, and the issues that she's going to have to resolve in order to get her happily-ever-after. I can keep this in mind as I work through the rest of the story.


Now that you have the sentence for your main conflict, go back through your characters’ motivations and try to spot desires that might produce conflict. You don’t have to know anything specific yet about how that will translate into scenes, but it’s good to have in mind where characters will have tension with each other.

Once you identify possible conflicts, write down each on its own sheet of paper and start brainstorming. This is a great time to employ mind-maps, spidergraphs, or stream-of-consciousness brainstorming methods. You may find yourself adding characters and desires to the conflict sheet as you brainstorm. I recommend starting with what the characters want, what is getting in their way, and what other characters have desires that conflict or hold them back.

All of these conflicts are potential subplots. Keep them in mind through the next step of the process, especially when you start to get stuck.


Note-carding is a method I learned from writer and writing teacher Holly Lisle. I've touted this method before, and I highly recommend you visit Lisle's post describing note-carding and learn the method from her, but I will give a brief overview here.

Figure out roughly how long you want your novel to be. This is a fantasy blog, and since most fantasy books are roughly 100,000 words long, we’ll go with that. The average scene is 1,750 words, so divide your projected word count by your scene-length, and you’ll get a rough estimate of the number of scenes you should have in your novel--in this case 57. This isn’t a perfect estimate--just something to get you thinking in the arena of what you’ll need.

Now divvy up your scenes between narrators and start writing down every scene idea that comes to you, and try to distill it into a single sentence.

This was my outline for last year's NaNoWriMo.
You can see my five character motivation cards,
my scene notecards, and the little post-its
with reminders of subplots and exposition info!
Now, I didn't know about the note-carding method when I wrote The Mark of Flight (and it shows), but I used it for HELLHOUND. At first, I decided I wanted to write between two narrators, so I gave 60% of the scenes to Helena (my MC) and 40% to her godfather, Eamon. Well, by about a third of the way through writing, I changed my mind and gave 100% of the scenes to Helena, which resulted in me chucking a bunch of my notecards. The beauty of it was, the notecarding method made it easy to toss those notecards, and fill them back in with the cool new stuff I'd come up with.

Notecarding is the most guilt-free, changeable form of outlining I've yet found. Don’t censor yourself, don’t worry about how a scene might or might not fit. You should end up with something like this:
“On a yacht off the Miami coast, Helena uses the distraction of the sorcerers battle with her master to break the spell holding her pack captive, and then she steals the book the sorcerers are after and escapes by swimming to shore”
It doesn't have to be that set-out. This is the first scene in the new version of the book, so I knew what needed to happen. You may end up with "set-up set-up set-up...and then something happens that I haven't figured out yet." That's fine. The process of note-carding alone might help you figure out what that "something" needs to be. If not, you'll probably come up with some ideas while writing. Make sure you’ve got about 30 notecards before you move on to the next section. If you start having trouble or getting stuck, go back to your characters' motivations and start trying to figure out how best you can get in their way. This part is FUN, but can be somewhat time-consuming, so give yourself the time you think you'll need.

If it helps, a good way to organize your scene-card is:

Setting + MC (Motivation) + Conflict + Course of Action + Cliffhanger or Resolution

You don't have to stick to that at all, but it's a short and sweet kind of way to set up what happens or needs to happen in your scene. I'll write a few more examples below from my NaNoWriMo project from last year, HELLHOUND.

"In the kitchen, Jaesung asks Helena about her fake military school and catches her in her lie, putting their trust in each other on thin ice. As he leaves, she spots the mark of the sorcerer's guild on their doorstep and realizes she's been found, and her roommates could be in danger."
"In Eamon's basement, Helena--enraged at Rodolfo's murder--fights for her right to join the hunt and take revenge, but then Morgan tells her (the enemy) found Rodolfo because of Helena's inability to lay low."
"In the blacked-out house, Helena fights the influence of the magic glyph as she sets wards, and then passes out just as the first spell pings off her protection." 

If you're having trouble at this point, try writing some stream-of-consciousness pages about what you're having trouble with. I've been known to start out entries like this with "I don't have a villain :(" or "What should the MC be doing between plot-points A and Q?"


What discoveries have you made while plotting your story? Have you ever done note-carding before? What are some of your preferred methods of creating the scenes for your story? ARE YOU HAVING FUN?