Lisa A. Nichols

author of Vessel

Welcome to the third post in a series, “I Have a Story Idea, Now What?” This time we’ll be talking about plotting.

Obligatory disclaimer: there is no one true way to write or outline or plot or edit. What I’ll be doing in these posts is talking about how I do things, and why, and what I’ve struggled with. Feel free to use anything that seems useful and ignore the rest.


This week and next week’s posts are going to be about a very similar topic. Next week will be outlining. I’m sort of viewing this post as a broader overview, and next week will be the details and hard procedural stuff. This post also serves as a bridge between coming up with your characters and doing an outline. (Btw, even if you don’t want to or don’t like outlining, I’d still recommend checking back in next week!)

Whew. Okay. So you have your germ of an idea, and you hopefully have some characters. Now what?

Now you start sort of trying to fit them together. At this point, you probably don’t have a full plotline in your head. Or at least, you may not realize that you do. Because: one of the huge strengths of using the Goal, Motivation, Conflict method of developing characters is that the process pretty much hands you a plotline. (As the originator, Debra Dixon, calls it, “the building blocks of good fiction.”)

Next time we’ll talk about outlining (or planning, if the word ‘outlining’ gives you hives), but I’ll spoil things a little bit by telling you where I start. I start with the climax of the story. The Big Moment, where everything comes together.

So what’s your climax of the story? You already have it: The character is faced with a decision or an action they must take. It’s the deciding point of whether they achieve their goal–and to achieve it, they have to be faced with giving something equally valuable up– or not, and it often involves facing their worst fear.

Using GMC, this is your basic storyline:

  1. Show us what your characters want.
  2. Show us why.
  3. Show us why they can’t have it.
  4. Repeat.

The first three steps are pretty flexible in terms of order. For example, in Cinderella, long before the invitation to the ball comes, we know exactly what sort of conflict Cinderella is going to face trying to get there, and we know why she’d want to escape her home. That can be a powerful way to create a super sympathetic character, by showing us everything they’re up against, and then showing us what they want.

The other great thing about GMC is that it’s hard to get lost in the story while you’re writing it. Even if you don’t outline or plan, by knowing what your character wants more than anything, you have a sort of roadmap.

Obviously, there are lots of other ways to kind of come up with the shape of your story, this is just my favorite. However you do it, the biggest thing to take away here is to make it about your characters. As fantastic as your worldbuilding is, as great as your plot ideas are, the characters should always be driving the action.

A note on that: I don’t mean the mindset that says “I have no control over the story, the characters took it over!”

I understand that feeling. I’ve certainly had it before. And there is an amazing feeling of serendipity when a character seems to offer up a solution to something you were wrestling with. I know it feels magical, but I feel compelled to kill the magic for you: it’s not. Not really.

You are always in control. When those moments come, it’s your subconscious giving you the answer. I’ve seen a lot of writers get stuck and not finish things because “the characters say to do X but I can’t make it work!” And my answer is always “ignore what the characters are ‘saying’ and try something else. The characters aren’t the writer. You are.” Don’t sell yourself short!

Enjoy the magic feeling when it happens, but pat yourself on the back, because that’s all you. You don’t need the magic feather to fly.

Once you have a general shape of your story–or at least, you know where you want to land, it’s time to break it down into smaller segments. Next week I’ll talk about how I do that–although it kind of varies from book to book, I have finally started to hit on a plan that usually works for me.

As always, any questions or comments about this series, you can comment below or hit me up on social media.

About the Author


Lisa A. Nichols lives in Michigan with a tiny ridiculous dog, too many cats, and a crush on Luke Skywalker that she should’ve outgrown thirty years ago.

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