The Nanowrimo Guide to Outlining (How to Find the Heart of Your Story)

3 Steps to Find the Heart of Your Story (How to Outline for NaNoWriMo, Pt. 3)

The Nanowrimo Guide to Outlining (How to Find the Heart of Your Story)Most of the time when you start figuring out how to outline a story, you know one of two things about that story. Either you know the skeleton of your story (its premise or plot), or you know the heart of your story. But it’s not enough to have just one. You gotta have both.

On its surface, it certainly seems as if story is plot—the mechanics of characters doing things in pursuit of their goals. But as important and fun as all that stuff is, it’s just window dressing. To find the story you’re really telling—the story that’s really worth telling—you must look deeper.

You must find the beating, pulsing heart of your story. Otherwise, no matter how flash your plot may be, what you’re really creating is nothing more than a robot. It may move around prettily, but look into its eyes and you’ll know it’s empty inside—soulless, lifeless, heartless.

Today, we’re going to fix that.

How to Find the Heart of Your Story in Your Outline

So here you are, halfway through October, still figuring out how to outline for NaNoWriMo (or any other month of the year). You’ve already figured out the bones of your story—the answers to the four basic questions that power your plot (which we discussed in last week’s post).

But something’s missing. You have some cool ideas. But they just don’t seem like they’ve come alive for you yet.

Or maybe you were able to hear your story’s beating heart right from the beginning, but now its rhythm seems a little fainter, lost amid all the external plot stuff you dreamed up in the beginning of your outline.

Either way, now that you have a body for your story’s heart to live in, you’re ready to find that heart, refine it, and use it to make sure you create a plot with power and meaning.

What Is the Heart of Your Story?

Boiled down to its lowest common denominator, the heart of your story is its theme. This is what your story is about on a deeper, spiritual level. It is what your story is truly about, the black-and-white, archetypal, primal search for meaning and truth in the human life.

This is what every story—even the most careless—is about on some level. And the best stories are always those that tackle their themes head on and harmonize them with hard-hitting and pertinent plots that externalize their moral premises.

Can You Outline Theme?

I’m glad you asked. Because the answer is: Oh boy yeah.

In fact, theme is one of the single most important story elements you can address in the outline. An early understanding of your story’s thematic questions will provide you the foundation you need to make all the varied story decisions that follow.

Without this foundation, you won’t be able to pull the disparate elements of your story—plot, character, and theme—together into a seamless whole with a cohesive focus.

This is why the thematic questions are always my very next stop in my outline after figuring out the basics of the plot. Before I go one step further with my characters’ external adventure, I must first understand their internal journeys. Only then, can I move forward in crafting an external plot that catalyzes the inner journey and (even cooler!) provides an external metaphor for the very heart of the story.

A General Sketches Reminder: Keep It Creative

Outlining is very much about a melding of the minds: your “circular”/subconscious/”right-brain” creativity and your linear/conscious/”left-brain” logic. You’ll be bouncing back and forth between “loose” creativity and “tight” logic throughout the outlining process.

Outlining Your Novel 500But it’s worth repeating that the General Sketches section of the outline (which I talk about in my books Outlining Your Novel and the Outlining Your Novel Workbook) is where you want to keep your brain at its loosest. You don’t want to impose too much linearity on the process just yet. You’re still just throwing paints at the wall to see which colors stick.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook

I write my General Sketches longhand in a notebook. I keep it very stream of conscious, more like a conversation with myself than anything. I’m asking questions, following the answers to their logical conclusions, discarding what doesn’t work, and answering whatever new questions then arise.

You’ll need to find your own rhythm, but as an example, here’s a characteristic excerpt from my outline for my portal fantasy sequel work-in-progress Dreambreaker:

I like the idea that Chris thinks everything is in place for him now—there’s a little Pride and Complacency at work—and he has to relearn his lesson.

Chris is more peace than Allara is. But he also starts out with a simple worldview. The worlds got knocked into focus for him after the last Book, and now they’re opened back up, it seems like God’s will, like God is rewarding his sacrifice. It all makes sense—until it doesn’t.

At that point, wouldn’t he be in despair? He did this once—gave everything, down to his very life. Now what?

Writing to find the heart of your story in an outline

I write my outlines longhand in a notebook (with an ergonomic pen).

3 Questions to Help You Find the Heart of Your Story

Get out your notebook or other outlining tool of choice and start by asking yourself the following questions on paper. Explore all the obvious answers until you find the ones that fit, that feel right, and that make sense within your vision for the plot. Find those answers, and you will find the heart of your story.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program logo(The Outlining Your Novel Workbook software‘s Character & Theme section will get you started on these important questions.)

Character Arc and Theme Outlining Your Novel Workbook Software

1. Plot: What Is Your Story’s External Conflict?

It’s true, we’re here today trying to find the heart of your story. But to do that, you must first remember all of fiction is a balancing act. The process of outlining a story is a continual bob and weave of sewing in first one story element and then another. We’re going to discuss this is much more depth in a future installment in this series. For now, suffice it that to find the heart of your story, you must actually begin with the skeleton.

You should already have identified your story’s basic plot, via last week’s 4 outlining questions. Now, it’s time to stop and take a long hard look at the plot you uncovered. What is it really about? What is the story under its skeleton?

Consider the following points:

  • What is your protagonist trying to achieve?
  • Why is he trying to achieve it?
  • What is the antagonist trying to achieve?
  • Why is he trying to achieve it?
  • What are the stakes (personal and public) should the protagonist fail?
  • How will the protagonist have to change to be able to externally and physically defeat the antagonistic force and gain his goal?

Even though these are all plot questions, the answers will depend on your story’s theme. (And now you see the integral weave of plot, character, and theme.)

Your plot provides the framework for the theme that will emerge. Indeed, the plot must provide the framework, or else the heart of your story will fail to be central to the external story.

2. Character: What Is Your Story’s Internal Conflict?

In laying the framework for your story’s external conflict, you have also laid the framework for its internal conflict.

Creating Character Arcs

Your protagonist’s internal conflict is the foundation for his character arc. Character arc is the transition a character undergoes over the course of the story. This change—whether for good or bad—is the heart of your story. Why? Because in change there is always purpose, there is always reason. Without change to either the character or the world around him, the story remains static—and has no point.

  • In a Positive Change Arc, the character will transform into a better or more equipped person. He learns the necessary survival skills—on an inner level—that allow him to appropriately handle his external conflict.
  • In a Negative Change Arc, he will learn incorrect skills or beliefs, which will ultimately cripple him in his pursuit of both his outer goals and his inner wholeness.
  • In a Flat Arc, the character himself will not change much, but he will help others around him to evolve through their own Positive Change Arcs.
How to Discover the Right Arc for Your Characters

Find the heart of your story in your theme by first determining which of the three character arcs your protagonist following.

To determine which type of arc is best for your story, consider the external conflict.

  • Will your character achieve his end goal? Why or why not?
  • Will he end as a better or worse person?
  • How might he need to grow into a better person in order to gain his goal?
  • How might his personal desires and motives change over the course of the story?

Character arcs and their internal conflict are founded upon the fulcrum of two opposing goals within the character:

1. The Thing the Character Wants
  • Prompts the external plot goal.
  • Is a conscious desire on the part of the protagonist.
  • Is a wrongful desire (either because it is an inherently harmful or selfish end goal or because the character blindly believes it will fix his inner problems when it will not).
  • Is based on a Lie (see next section).
2. The Thing the Character Needs
  • Is an internal thematic need.
  • Is often an unconscious desire on the part of the protagonist.
  • Is a healthy desire (which will ultimately lead to health, fulfillment, and wholeness—but not necessarily external gratification).
  • Is based on a Truth (see next section).

The Thing the Character Wants will power the external plot. The Thing the Character Needs will power his internal evolution over the course of the story. In the first half of the story, the character will be controlled by his Want; in the second half, he will begin to evolve into a stronger understanding of his true Need—which will ultimately lead him to personal (if not always public) victory. (Or, conversely, if he rejects his Need and clings to his Want, he will ultimately suffer a tragic end in a Negative Change Arc.)

