Ink-Stained Scribe

NaNoWriMo Outlining Workshop - Part III: Finishing the Frame



Once you have at least 30 notecards, organize them into beginning scenes, middle scenes, and end scenes. More than likely, you’ve got tons of notecards for the beginning, and are lacking in either the middle or the end (or both). That’s fine.

Lay out your notecards in rough chronological order and see where there are gaps in the story, and brainstorm some ways your characters can get between them. Ask yourself questions like “what if...” Before you move on to the next step, see if what you've already got can spark ideas. Go back to your notes about motivations, conflicts, and subplots and try to imagine what kinds of scenes would help you exacerbate (middle) or resolve (middle/end) these issues; try to figure out what needs to happen between the scenes you've got, and decide whether that's something you can create a compelling scene for, or something that deserves only a sentence or two of exposition.

I'd recommend checking out the post 5 Tips For Your NaNoWriMo Outline at this stage, just to see where you might need extra scenes or steps. If you're not a fan of the plot structure below, check out tip #4 for a few more structure ideas.

Many people say that a story is comprised of a catalyst, three disasters, and a resolution. If it helps you to think of it that way, identify your three disasters as happening this way: #1 in the beginning of your story, which may or may not be your character’s fault; #2 in the middle of the story, which are direct results of your character attempting to fix the first problem and failing; #3 final boss (heh). The resolution comes when your main characters solve the final problem.

  • After Disaster 1:  heroine commits to the story goal (glues beginning to middle).
  • After Disaster 2: the story direction changes (middle of the middle).
  • After Disaster 3: heroine confronts the main conflict of the story (glues middle to the end).

Yes, it’s formulaic as the five-paragraph essay, but it might be enough to get you thinking. You can read more about this theory HERE, from "The Snowflake Guy".

I would highly recommend you go through your note-cards and see if you can identify the three disasters (it's okay if you have more, just identify the three that serve the purposes above). This should show you either where you need to emphasize (if you have too many) or create (if you have too few) areas of tension, and the sort of reactions that your hero(ine) should probably have to these hardships.

Endings are always the hardest, and you may not even want to decide your ending until you’ve written a good bit of your first draft. If you know your ending, that’s great. If not, keep brainstorming.


This bit will help you focus your novel and your characters' feelings about what’s going on. In the last step, you should have organized your note-cards into a rough chronological order. Now, try organizing them a bit more strictly.

Go through each note-card and write down the characters involved and what each of them is trying to accomplish in that scene. This can be an abstract motivation or a concrete goal, but there should be something each character wants.  Using the characters' motivations as a guide, try to identify the conflict in the scene--IE, what is preventing the characters from getting what they want in that scene. Is the conflict between characters? Is it between a character and a situation?

Now try to pinpoint whether this scene feeds into the plot, or one of the subplots you identified before. If it doesn’t fit into any of them, try to figure out why you want that scene in the story. Does it satisfy a subplot you have in your head that somehow isn’t connected to character motivations? Is there a romance sub-plot you've left out? Is it a vestigial plot-bunny-flipper that no longer works, but you can't bear to let go of? (Short story!) You may want to choose a highlighter color for each plot and subplot, and mark it to keep that in mind.

Okay, let's go back to the three disasters bit. Now that you've identified both your three big disasters and the associated scenes, pull them out and look at your characters' motivations. How do your characters' motivations change from the beginning, and after each of the disasters. Do any of these present a choice, or a big change in your main character or antagonist's defining motivation? What does this tell you about the choices of your characters, and the theme of your story?

Using the original character motivation cards, write down:

Original Motivation - Motivation after First Disaster - Motivation after Second Disaster - Motivation after Third Disaster - Motivation At the End.

By "the end" I mean after the bad guy is defeated -- in that last scene, what do you see your MC wanting out of his or her life. Ideally, this would be either an entirely new goal based out of the life-altering events and choices of the story, or their original motivation with a new perspective.

Jot down any new ideas for scenes or characterization this exercise gives you.

Now post your notecards somewhere.

I have a pair of cork-boards I posted mine on last year. You may choose to tape your notecards to the wall, or rewrite them on sticky-notes and post them above your computer.


I can't tell you exactly how to do this next part, because this is where you take that steaming pile of subordinate clauses you constructed in Part I and fashion it into a single sentence that describes your story.


Shapeshifting "Hellhound" Helena Martin has only one chance to keep her pack and her new human friends safe from the magical war she brought to their doorstep: make peace with the sorcerers who killed her mother.

In a world where the nobility and their servants live in a society built into the second and third stories of their city-state, where commoners face death for touching a noble, a street girl with a forbidden magical gift is being given a chance at power for the first time, and she is determined to use it to bring down the system that killed her brother and made her an outcast.
 There you have it! Whittling down your entire story to a single sentence is really hard, but with the information you've given yourself, you can definitely assemble a working-story-sentence to get your through the month!

If you're having trouble, hit up the NaNoWriMo forums and ask for help! There are lots of threads for workshopping summaries of various lengths and in various genres. And if there isn't one, start it! They can be a lot of fun, and give you a quick in on the community.


Some extra things I found helpful last year were multicolored mini sticky-notes with different plot points I wasn't sure where to include written on them, which I would move around depending on how things were going in my draft.

Also, I made a list of expository elements--the things I would need to reveal or explain about background, worldbuilding, and magic systems, and divvied them up on the sticky notes to move around my note-carded outline as I saw fit. As I wrote, I also added new things, just to make sure I wasn't overloading any one scene with exposition.

Also, take a look at the 2012 addition: 5 Tips for Your NaNoWriMo Outline.

START WRITING! (Well, wait till November 1st...;) )