My “Must Have” List Before Writing Pages

In a recent post I wrote about what “counts” as writing. I promised to share some of the story development steps I take before I’m willing to begin writing actual new pages; hence this post. This is a work in progress for me; I’m constantly working to hone and improve my writing skills, so I’m sure it will continue to evolve as I evolve as a writer.

Here’s what I currently like to have before starting to write, in approximate order:

  • Goals, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC) for Main Characters: The goals, motivation, and conflict for each of my primary characters so I stay in touch with what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what gets in their way over the course of the story. (This link will take you a more detailed article about GMC.)
  • Character Profiles: I write character profiles for my primary and secondary characters detailing their personality traits, flaws, character arcs, and more. (This link takes you to the same place as the one above, where you can also download a free character profile template that includes GMC.)
  • Logline: A twenty-five word summary of the story, including its best hook.
  • Premise Line: A longer summary of the story, using Jeff Lyons’s method for mapping the core structural story elements to a premise line template.
  • Theme and Message: What’s this story about? This is one of those things I’m usually guessing at when I first start —it often doesn’t become clear until I’ve written one or more drafts, but I like to take a stab at it before I begin. More on this in the future.
  • Internal and External Content Genres: I like to use Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid* to get clear on the external and internal content genres of the story to help me make sure I’m staying in touch with the theme and intent of the story I’m aiming to tell.
  • Key Story Values: I also like Shawn’s approach to identifying the key values at play in the story (as indicated by the content genres) and make sure (to the extent of my current abilities!) that I also understand their gradations along the spectrum from positive to opposite/contrary to negative/contradictory to the negation of the negation that I’ll be exploring over the course of the story.
  • Primary Plot Points: I detail my primary plot points, using a cobbled-together version of the many variations I’ve learned over the years. These tie in well with the mini-movie method I use (developed by Chris Soth) and help break a story down into smaller chunks.
    • Opening
    • Inciting Incident
    • End of Act I, Lock In, Plot Point #1
    • First Pinch Point
    • Midpoint
    • Second Pinch Point
    • End of Act II, Cave Moment/All Is Lost, Plot Point #2
    • Crisis
    • Climax
    • Resolution
  • Plot Backstory: I like to write out a summary in prose of what’s happened leading up to the story. Who was doing what before we enter this story world’s timeline? 
  • Scene by Scene Outline: I also like to have a scene by scene outline before I start writing scenes. I identify their location (with a slugline, since I’m writing scripts), the essence of what happens in the scene, and several other elements. I use a scene template that I’ll share with you at some point.
  • Treatment/Synopsis (Optional): I may also write a treatment or synopsis for the story, knowing it will likely change as I write the actual story, just to give myself a little more guidance about what happens. Usually I’ll do this before a scene outline.
  • Query Letter (Optional): Sometimes I’ll even take a stab at writing a query letter for the project to help me identify the hooks for the story and what to focus on building strongly.
  • Timeline or other organizing structural tools (Optional, if the story demands it): If needed, I’ll create a timeline for the project (particularly valuable for time travel stories!) or create other project specific organizational systems if the story requires it. This is one of those gut-level things for me.

Once I have all these pieces of the puzzle assembled, that’s when I’ll feel more confident about starting pages. Sure, some may change, but it gives me a road map and greatly streamlines the writing process for me. I’m also finding that I’m asking myself to stay longer and go deeper with each element, in order to feel more solid about it before diving in. 

What do you like to have before you start writing pages, if anything? Or are you more of a pantser when it comes to writing pages? I’d love to hear about your approach in the comments.

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Get Clear on Your Characters with GMC (Plus a Free Character Profile Template!)

Something I tackled in my most recent screenwriting assignment was getting clear on who the characters are and what motivates them, especially since they weren’t my original characters. This project was a rewrite of a writer-producer’s script so the characters were his, though they now feel like “ours.”

Part of the process of getting there was working through the characters’ GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict) to understand them more deeply.

Cathy Yardley first introduced me to GMC. I’ve done some plot work with her on other projects, and loved her book series where she describes the concept of GMC. The book series is offered collectively in print as Rock Your Writing, also available in a six-part Kindle series, including Rock Your Plot and Rock Your Revisions. She recommends another book called GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, The Building Blocks of Good Fiction that I found helpful as well. (Amazon links for all of these books are in the References section, below.)

What I find most useful about GMC is that it gives me a way into my character’s head.

