How to outline your story for National Novel-Writing Month – checklist

Are you making an outline for NaNoWriMo?

We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and enjoy telling the story to the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.

However you do it – whether formally beforehand or as your wordcount builds, these are the questions you need to tackle. (And even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, you might find them useful.)

Why is this story going to grab a reader?

All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:

  • a literal outrage like a murder
  • a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
  • an event that appears to be ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.

Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself what will make the reader curious from the start? Something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? Something the readers will recognise as part of their own lives? This will probably be your way into the story too.

What do the main characters want?

Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just turn around and walk away?

What is the first change that starts the story rolling?

Why does the story begin where it does? Have you started too soon, in order to get set-up in? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?

How does it escalate?

No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and what people do must matter more. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where everything totally blows up, and a moment where the characters feel the worst has happened.

I never would have thought…

How does the story take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and how will you convince them that they are fair?

Is it still the same quest as it was at the start?

Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A simple search for a lost dog becomes a crusade against the fur trade. Perhaps at the end your characters want the opposite to the thing they fought so hard for in the early days. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.

In the end…

What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?


Speed is of the essence in NaNoWriMo and it’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.

Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do to get themselves out of the way, or a commitment that might put them on a particular road when something happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.

But if you don’t have time for that, just insert a tag such as [findout] and come back to it in the revision.

Much more important is to know how they relate to each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or would if they got the chance to meet)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?

Thanks for the pics Wonderlane and Takomabibelot

That’s my template for starting a NaNo novel. What would you add? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.


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  1. #1 by Inion N. Mathair on October 7, 2012 - 4:55 pm

    Great tips, Roz. Thanks so much for the post. We’re very excited about NaNoWriMo.

  2. #3 by Donna Brown on October 7, 2012 - 6:49 pm

    Hi Roz,
    I totally agree. This is exactly how I worked NaNoWriMo the last three years! I’ll need to be especially diligent this year. I just recently started a new full time job and am attending school full time!

  3. #5 by Cherese Vines on October 7, 2012 - 9:55 pm

    Yay, NaNoWrimo is coming! Year 6 for me. Good luck all.

  4. #7 by Paula Beavan on October 8, 2012 - 4:42 am

    This will be my second NaNo and last year I’d a badly started historical to start again on. This year I want to write a contemporary mystery/romance, so will be plotting and planning for what’s left of October. I will be following a similar plan to the one you’ve outlined.

  5. #9 by Vikki (The View Outside) on October 8, 2012 - 7:33 am

    Great post Roz 🙂

    I’ve been a Panster for the last 2 years, but this year I’ve decided to do a little bit of planning. I will definitely be using your post 🙂


    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 8, 2012 - 7:43 am

      Glad I got you at the right time, Vikki. Have fun with it.

      • #11 by Vikki (The View Outside) on October 8, 2012 - 9:32 pm

        Thanks Roz 🙂


  6. #12 by karensdifferentcorners on October 8, 2012 - 2:25 pm

    I didn’t outline last year. I was trying to finish my WIP (Yay! Done October 31st) and just jumped in without a clue as to what I was going to write! But I did it and loved it.

  7. #15 by Kern Windwraith on October 9, 2012 - 1:06 am

    Thanks for the quick and dirty tips, Roz. I have your book and use it regularly as a resource, but it’s so handy to have this page to bookmark for easy reference!

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 9, 2012 - 3:46 pm

      Thank you, Kern – there can be no sweeter words for a writer to hear! It was fun boiling down the essentials for this piece, and to try to make them fit the widest variety of novels.

  8. #17 by Donna B. McNicol [@dbmcnicol] on October 10, 2012 - 11:59 pm

    Good post! I’m normally quite the planner but tackled Camp NaNo with a dead body, a setting and a few barely defined characters. I had no idea whodunit. Along the way I gained another dead body, a heart attack, an arson fire and two kidnappings. About 10k from the end of the first draft and absolutely had a blast letting the characters tell the story.

    What am I doing differently for my first NaNo? I’m trying to get more research about the local area done ahead of time as well as better character information. I’m also trying to lay out some basic conflicts but I suspect the characters will jerk me around regardless. LOL!

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 11, 2012 - 8:04 am

      Sounds like you’ve got it nailed, Donna! I think the more experienced we get, the more we tackle these questions instinctively. I don’t need to do as much formal outlining now as I did in the past, but nevertheless I’m still answering these fundamental questions.

  9. #19 by Cherese Vines on October 11, 2012 - 11:00 am

    Reblogged this on Cherese Vines Charming Words and commented:
    National Novel Month begins November 1st. Here are some great tips to get prepared that I found on this great writing blog. Thanks, Roz.Year 6 here I come!

  10. #20 by Bethany Myers on October 11, 2012 - 12:02 pm

    Thanks Roz,

    This is why I follow you, for all the epic ‘a-ha’ moments. This is just what I needed to get my WIP going. THANK YOU!!

  11. #22 by victanguera on October 24, 2012 - 9:23 pm

    Reblogged this on I Had the Write Idea and commented:
    A great checklist from Nail Your Novel on outlining your story before NaNo. Are you ready? I’m not. Eeep.

  12. #23 by Ann Marie Gamble (@amgamble) on October 28, 2012 - 4:13 am

    Roz. Your pink barn photo is from a town down the road from where we go every summer. I’m hoping this (also) means I’ll be successful talking my mom into doing NaNo this year. 😉

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 28, 2012 - 8:24 am

      Ann Marie, that is astonishing. Certainly a coincidence like that must entitle you to make a wish!

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