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 500

Outlining Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

But 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

Outlining Your Novel Workbook (Amazon affiliate link)

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

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

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 Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).


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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. Goooooood mornin!

    This is a nice steak! I’ll be back to finish up later.
    Love this line of thought about the heart of the story. Was just considering this over the weekend. You don’t have access to my mind do you? That would be very creepy.

  2. Really liked this blog post about the heart of the story! Thank you! 😀

  3. Hannah Killian says

    Can a negative change arc turn into a positive one in a sequel?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, although it’s good if you can still plant some seeds for that positive arc in the original book.

      • Hannah Killian says


        To be honest, I still don’t know what the theme of my current story is. Then again, I am stuck on page 8.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          What Truth does your character need to embrace by the end of the story in order to transform into a better person and gain the Thing He Needs? That’s your thematic principle.

  4. Very good point about finding the heart of the story. My outlines always come off flat, with such little details about the characters inner-selves or sense of real conflict. I think a lot of what you say here brings in a solution to that, and bringing out the characters’ wants and desires during the outline process will also help bring the characters to life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What you’ve described is a common reason writers find outlines don’t work for them. If the outline doesn’t encompass all the important parts of the story, then it is always going to be limited tool, at best.

      • I’m happy to hear that. I’ve definitely struggled with outlines in the past and I know for certain that my first draft is 100x better if I outline first.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          For me, I find that the better I understand how story works on a psychological level, the easier and easier my outlines and first drafts get.

  5. Oh, yes, the heart. Thank you, K.M. Above all, the heart. So important is the heart (in my opinion) that some stories don’t even need a climax. It’s enough that the character discovers the truth about him/herself. Though that truth would fuel a magnificent Act III, sometimes the personal discovery is victory enough. Sometimes the hero even physically dies immediately after realizing the truth… and we’re okay with that. American Beauty, for instance. All hail the story heart!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a drum you and I could beat together all day! Great story is nothing without its great heart. Better to get everything else wrong than this.

  6. Megan Brummer says

    Yes!! Finally, someone not afraid of theme. Some of my favorite craft books still say things like “Don’t overthink the theme or you’ll come across too preachy” or “Don’t worry about theme before you write, you’ll figure it out after you’ve written and you can go back and amp it up later” or “Theme is just something you have to feel.”

    So not helpful.

    I love your way of breaking it down–it is a real and integral part of story telling and it’s organic to the tension between internal and external conflict. The heartbeat. Great metaphor!

    A really helpful post. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The organicness (that’s a word, right?) is totally the key. If the theme doesn’t arise naturally from the plot and character, then it *will* inevitably feel preachy for the simple reason that it feels tacked on and in your face. But if we can find that sweet spot where theme already exists in the stories we’re creating… ahhh, that’s just magic!

      • That’s awesome. A new word too! *organicness*

      • Usvaldo de Leon Jr says

        It is not a word, but it is neologistically delicious. All hail organicness!

        In my story the theme has turned out to be that justice is not possible without access to the gatekeeper, and the gatekeeper only responds to power or money. Something in that vein. Once I got that finally figured out, it became clear that what I thought was a Positive Change Arc was actually a Negative Disillusionment Arc, where my character is disabused of her prior notion of how the world works.

        All hail theme! There is no reason to write otherwise.

      • Megan Brummer says

        If Shakespeare could make up words, so can we! “Organicness” is a great contribution to the English language!

        You’ll have to work it into a title or something now 😉

      • Yesss. I used to shy away from themes as preachy and Western Union-like, until I realized I *did* use them, they were just “organic” as opposed to me sitting down and imposing them on the story (which is how it seems we’re taught to do in school).

        I need to bookmark this post and pass it out like candy whenever I need a good explainer on the core elements of good storytelling. The part about the inner and outer conflicts is important in any good story, but is especially vital to writing a series. A series should be fueled by both conflicts feeding off and impacting each other, and end when both problems are solved.

        Soooo much gold here 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Honestly, it took me a long time to be able to quantify and “hold” onto theme without feeling like I was betraying all those well-meaning bits of advice about avoiding it. :p But it’s so liberating to be able to face it and claim it. I know my stories are better for it.

  7. As much as I’ve read on this subject, I still came away with something new! And just today I heard a suggestion for the “general sketches” phase that sounds promising, if you’re not too self-conscious. It’s been shown that being active (and even walking counts) can get more neurons firing and endorphins flowing, which can lead to more or better ideas. The suggestion is to dictate your general sketches in a stream-of-consciousness style monologue, and then later pull out what still sounds good once you’re sitting down.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve heard about several writers who have really good success with this. I don’t dictate, but I definitely do a lot of thinking and talking to myself when during my morning walks. One of my favorite times of the day!

  8. I have a good idea of my main WIP’s theme, and it really does come down to the external conflict of the three main characters, the three books on their own, the overarching, and basically the inner conflict of every major and minor character in there. Also the subthemes… but funny enough, I have a hard time identifying themes in other outlines I have done.

    (on a side note here, do you have a plan to mention minor characters in this ongoing series? When I read your last post about the skeleton, and I read “Protagonist” and “Antagonist”, I wrote down — because yes, I actually take notes when I’m reading your articles — to ask all the same questions for every single character. I don’t know if that is proper protocol or if I’m just nuts.)

    I love the point-form questions you put under the first two sections; the internal and external conflict. When you get to section three, you basically say what it is and that it’s right there in front of me, but sometimes my big nose gets right in the way. Any quick point form questions you may suggest to ask myself that could help me see beyond this nose of mine?

    PS. This series is great. The shape and step-by-step of an outline is tough at times, and seeing it in point form seems to be the way my brain likes it best. It makes me want to start my whole outline over from the ground, even though most if not all these pieces are already in place! I don’t know why, but point form is like blue cheese on a rare tenderloin wrapped in bacon for me.

    I agree that the theme is one of the most exciting discoveries to make when developing a story to tell.

    I’m hungry. Cheers

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Let’s put it this way: if you can identify the Thing Your Character Needs, you’ve basically identified the story’s Truth. Flip that on its head, and you get the reverse Lie, which will either *be* the Thing Your Character Wants (which is informing his plot goal) or will be getting in the way of his plot goal.

      So you could also look at that in reverse: What does your character want? What’s standing in his way of getting it? How does he have to change to get it? What new Truth will he have to embrace? That Truth is your theme.

      As for minor characters, my process for outlining them is sketched out in this post I did a few months ago: 5 Secrets of Complex Supporting Characters.

      • Okay, so the theme and truth are directly correlated, if not the same thing?

        I suppose that if there are multiple characters with their own arcs, this theme will apply to each of their respective truths (if the truths aren’t the same thing for each character. In my case, all three characters share the same truth. One is a flat arc and knows it, one is positive and accepts is, and on is a negative arc and rejects it as they battle the antagonist.)

        Also, I remember that article. I’ll give it a re-read as a sort of Part 2b to this series 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Spot on! And, yes, optimally all of your characters and their arcs will reflect back to the story’s main Truth/theme by illustrating different facets of it and the main Lie.

  9. This is totally gourmet steak lathered in Sweet baby Ray’s BBQ sauce. Good to the last drop.

    A great eye opener on theme. The heart of the story = theme. Epic.

    I’m also taking note of your process here. First you have a basic plot then advance to thematic questions. Really enjoyed these statements:

    “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.”

    I’m learning that you’re very quotable. *High fives*

    It sounds like when you craft the internal conflict you’re also crafting the beginning of arc and theme simultaneously! Holy batcows, Batman!
    Because you said the beginning of theme is the lie (a false premise), and the end of theme is the truth, the heart of the story.