The jury is still out on whether or not I’m more of an intuitive writer (one who excels in character and dialogue but has a hard time with plot and structure) or a conceptual writer (one who does well with plot and structure but struggles with the character and dialogue). So far, my take is that I’m more of a conceptual writer.

In any case, it helps me to have a character profile for each character I’m working with, and adding GMC to my character profiles has been exceedingly helpful, so I’m sharing it with you. (This would be a useful tool for creative non-fiction writers too!)

Note: If you’re interested in seeing my entire character profile template, you can download a copy of it at the end of this post. 

How GMC Works

We break goals, motivation, and conflict down into both external and internal GMC. This helps us understand both what’s driving the character externally and internally. This syncs up nicely with Shawn Coyne’s External Content Genre and his Internal Content Genre, though they are different tools (I’ll write about this more in a future post — The Story Grid* methodology has completely rewired my brain for story in an incredibly useful way).

Here’s an explanation of External and Internal GMC.

External GMC

  • The character’s EXTERNAL GOAL is the WHAT they are trying to achieve or accomplish by the story’s end. This cannot be vague in any way. Cathy Yardley once told me that an external goal has to be something that you can easily check off in a box when it’s done. For example, disable the bomb, check. Or, catch the bad guy, check. It can’t be something like “get my mom to approve of me,” because it can be too unclear about whether or not that has actually occurred (although I suppose it could be verbally said, “I approve of you” but there’s still room for interpretation — does she actually mean it, etc.).
  • The character’s EXTERNAL MOTIVATION is WHY they are trying to achieve that goal. What reason do they have for trying to reach their goal? What’s at stake, what are the consequences if they don’t make whatever it is happen? That’s their why. For example, everyone in the building will die (if the protag doesn’t disable the bomb). Or, the bad guy may kill again. This can be considered the “Because” clause.
  • The character’s EXTERNAL CONFLICT is the OPPOSITION to achieving the goal. What or who gets in the way? Usually this is the antagonist but it could also be the establishment, the environment, etc., if it’s a human against the state or human against the world kind of story. This could also be considered the “But” clause if you think of these as a sentence.

For example: Carly wants to disable the bomb because otherwise hundreds of people will die, but the antagonist has hidden the bomb and is taunting Carly with killing people one by one as clues until she finds it. 

Internal GMC

  • The character’s INTERNAL GOAL is about HOW the character is trying to feel or hoping to feel. It may or may not be tied to the external goal. And it probably isn’t something that can be ticked off in a check box. It’s more of a feeling state, such as happiness or independence, or vengeance. It can also be a spiritual goal. The internal and external goals CAN be in alignment but they can also not match up — which can create excellent internal conflict for your character. (Don’t forget, we want them to suffer — our readers and viewers want to worry about our characters, that’s why they’re there!)
  • The character’s INTERNAL MOTIVATION is WHY they want to feel that way. Often this is tied to their backstory, or personal goals outside the story. The internal motivation is the emotion that drives the character. For example, a character may have been overly controlled for her entire life by her parents, so she’s trying to create an independent life for herself.
  • The character’s INTERNAL CONFLICT is WHAT might be stopping her from reaching that state of being. This could be caused by the character themselves, but it can also be tied to the external GMC and cause problems for in achieving it. With our example, our character might suffer from insecurity, and keep turning back to her parents for help.

I like to put these together in a chart, like the one below (spreadsheets are handy here), though I also just make bullet point lists when I’m writing in Scrivener since it doesn’t play that well with tables.

Here’s an example:

  External Internal
Goal Carly’s external goal is to disable the bomb… Carly’s internal goal is to forge out on her own…
Motivation Because otherwise hundreds of people will die… Because her psychologist parents have been holding her back for years with their oppressive personalities…
Conflict But the antagonist has hidden the bomb and is taunting Carly with killing people one by one as clues until she finds it.  But she struggles with insecurity so keeps turning to her parents for support and encouragement, and even worse, now needs their help her track down the bomber.


It’s useful to see how the internal and external can work together here. 

I often rework these multiple times until I feel that I’ve landed on something that works. And then I’ll often rework it again, once I’ve finished a script, because I tend to pick up more nuance and information as I interact with the character over the course of the story.

It’s an ever-evolving process.

Want to Check Out My Character Profile Template?

It includes the GMC points I outlined above along with a handful of other useful and streamlined items I assemble for each character. It comes in a PDF and RTF format, along with a Quick Start Guide. You can import the RTF into Word or Scrivener for easy customization and editing.

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* All book links are Amazon affiliate links: