Margie Lawson

Make your writing soar


The Safari Plotline: Distilling Your Story into a Single Sentence

Ah, if we could pour our story idea into such a beautiful copper contraption and turn the spigot to release our story’s essence. It would be a magical experience for sure, creating this super-powered single sentence.

This single sentence, made up of five elements, can give you confidence in determining what path your characters and story need to take, to lead your protagonist through a transformational arc, and to a satisfying story resolution.

I call this sentence a Safari Plotline since it will help guide your character through the wilds of the entire plot of your story.

If your heart pounds a little faster at the thought of creating such an important sentence, this is a normal reaction. The heart pounding comes from fear of not getting it RIGHT.

That’s way too much pressure to put on yourself.

What if you don’t have all five parts?

Maybe you only have two or three of them.

Awesome-you have two or three parts. Celebrate!

Then make up the other two or three missing. Put in your best guess for right now.

Yes, guessing is encouraged. Pretend, speculate, muse, imagine, explore, discover are all ways to think about the process of seeing what best fits.

Have fun with the process. We’re not etching this sentence in stone. Use pretty colors and lots of space to consider the possibilities. We can erase, mark through, start a whole new page.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the five magical ingredients in a Safari Plotline.


Target the Spine of your story.

Your one sentence Safari Plotline is going to include:

  • STORY GOAL (What)
  • KEY CONFLICT (Why not)
  • ACTION (How)

The protagonist has a goal, because something is personally at stake if he doesn’t achieve it, but something blocks his path, and so he’s forced to take action.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins


STORY GOAL: Needs to survive the Hunger Games.

MOTIVATION: Because if she doesn’t no one will be there to protect her sister and mother.

KEY CONFLICT: But must face and overcome the other tributes and the challenges of the game masters

ACTION: And so, she hones her hunting skills and fights for her life         

Katniss Everdeen needs to replace her little sister as a participant in the annual fight-to-the-death Hunger Games on live TV but she must outlast many other well-trained Tributes and so she struggles to hone her hunting skills and new strategies to survive the unexpected challenges thrown at them all by the game masters.


Who                 (protagonist name)   

What                NEEDS TO ___________(what must the protagonist achieve?)_____

Why                 BECAUSE IF HE DOESN’T  ____(what personal loss will occur if the goal is not  achieved?____

Why Not           BUT, ______(what is the main force, issue, person, place or thing that opposes the protagonist’s success?)__

How                 AND SO, ______(What action must the protagonist take in order to overcome the obstacle/conflict)_______

A closer look at the Safari Plotline elements:


The character whose choices and actions drive the story forward.

There may be more than one main character and more than one Point Of View (POV) character, but usually only one Protagonist.


What it is: The protagonist’s big want or need. This is something that exists in the world, something that can be attained or achieved.

What it isn’t: Linked to, but not the motivation. Not a vague or thematic statement like rediscover love or learn to trust. These can be related to Character Goals within the story, but the Story Goal needs to be more concretely attainable. 

Why your story needs it: If your protagonist doesn’t want anything, they have no reason to get off the couch.

Examples: Get a new job, Catch the killer, Break out of prison, Go to college, Find the cure…


What it is: The personal reason or need driving the protagonist’s big want

Related to Stakes. Stakes is what is lost if the goal isn’t reached.

What it isn’t:

  • Goal (Katniss’ goal is to win the Hunger games. She’s MOTIVATED to win because she wants to keep her mother and sister safe.)
  • Story or Plot Motivation rather than a Personal Motivation. Sounds funny but you need to dig deeper than a Plot Motivation to find that Personal Motivation reason to include in the Safari Plotline.
  • Plot Motivation examples: Saving the world from being destroyed by demons or the death star or an asteroid, saving New Orleans from a hurricane.

It’s hard for the reader to really care about the world or even a city as interesting as New Orleans. But these make for faceless tragedies and don’t trigger much emotion. Katniss is compelled to take care of her sister and mother.