    I love the theme road idea. It’s a journey, process and a destination. A marvelous discovery. Character arc, theme and plot. They’re all an inseparable dynamic trio of sorts.

    I would like to hear more about the external metaphor. When I consider the external plot, I envision a giant hand trying to twist off a tight lid of a jar. Then once the jar is opened you begin to see its contents. Reminds me of Prego. “It’s all in there” But you can’t enjoy the contents unless you get that lid off first. The protagonist is steeped in the lie, offering up significant resistance. Then the plot is designed to somehow unearth the truth. To *twist off the lid of resistance* and realize the contents of the truth.

    Geebers, what a cool post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The external plot is a metaphor for the internal theme in the sense that it is a physical manifestation of what the character is going through on his inner level. Take Po in the animated movie Kung-Fu Panda. He endures all sorts of painful training from Master Shifu (who is trying to get rid of him). His own physical inability to perform kung fu creates the obstacle between him and his end goal of being the Dragon Warrior. All of this is an external metaphor/extension of his internal conflict: overcoming his belief that he isn’t worthy and doesn’t have what it takes.

  10. I don’t recall if you mentioned this, but can the Protagonist also be the Antagonist? In reading this post about finding the heart of your story, I really think that is the case with a story that I am working on (basically a romance of sorts).

    The male character believes he needs to do certain things, and believes he is doing what is right and best, but his own internal wants start creating a conflict with that thinking. A friend sees the conflict and think his moving toward the want will help resolve the need, but he resists that line of thinking, constantly doing battle internally.

    Looking at the story, I really can’t say there is another Protagonist/Antagonist guiding the story. While other antagonists briefly put in appearance to drive the story along, they are short-term and not the ongoing conflict – their actions only affect the thinking and behavior of others, with effects that underly the rest of the story. The female character butts heads with the male on certain issues, but is accord with him on others – she doesn’t truly qualify as his antagonist either. She actually is more of an external catalyst as he moves through the story trying to resolve his inner conflicts.

    Anyway, since others might have something similar, I thought it was worth noting. More traditionally there is a distinct, separate antagonist from the protagonist.

    – Deandra

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Man against Himself is, of course, a time-honored storyform, so there’s nothing wrong with writing a book that centers primarily around a character’s inner conflict.

      However, that conflict will almost always manifest in the outer world as well. The best way to think of conflict is as a series of related obstacles that prevent the character from reaching his overall goal until the end of the story. The best way to think of an antagonistic force is as whoever or whatever is presenting those obstacles. (The antagonistic force’s moral alignment within the the story is irrelevant as far as the foundational conflict goes.)

      Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and his goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that’s your primary antagonistic force–and it’s absolutely fine if it’s the protagonist himself.

  11. Your posts are incredible! I just started following you a couple of weeks ago, and I have printed out so much material. I have written and published 4 nonfiction books, but after many years I’m writing some fiction. Just in time for NaNoWriMo! Thanks so much! I am sending all the authors I know here.

  12. Actually backed into my theme following the articles you connected to this.

    I keep running up against the belief that I’m not a writer, couldn’t pick out a theme if it was included in a line-up; and, while everyone else is following the directions accurately I’m lost, wishing I’d taken ‘the left at Albuquerque’.

    Your guest columnist this past Friday made the connection that writers are artist’s, too (which I knew but still classify, writer, potter, painter, etc) so, thought, while I’m not a writer, I do have artistic ability and so approach the process differently… something you’ve mentioned on more than one occasion in your articles/books… make it work for you. While you write things out in a notebook, I’m having to ‘set them out like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle’ so I can see them and how they fit/connect.

  13. Organicness. Love it.
    I still find it amazing how, before I started reading your posts and learning about theme, I could still just instinctively tell when a story I read was missing it. Strange, isn’t it, how we can just feel it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Isn’t that amazing? People often start out reacting to the idea of structure as if it’s something superficial we impose on a story. But it’s just the opposite. The entire reason structure works at all is because it’s so deeply ingrained in the human psyche. It’s already *there* and we all know it–writers and readers alike. The trick for us, as writers, is making the most of it.

  14. Every time I read one of your posts, I’m incredibly helped with my writing. This time your analysis of theme made me more aware of a different truth. I saw how a great deal of what we do as authors for our characters is also true for what the ultimate Author (note the title in Acts 3:15) is working out in our lives, making us aware of what we really need in our personal character arc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! I’ve often reflected on this. Ultimately, the principles of theme and character arc work in fiction simply because they also ring true in life. I’ve definitely learned a ton about myself in learning about how to write character arcs.

  15. I’m not sure I’m reading this right, so if you could clear things up I’d be grateful.

    Theme is singular to the story. Like a dinner party, one theme carries through decorations/place settings/dinner courses and how people dress. More than one theme would confuse/cloud the festivities (?) unless you’re holding it at a theme park…

    I was reading through last week’s post again, where you ask what themes are inherent to this conflict?’ and in Outlining the section on, made me wonder if there wasn’t something like a main theme and support or sub-themes. (like a halloween dinner party, not just about costumes/trick-or-treat, but include lesser fall themes: harvest, autumn leaves, etc.)

    So, when outlining are you saying to simply identify as many themes/things inherent to the known conflict and then narrow it down to which works best for the story, or??

    Again, I could be misreading the whole thing, missed something in the article/comments, apologies if that’s the case.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There will always be a main theme. But themes are rarely so black and white as to have one single facet. You may decide upon one particular theme, but inevitably there will other angles of this same Truth that will end up being explored–either consciously or unconsciously. For example, when I wrote my dieselpunk/historical novel Storming, I recognized and focused on a theme of Responsibility: the protagonist resisted responsibility, fleeing his restrictive backwater hometown, and chasing freedom through the skies in his biplane instead. But inherent in that were also themes of Family and Relationships, since those were the things that were intrinsically mixed up in his concept of responsibility.

      Another example: in my historical superhero WIP Wayfarer, the main theme I dealt with was that of Respect: the hero is a poor boy, who feels his family died in the workhouse out of a fundamental disrespect shown to the poor by the rich, so he chases money as the solution to gaining respect in the world. But inherent in that was also the theme of Truth: what is true and what is illusion? is the respect earned by money true or is it only an illusion of respect? is one worthy of respect if he does truly respectable things–even if all other people see are lies and illusions covering up that truth?

      There are always multiple themes that crop up in a story. But it’s best to focus on the one at the heart of the character’s Lie and Truth. Use that for the story’s center and let the others develop organically as you go.

      • Thank you.

        The image I get (and it may be flawed) is that of a river flowing through having tributaries and branches that contribute to and draw from the main…

        Appreciate your allusion to the multifaceted nature of, as well as examples for. Really very helpful, thanks again. 🙂

  16. Is the heart of the story similar to the soul?

  17. Hey!

    Great website! I’ve just discovered it and I’m working through the whole thing. The story I’m writing now will be my first novel and your site has helped me find the right place for all the ideas I have.

    I do have a question though. The heart of my story is basically sibling rivalry. Only I’m telling the story through the eyes of the girl and through those of the boy’s “evil mentor” in alternate chapters. This means two main Character Arcs, one positive and one negative, but I’m wondering if it also means two Mid Points? She wants to be independent and her Moment of Truth is that she just can’t do it alone. He has an inferiority complex and his Moment of Untruth is that he’ll never be the best, so he decides to be the worst. Can there be 2 Mid Points, or do I have to decide that one is the more important of the 2?

    Just started reading Dreamlander, I’m excited to find out how you applied all this theory! I’ve only just made the decision to actually write instead of just talk about it, but if… I mean when my book makes it to press, I’ll send you a copy 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s possible both characters can glean different “Truths” from the same Midpoint revelation. However, it’s also fine if you need to create separate Midpoints for each character.

