For people participating in NaNoWriMo, today is the last day of freedom and the luxury of having time to think about writing. Starting November 1st, a 30-day race to 50,000 words begins. Anyone hoping to reach the finish line by the end of the month must write 1,667 words a day on average. Anyone convinced they’ll have the time to think about their story as they write it is a fool.

As I wrote in a previous article on NaNoWriMo, the point of this challenge is quantity, not quality. This is going to be too fast for anything to be perfect or, even, good. And that’s fantastic. It’s liberating. You can write without getting attached to your ideas, characters, and stories and work on your core creative muscle.

Also, I found that giving yourself a solid F before you begin can do wonders for your creativity. So, with that in mind, let me share a (really) quick and dirty method for coming up with story outlines. 

I used it last Saturday during a workshop I hosted here in Berlin. We came up with five different novel outlines during a 2-hour meetup. And holy shit, it was fantastic.

What is a Story? What is Your Story About?

Stripped down to its core,

“A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.”

Lisa Cron, Wired for Story

Breaking it down into story elements:

“What happens” is the plot.

“Someone” is the protagonist

The “goal” is what’s known as the story question.

And “how he or she changes” is what the story itself is actually about.

And with that in mind…

Quick and Dirty Novel Outline Step #1

Pick a genre.

Pick a name for your protagonist.

Quick and Dirty Novel Outline Step #2

What do they want? What is their goal?

Write down three original ideas. Commit to the most interesting one.

Quick and Dirty Novel Outline Step #3

Why do they want it? 

Keep digging, use the 5 Whys Technique, until you arrive at something that makes you go “Ooooh!” or sends a pleasant tingle down your spine. That idea is the core of your character’s personality.

Quick and Dirty Novel Outline Step #4

What stands in their way?

A story is essentially an obstacle course for your character. Come up with a list of five exciting obstacles that will challenge your protagonist and the core of their personality from step #3.

Quick and Dirty Novel Outline Step #5

What holds them back?

What is it about them that stands in their way? Come up with a belief or a worldview closely related to #3. Best stories are the ones where the hero’s inner and outer goals are at odds.

Putting it all Together

Ready? 

Breathe in. Hoooold it

Start the story shortly before the protagonist is set on their goal (#2).

Introduce their personality (#3) and their flaws (#5).

Let us experience the event that made them want it (inspiration from #3).

Keep throwing obstacles (#4) at them until they’re forced to confront their flaw (#3 & #5).

Type “The End.”

—and breathe out. 

Your novel is complete. Well done.

Need Help During NaNoWriMo?

Starting November 1st, you can join me on my Patreon-only Discord server. It’s a perfect place for you to bounce your ideas around, get my help, commiserate with others, or hang out with fellow dedicated writers. Check it out. 

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