Your external plot will usually show you what type of arc your character will be following. But only by recognizing, claiming, and strengthening that arc, via these internal-conflict questions, can you then knead the internal plot back into the external in a cohesive and seamless way.

3. Theme: What Is Your Story’s Theme?

And that brings us to the theme. Some authors shy away from consciously claiming their themes, believing the theme will become too on the nose.

But here’s the truth: your theme doesn’t just arise somewhere late in the story. It’s there, right from the start, in the conflict between your character’s external and internal needs.

In order to fully understand the import and potential of your plot and character arc, you must also bring the third member of the story trifecta front and center.

What is your story’s theme?

If you’ve answered the questions in the previous two sections, then your theme is already right there in front of you. But let’s clear the fog a little more. Let’s boil down your character’s conflicting Want and Need into something more fundamental and primal: a universal thematic premise.

Stop thinking of theme as a nebulous transcendent concept. Instead, think of your theme as a road within a defined beginning and ending.

The Road to Them Infographic

As you figure out how to find the heart of your story, what you’re ultimately looking for is the story-long journey of theme.

The Beginning of Theme: The Lie Your Character Believes

Both your story and your theme begin with a false premise: your character believes a Lie. This Lie is what fuels the Thing He Wants. The Lie is what leads him to believe that if he can only gain the Thing He Wants, his inner self will find wholeness and victory.

Basically, this Lie has your character convinced he can fix his broken heart if only he can find the magic golden Band-Aid to put on his elbow.

He’s deluded. And it’s killing him.

The End of Theme: The Truth Your Character Believes

That’s why your character must grow into an awareness of the fundamental illusion of his Lie—so he can instead embrace the empowering (if often difficult) Truth that will set him free.

The Truth is the Thing Your Character Needs. It may or may not preclude the Thing He Wants. It may or may not lead him to final victory in the external plot. But it will always lead him to internal, spiritual victory.

The Truth is your story’s thematic premise. The Truth is the heart of your story. The Truth is the inner story that is being proven by the metaphor of the outer story.

Once you know your story’s Truth, you will be able to start mapping a way to help your character either find it or reject it in your story’s end. It will influence every important plot decision you make from this point on.


Your thematic premise is going to exist at the heart of your story whether you recognize it early on in the outline or not. Why not claim it right away?

The heart of your story is arguably the single most exciting element you’ll uncover during your outline. Theme is the reason stories remain the most powerful communication medium in existence. Having the opportunity to pack all that firepower into your story’s outline is a thrilling, heady, and deeply personal experience. Enjoy!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’re going to talk about how to spot and fill all your plot holes before they even happen.

Previously in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion: How will you find the heart of your story? What is your theme? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Rosalie Pleiman says

    Hi, K.M.! First off, I love your website and blog and I have read Creating Character Arcs. I’m still confused, though. What if I have a flat character arc, but what she (my protag) wants is to keep her friends and family safe and what she realizes is that she may need to risk her life in order for the truth to be known about the Atag. The truth of the protag and current society is that truth, ethics/morals, and action on those truths and morals are what makes a good society. The Lie the Atag group believes is that’s gaining total domination on hate, fear, and deception will make them happy. How does what the character wants and what the character needs work with a flat arc?
    BTW, I found my theme: In order to overcome hate, deception, tyranny and fear tactics, one must not only live in truth, intellect, and ethics, but they must make a concerted effort to take action on what they know is true and to expose deception and intolerance.
    So, I guess I’m really just confused about how the whole what the character needs vs. wants comes into play in a flat character arc. Thanks for taking the time to help me understand this concept!
    All the best,

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Need and the Want are a little different in a Flat Arc. They’re still there, but they’re mostly under the surface for the protagonist because he’s already resolved the conflict between them. In short, unlike in a Positive Change Arc, his Want is already in alignment with the Truth.