      Great to hear you’re enjoying the site–and Dreamlander. 🙂 I did a breakdown of Dreamlander‘s story structure for the Story Structure Database, which you can find here: . I don’t recommend reading it beforehand, since there are spoilers, but it might prove helpful after you’ve finished the book.

  18. What if the overarching “subject” of the story is justice by chasing and prosecuting the killer (legal suspense)? But the protag’s “need” is to achieve self-forgiveness for a serious wrong she perceives as her fault. Does the theme become Forgiveness? I’ve outlined as if Justce was the theme. Thank you for any help. Sherrie

  19. I love your little diagram with the 2 overlapping circles illustrating Plot + Character = Theme, by the way, but I’m having trouble finding or figuring out all the parts of my story that I need to plug into it… I’m still new at this 😉
    Okay, so I want my theme to be that “God loves you no matter what you’ve done or what’s happened to you.”
    My protagonist:
    1. believes the lie that she is unlovable — she’s a victim of sexual abuse and has, in the past, made poor choices as a result of that (rebelled, joined a gang, had an abortion, etc) — and so she shuts herself off from relationships with people.
    2. needs more than anything to be loved and accepted despite her past
    3. has a story goal, initially, of finding out who killed the drowned man she found while scuba diving, although that changes once she finds out that her family is involved in the death of this man, directly related to their involvement in a wildlife smuggling ring. Once she realizes the man’s death points to her family, she has the new goal of bringing down the smuggling ring (and her family with it). She’s already pretty much estranged from her family anyway but this does nothing to increase her popularity or endear her to her family.
    4. as a subplot, does fall in love with her half-sister’s boyfriend, who is working undercover for her PI boss, to uncover the illegal activities going on in the family.
    Another subplot has the Protag finding out that the Dr (also involved in the wildlife smuggling) who owns the nursing home her mother is in (who has a traumatic brain injury after the protag’s father engineered her car accident) is illegally medicating the mother with the sole purpose of milking more money for her care. Once the mother is off that medication, she improves a little and can interact a little more with her daughter (the protagonist) and so their relationship improves.
    Does any of that make sense? How does any of that fit into your little diagram? What do I need to do to make it better?
    I sure do appreciate your input! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like you’re on the right track. You just want to make sure the plot is “teaching” the protagonist the Truth. How do her attempts to see justice done lead her to this overarching Truth? If the plot events *don’t* lead to this particular Truth, then it’s likely there’s a disconnect between plot and theme–and one will need to be tweaked or replaced.

  20. According to my job coach Christine and writing coach Rebecca, my superhero stories about my character StarGirl are about her gaining confidence and learning to trust her instincts.

  21. Debbie Emmitt says

    Hi, I’m loving your NaNoWriNo prep series! Although I haven’t got time at the moment to fully invest in writing 50K words in November, I’m using your October posts as a checklist for my WIP, to ensure I’ve covered all the essential elements. They are a brilliant summary of all the excellent advice you have shared in your 100s of posts, and will be bookmarking them for future endeavours. Thanks as ever, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you’re finding them useful, Debbie! 🙂 I’m not NaNo-ing either, actually. But I am working on an outline for my next book, which is why this felt like good timing for this series.

  22. Ha, this is perfect! My character wants to save his nation to impress his lady friend. What he needs is to realize his worth isn’t based on his reputation (or by how much others like him). So, um, theme has to do with self-worth . . . .
    I’m getting pretty close. And I just started outlining yesterday. I love this blog.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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!!!

  26. 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. :/

  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. I love reading all of your materials, they go hand in hand.

    I’m at chapter 12 of Structuring your novel and reading this at the same time. They go hand in hand so much!

    Have a great day!

  31. rique nash says

    i’m not 100% sure i buy this. do all stories have wants that are lies and needs that are truth? do you have to have that? i don’t really have any story ideas; i just know i want to write fantasy.


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  3. […] 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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