Why your story needs it: If there’s nothing personally at stake, your protagonist can easily put off pursuing the big want or just walk away when the going gets tough.

Examples: preserve my marriage, earn the respect of my family, feed my family, save the family farm

One of the greatest Motivations I’ve seen in a long time is in the film World War Z. Brad Pitt’s character Gerry and his family have been uplifted out of the horrors of zombie-filled Newark and taken to a naval ship where they will be safe. If Gerry refuses to help track down the cure, he and his family will be taken off the ship and back to the mainland and certain death.  

You put those cute kiddos clinging to their parents in all the chaos and no way the audience isn’t gripped by this choice.

Hint: It may help to think about what will be lost. What the Stakes would be.

My wife will divorce me, my parents will disown me, throw me out, my family will go hungry, the farm that’s been in our family for six generations will be sold to the corporation.


What it is: The main obstacle or Antagonist or Antagonistic Force opposing the protagonist’s achievement of the big want or the Story Goal.

What it isn’t: Internal Conflict. Internal Conflict drives the Character Arc or Character growth in the story.

Why your story needs it: If the Protagonist doesn’t have to fight for that Story Goal then no tension, no obstacles, no action—who cares. Conflict is the main way that we see what the protagonist’s “made of.”

Examples: Darth Vadar, Zombie virus, an arranged marriage, death of your husband on the wagon train, administrative assistant wanting your job.


What it is: The action that must be taken by the protagonist in order to overcome the opposition and avoid the stakes related to the motivation.

What it isn’t: A flashback of action, Internal Thoughts, “Chit Chat” Dialogue.

Why your story needs it: The story and protagonist would stay too static and would not be compelling. The protagonist would be too reactive and the action too episodic.

Examples: Katniss learns hand to hand combat, knife throwing, edible plant identification and other skills to help her survive the Games. Nurse Jackie lies about her prescription drug abuse to her best friend and her husband. A mother fears an intruder and mistakenly shoots her daughter sneaking back into the house after being with her boyfriend. A first-year medical intern gives her baby up for adoption.

Creating a Safari Plotline

To create a Safari Plotline, you weave together the elements Goal, Motivation, Conflict, and Action to identify your story’s spine. Think External/Dramatic Action Plot.

The Safari Plotline gives you clarity, gives you focus. You gain understanding of the obstacles your heroine must face and why she is compelled to fight so hard to reach the Story Goal.

Solidifying your Safari Plotline and identifying the protagonist’s Internal Motivation will help you stay on track with your story.

During the writing journey, the story jungle can get snarled and dense, and you may lose sight of the trail and even lose your way. The Safari Plotline helps you find your way back into your story, your foundation.  

During the long, arduous journey to complete our stories, the mind demons may slash you with lightning fast talons, filling you with fear and thoughts of uncertainty about your work. With that one Safari Plotline sentence, you know what your story is about. You can beat back those pesky mind demons that fight to convince you otherwise.


Schindler’s List


GOAL: Needs to build and maintain his business

MOTIVATION: Because if he doesn’t, many lives, especially Jewish lives, are endangered

CONFLICT: But the business comes under Nazi scrutiny

ACTION: And so, he risks everything to defy the Nazis

Oscar Schindler wants to take advantage of the German war needs to build a factory in Poland using cheap Jewish labor but he sees the horror of the Nazi cleansing and his business comes under Nazi scrutiny and so he risks everything to help save as many Jews as possible.

Romancing The Stone


GOAL: Needs to deliver a map to the kidnappers

MOTIVATION: Because if not her sister will be killed

CONFLICT: But there are other people wanting the map

ACTION: And so, Joan leaves her safe, comfortable apartment and teams up with a man she detests to face the dangers in South America

To save her sister’s life, Joan needs to deliver a map to the kidnappers, but there are ruthless killers who also want the map, and so Joan must team up with a man she detests in order to survive the perils of South America.

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett 


GOAL: needs to use her writing skills to create an independent life after college.

MOTIVATION: Because if she doesn’t, she’ll never be able to break away from the racist culture of her hometown in 1963 Mississippi.

CONFLICT: But her family, friends, and the community all fight against any change.

ACTION: And so, Skeeter befriends and conspires with a group of black maids to write their stories in a book that will expose the inequities of their lives.

Skeeter needs to prove her writing skills to a New York book editor to get a job and move away because she no longer fits into her hometown life, but her efforts are thwarted by the expectations and prejudices of her family, friends, and community and so she joins forces with a group of black maids to tell their stories in a book that will expose the racism of 1963 Mississippi. 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


A group of older Brits (Evelyn, Judi Dench is the top billed)

GOAL: Need to find a place to retire in India.

MOTIVATION: because without that they will be forced to live in unacceptable circumstances in England.

CONFLICT: But the hotel they go to is nothing like promised and the Indian culture is very different from what they are used to.

ACTION: And so, they must rise to the challenges of aging and face their new circumstances.

A group of aging Brits need to find a better retirement plan because each will otherwise be forced into unacceptable situations in England but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India turns out to be far from the ideal retirement community promised and so they must rise to the challenges of aging and face their new circumstances.

The Safari Plotline is the spine of your story.

Not a sexy sales pitch. The elements of your Plotline may be familiar. The more universal these elements, the more readers will connect with your story. So, don’t worry if you think your sentence is boring.

It is through context that you will add flesh and individual personality to your story. 

Conflict and Action can be illustrated in a multitude of ways. Schindler risking everything may look different from Skeeter risking everything, which will look different from the risks that Joan takes to save her sister. The setting, the characters, the dramatic action will vary.

Back to your plotline distillation, think Sketch, not chisel when crafting it. Expect to maybe tweak and change your thinking as you experience the story. BUT writers have to have a Starting Point.

The Safari Plotline gives you that. It also can be a compass to help you find your way back if you hit a sheer cliff wall or tumble down a waterfall as you plan, write, or revise your story.

Pull out your writing journal or put a Post-It poster on the wall, if you need more room to play with the different elements of your Safari Plotline. This allows the right-brain to release its creativity. The left-brain will help you choose the ideas that best fit for your story. 


Identify the following elements that best fit for your story at this time:

Protagonist: ___________________________________________________________

Thoughts to consider:

Whose choices and actions drive the story forward?

If we took this person out of the story, there would be no story.

Story Goal: ____________________________________________________________

Thoughts to consider:

            What does the protagonist hope to gain, want, need?

This is something that exists in the world, something that can be attained or achieved.

Motivation: ____________________________________________________________

            Thoughts to consider:

            Why is the protagonist doing this?

            What personal factors force the character into action?

            How will the protagonist’s life change if he doesn’t get the goal?

            What’s at Stake?

Key Conflict: ________________________________________________________

            Thoughts to consider:

            Why Not?

What is the main obstacle or Antagonist or Antagonistic Force opposing the protagonist’s achievement of the big want or the Story Goal?

Think external, obstacles.

Action: ____________________________________________________________

            Thoughts to consider:

How does the protagonist take action in order to overcome the opposition and avoid the stakes related to the motivation?

Must move the story forward.


Lisa Miller

Lisa Miller retired from teaching and counseling after 30 years. While she loved writing YA fiction, she has been drawn back into teaching. Not always finding the writing classes she needed; Lisa scoured the internet and how-to books for self-instruction. She funneled that knowledge into the creation of the Story Structure Safari class and merged it with her master teaching skills and experience with different learning styles. This is her ninth year to teach the class and she continues to update materials and expand her knowledge to best meet writer needs.




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6 comments on “The Safari Plotline: Distilling Your Story into a Single Sentence”

    1. Elizabeth, I'm glad you enjoyed the Safari Plotline. I've had students use it for each Zone of their story. Gives them a better feel for how their story is progressing.

    1. Mari, I'm glad you see the power of the Safari Plotline. It can be a challenge to create but it can help you keep your story on track and even be tweaked when needed.

© 2024 Margie Lawson, all rights reserved.

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