Ink-Stained Scribe

5 Tips for Your NaNoWriMo Outline

305/365 - NaNoWriMo! by haley-elise
Does your NaNoWriMo outline need a little spit shine? Like your basic story but don't know if it's any good?

Piggy-backing off last year's NaNoWriMo outlining workshop, I've got a few more techniques I've accumulated to help hammer your outline into shape and give it a bit of a spit-shine.

The following tips will help you identify your main conflict, work tension and conflict into each scene, make sure your scenes flow logically toward the ending, and move your story from hook to resolution.

If you haven't taken a look at my NaNoWriMo Outlining Workshop, it might be a useful reference for the application of these techniques.


The third, and Adryn's favorite (and by favorite, I mean she hates me for making her do this), is to boil the conflict down to 35 words. You might remember when I described how I wrote a 35-word pitch for The Mark of Flight, which has really helped me in my quest toward publication. (More on pitches)

A pitch this short will force you to think critically about the central conflict. You can use the pitch to keep your plot from sprawling in unnecessary directions (if you tend to sprawl, like I do) and to identify whether your story has core plot-issues. Can't pitch it? That's an indication that the story's basic framework might need more work.

If, like Adryn, you have no idea where to begin boiling down the conflict, start by summarizing who your protagonist is and what they want in 35 words. Then summarize who your antagonist is and what they want in 35 words (hint: it better be something that chucks a horny, sparkly vampire in the Bed, Bath & Beyond display room of your protagonist's goal.)

Now take your protagonist and describe what she wants and how the antagonist is preventing her achieving that (of course, in 35 words).

Yeah, this is time-consuming, but it will likely save you a ton of time in revisions and give you a great framework for your query pitches!

Yes? No! image by Laura Appleyard
2. YES, BUT... / NO, AND...

Conflict in your scene uninteresting? On a recent episode of the Writing Excuses Podcast, Mary Robinette Kowal described a technique for making sure your scenes are exciting. It was intended for pantsers rather than plotters, but I think the technique is a fantastic way to make sure you're giving your scene enough conflict and tension.

Simply, get your characters into a pickle. Then ask the question, do they succeed in getting out of the situation?

If you answer YES, you must then come up with a complication.
YES, Bilbo rescues the dwarves from the Mirkwood prisons, BUT they nearly drown in the barrels.

If you answer NO, you toss in a little extra complication to really put pressure on your characters.
NO, Katniss's friends and family are not spared at reaping day AND it's her little sister who's been chosen to fight (and probably die) in The Hunger Games.


You've note-carded and chased every plot-bunny down their respective rabbit holes, but do your scenes flow one-to-the-next in a logical, domino-effect that leads you from inciting action to inevitable conclusion?

Carrie Ryan, Magical Words blogger and author of the creeptastically beautiful Forest of Hands and Teeth, describes a technique she learned from an editor.

"If you line up every scene or plot beat in your book, and the only words that connect them are “and then,” you have a problem; instead, each scene needs to be connected with either ”therefore” or “but.”
 I'm doing this with my outline for Beggar's Twin, and it's really coming in handy. It's a bit complicated with multiple perspectives, but I'm literally setting up my notecards into the different perspectives and making sure they flow both along their individual storylines and toward the conclusion. I've found it super-helpful in identifying scenes that aren't working.


The fourth is the 7-Point Story Structure from Dan Wells--seven points that help you move your story from hook to resolution, which you can watch in five parts on YouTube:

According to the Writing Excuses show notes, the seven points are:

  • Hook
  • Plot Turn I
  • Pinch I
  • Midpoint
  • Plot Turn II
  • Pinch II
  • Resolution

If you don't want to take the time to watch the YouTube video, you can also hear the cast of Writing Excuses discuss these seven points HERE.

Similar to this: The Hollywood Formula; The Three-Act Structure; The Secrets of Story Structure


Put down the scalpel.

Once you're finished making sure your conflict is solid, your scenes have tension, your plot chugs nicely toward the resolution, and you're hitting all the points of basic story structure, it's time to type it all up and present the outline to a friend, preferably another artistic type.

Generally, I find other writers or artists understand how to look at an embryonic story idea and help it grow. You don't want someone to give you unnecessary criticism and kill the excitement.

Don't know any other writers IRL? A great resource for other writers is the NaNoWriMo forums! Find someone to swap outlines with. And hey, if you're noticing some familiar problems, point them in the direction of whichever resource was most helpful. I don't mean my blog, though that would be awesome; I mean the primary source. If you think they'd benefit from But / Therefore, send them to Carrie's post on Magical Words.

Happy writing, and remember to eat occasionally!