      Where you see the conflict happening between Want and Need in a Flat Arc is in the lives of the supporting characters who are being impacted by the protagonist’s Truth and undergoing personal change arcs themselves as a result.

  2. I have a previous WIP that is about a family. It’s multi-generational. I am struggling a bit with how to begin outlining for something like that. The scope is intimidating. The thing is, there are several protagonists. Do you think using the “family” as the protagonist entity would help? Each character will have their own arc, most likely as a subplot, but for the story itself, does that seem like a viable option?

    • Have you seen the Netflix series, “Bloodline”? It’s about a family in the Florida Keys. The family would seem to be the protagonist of this series, and I’d say it works, for the reason that it disintegrates… and if the series continues into another season, I expect to see the beginnings of its resurrection in the new generation. Myself, I stay away from “ensemble casts” and stick with one strong, flawed, character. Cheers. ~ PJR

      • PJ,

        No, I have not. I’ll have to check it out. And yeah, I tend to stick with one or two protagonists, but this is an idea I’ve had for ages that won’t leave me alone. I want to do it justice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’d say that’s a very smart approach. Almost certainly, you’ll want one particular character who is the flagship protagonist–the main mover through the story. You might also find this post helpful: Protagonist and Main Character— Same Person? The Answer May Transform Your Story!.

      • K.M…. Just read your 2015 post about ‘protag vs main character’ — excellent clarification. Thanks for that. ~ PJR

      • Thanks so much, Katie! That helps quite a bit. I’ve been looking at a lot of my ideas that are just sitting around, collecting dust as it were. I plan on doing an outline for each of them eventually. That one was stumping me with where to start. I normally try to stick with one, maybe two protagonists, but with such a complex format, I was having an issue.

  3. Good day, miss Weiland! I have some doubts about the questions:

    1. “What are the stakes (personal and public) should the protagonist fail?”

    Here, I didn’t understand why the protagonist should fail in a stake, I mean, ins’t stakes something like “if the hero doens’t stop the villain, the world will be destroyed!” then in this example the world is at stake, but what do you mean with personal and public stakes? Also, how does someone fail in a stake?

    2. “What is your protagonist trying to achieve?”

    The thing the protagonist is trying to achieve here is his personal goal (be a good father to his motherless daughter) or his plot goal (kill the villain)?

    3. “How will the protagonist have to change to be able to externally and physically defeat the antagonistic force and gain his goal?”

    By changing externally and physically you mean the protagonist will need, for example, to train martial arts to defeat the villains? Also, if my protagonist is going to follow a Corruption Arc and embrace the Lie, will he need to change externally and physically along the story to defeat the villain?

    “Will your character achieve his end goal? Why or why not?”

    Is his end goal the personal or the plot goal?

    Eh… sorry if my doubts are silly, but I’m really confused about those outline questions… >.<

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In answer to your questions:

      1. You’re right in understanding that stakes are what the protagonist stands to lose. They could be world-ending stakes, such as you’ve mentioned–or they could be more personal stakes of many varied natures. For example, he might stand to a loved one. Or he might stand to lose his self-respect. Or his home, his job, his healthy body, etc.

      2. The thing the character is trying to achieve is his plot goal (which might also be a necessary step in achieving a different overarching plot goal–maybe he can’t be a good father until he defeats the antagonist?).

      3. Not all characters, regardless of arc, will change in the “external” story world, but learning martial arts is a good example of how they might.

      4. The end goal is the plot goal in the external plot. This will be related in some way, either directly or indirectly, to the character’s inner Want, but is not necessarily the same thing.

      • Thanks for replying! Now I can continue my Outline. Also, thank you for making high quality and frequent posts! Really, your blog has helped me (and I bet a lot of other people) very much in understanding the art of writing and creating stories. I wish you a lot of success!!!

  4. Had to read this post twice and look through my notes to see if I could spot my theme.

    In my story, there are 2 MCs and an antagonist.

    The first main character wants justice for the death of her family. She wants to take down the antagonist, all while trying to find answers on why exactly the antagonist is hunting her down. She has this cold, almost tunnel vision idea that once she gets rid of the antagonist’s kind, her life–and the life of others–will be better. Her problem is that she believes that she doesn’t need anyone’s help to complete this sort of thing–she can do this on her own.

    The second MC wants to continue life without returning to his old, risky thieving days. Days he realize should have killed him more then once–and did kill those he loved. But he’s forced to search for answers regarding a magical gift (more a strong curiosity) and go back into danger to keep MC 1 alive. Both MCs work off each other–the first pulling this thief out of his shell and the second helping the first MC realize that she can’t always be alone–that teamwork/community is better.

    Both characters have to sort of come to the realization that their methods are both backwards and that, in order to solve this quest, they have to lean on each other to survive. They have to let go of that way of thinking and the Ghosts along with it to complete the quest.

    My antagonist is sort of (maybe…kind of unclear still) the extreme of both main characters. He believes that he must find a cure for his family on his own–it’s his war, his battle. He believes he is immortal and cannot be touched. He will win this battle. Yet at the same time, he fears the possibility of death. Yet he must take that risk–imprisoning himself in the process–in order to achieve his goal. He rejects the truth that his kind can be killed, instead opting to see this new prison as a strength. Still believing that true death is impossible. It ends up being this new form–and his insistence that he is stronger then the heroes–that ends up being his downfall.

    Not sure how to phrase all that in a nice, neat little question though. :/

  5. Brenda Williams says

    Once again you made everything sound so simple, to what I used to be so dumb about. I’m so grateful to get some clarity on this subject. Thanks again

  6. I have been reading your articles for a few weeks now and I have to say, you really know what you are talking about. I have spent at least three years having “on-and-off” ideas about different stories that I want to write. And none have them have stuck until I found your website. I especially love your book on character arcs, I even bought it before discovering this website! Keep doing what you do!

    (P.S. do you look at budding writer’s ideas? I would love to talk to you about mine)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m so glad you’re finding the site useful!

      Unfortunately, my schedule doesn’t allow me to read or critique manuscripts or work one on one. I’m happy to answer any specific writing questions you may have, although it can take me up to two weeks to respond due to the number I receive.

      I have also collected a resource of recommended freelance editors, which you can find here.

  7. I’m not sure if my story works? My protagonist is a woman entering the music industry to be a manager of a popular idol group. The group has rabid and obsessive fangirls who hate any female that interacts with them, and so they constantly antagonize her, and the agency she works for, takes note of that. So she is in risk of losing her job, but she cannot realistically win against them and keep her job, can she? Her not wanting to lose her job is so that, in her mind, it will prove her failure as a independent self capable adult. I decide to raise the stakes I have her enter a romantic relationship with the most popular member of the group. Now she has two reasons to cling to her job.

    In the end, she loses her job, and her relationship, but I can’t help thinking that something is lacking from my story? I have a feel that it’s the lack of action on my protagonist part, in relation to her job slipping past her fingers. It’s just that…there’s nothing she can really do. Is there enough conflict of her just going through the motions, engaging in relationships she forms during the story, enduring the harsh treatment from the fan girls and the occasional show of the dark side of the industry she’s in, all while it all escalates to the agency firing her?

    P.S. They fire her because they discover they are dating, and that’s a big no-no in the music industry they’re in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      First of all, great story idea! It’s unique, interesting, and has lots of potential for chewy conflict.

      Two things jump out at me:

      1. Make sure she knows what she’s risking when she decides to date the band member, so that the consequences are her own responsibility. See this post: The Secret to Writing Dynamic Characters: It’s Always Their Fault.

      2. Whether or not her story resonates in the end will depend in large part on how well it ties in with a solid character arc. You can find a lot more about that (and the options for Positive Change, Flat, and Negative Change arcs) in this series: How to Write Character Arcs.


  1. […] Ok, I take it back, you have to read this one, too. I mean, it’s fabulous! In this article, our beloved K. M. Weiland (see the first post in this series for more on her) gives a step-by-step guide for finding your theme. If you’re feeling a little lost about the whole “big” story thing, check it out! […]

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