No, not the automaker. Goal, Motivation, Conflict
Guest Post by Melissa Snark
Articles on the craft of writing are challenging. So much has already been said, yet very few books really stand out as invaluable writing tools. Today, I want to talk about a book that I have found particularly valuable.
GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon offers a roadmap for getting from the opening chapter all of the way to the conclusion. The book explains in clear, concise language how to create believable characters and story occurrences, and then how to sustain momentum through a series of plot twists. She uses popular movies such as The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca to illustrate her points.
Prior to reading GMC, I had already employed many of the principles in the book in my writing, but the guide really gave me the terms and definitions necessary for applying a practical process to good storytelling.
Instead of talking about the book in length, I’ll define GMC and outline how Dixon’s process works in broad strokes. Then I’m going to use a scene from my own book to demonstrate how I incorporated her GMC model into my story.
Goal, motivation and conflict are the basis of everything that happens in the author’s fictional world.
Goal—desire, want, need, ambition, purpose
Motivation—drive, backstory, impetus, incentive
Conflict—trouble, tension, friction, villain, roadblock (GMC p. 2)
Remember the five Ws from grade school? Who, What, Where, When, Why?
Where and When are setting. Place and time. Easy peasy.
Who is your character. Not a question. Know who your character is and what you character wants. After all, it’s her story.
So now we’re left with What and Why.
Your reader wants to become involved in the character’s goal to achieve a specific goal. The reader wants to understand why your character is motivated to achieve that goal. And the reader wants to “worry” about whether or not the character can achieve that goal. Conflict creates the worry. (GMC p.9)
Ah, so now there’s an added element. Not only Why but Why Not.
Who = character
What = goal
Why = motivation
Why Not = conflict (GMC p.10)
Remember what I said about your character wanting something? Well, to have an interesting story, characters should want what they don’t have. This desire, want, ambition, or purpose is the character’s GOAL. Per Dixon, the best goals are both urgent and important, and not always achievable.
As Kurt Vonnegut says in his 8 Rules of Creative Writing:
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
The following in an excerpt from my paranormal werewolf novel, Hunger Moon.
“Look how hard you struggled with a wolf’s strength to travel across a few hundred feet of chest-deep snow. Imagine how long it would have taken your mother. Think about how fast you move compared to a human.”
He stared in silence and then made grim reply. “You’re saying that both murders should have happened beside the pool.”
Victoria nodded and released his arm. He remained seated on the ground. “Your mother wasn’t killed by a berserker wolf. She was stalked and then slaughtered.”
“You don’t think I did this?” His question contained more hope than conviction. His shock ran deep, but his rage churned at the core of his being. He terrified her.
Victoria retreated from him toward the woods. “What I think is irrelevant.”
Logan surged to his feet and pursued her. “Wait. Please. I need your help.”
“I can’t help you.”
He stopped in his tracks. “What the hell are you doing here then?”
“I needed more information to form a complete picture. It’s too bad that your mother’s spirit isn’t more coherent, because I would like to help her.”
“What now?” Despair filled his beautiful eyes.
“Now?” she said. What now? What comes next?
“Now… what I need is to take my pack and get the hell out of here before we wind up under the control of a psychotic Alpha who murdered his mate, or saddled with a damaged boy who murdered his mother. Either would be our end.”
Ah ha! We have two characters with radically different desires. Victoria’s goal is to keep her small pack of wolves safe from danger. Logan’s goal is to clear his name and find his mother’s killer. These respective goals are urgent and important, creating suspense.
Each character is motivated to obtain or achieve their goal. MOTIVATION is what drives the character to act, usually but not always in their individual best interests. Dixon advises that every character should have at least one good strong motivation.
Keep it simple. Keep it strong. Keep it focused. (GMC p.31)
Out of this combination of goal and motivation comes the driving force for your plot. Motivated characters with clearly defined goals will take action to obtain their goals.
Action is important.
Active characters will make your life much easier because action creates plot. (GMC p. 13)
Characters with goals in direct opposition to one another will create CONFLICT. Within the parameters of the GMC model, conflict is the Why Not. Every author needs to create conflict in order to advance their story’s plot.
Conflict is required in commercial fiction. (GMC p. 59)
Dixon’s quick definitions of conflict:
- Conflict is a struggle against someone or something in which the outcome is in doubt.
- Conflict is bad things happening to good people.
- Conflict is bad things happening to bad people.
- Conflict is friction, tension, opposition.
- Conflict is two dogs and one bone. (GMC p. 60)
Back to Victoria and Logan. Recall how they wanted different things? And desire them passionately? These opposed goals provide their motivation to act, which leads them into direct conflict with each other.
Cat fast, Logan landed on his feet and settled into a defensive stance. Victoria advanced, adopting an aggressive posture, spine stiff and head high. She expected Logan to come at her any moment, and she braced for his terrible transformation. They were close in power, but his superior size and strength allowed him a distinct advantage.
Victoria did not understand the delay; his attack should have come with the swiftness she knew he possessed. His continued failure to transform infuriated her. “Change!”
“Change, damn you! Fight me!” She lunged at him and lashed out with her claw. She struck his right bicep and left a set of deep parallel gouges. Blood ran from the wound and fell onto the white snow.
Logan growled but controlled his beast. He smirked, taking a perverse pleasure in her towering frustration. With deft grace, he dodged her next blow. “I don’t think so.”
Her frustration peaked and she gnashed her teeth together. “Why? Why won’t you fight me?”
“Because it gives you an easy out if we kill each other. You don’t like who I am, so you resort to violence. You don’t want to hear what I have to say, so your solution is violence.”
He stopped moving and absorbed another slash to the chest. She left another set of bloody wounds over his left pectoral. “This doesn’t lessen your cowardice, Vic. It proves it.”
“Change. Now.” Victoria towered with fury. She backhanded Logan and drove him toward the edge of the lake. A shallow bluff hung over the water.
“Go on. Run away. Screw with people, and then tuck your tail and run. Run away so you don’t ever have to solve a problem or trust someone. Run away. It’s what you do best, coward.”
Pure hatred burned in his amber eyes.
The insult struck home more deadly than silver, flaying her ego to the bone. He took distinct pleasure in driving his point home and twisting the blade. Cowardice. It was too damned close to the truth. For months, she had run from everything—hunters and responsibility—to her great shame.
Howling, Victoria grabbed hold of Logan and hefted him above her head. She took three huge strides toward the edge of the bluff and heaved the wretched male high and far. If he’d never come down, it wouldn’t have been long enough for her.
Logan flew through the air and then hit the dark water below. An enormous splash served as the final punctuation on their confrontation. She watched long enough to be sure he surfaced and then she left. If Logan had been angry before, getting drenched might push him into a frenzy.
There you have it. My quick, neat recap of The GMCs—Goal, Motivation and Conflict. If you’re interested in obtaining a more thorough explanation then Debra Dixon’s book is well worth the price. I highly recommend it.
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On Amazon for Kindle: GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon. Hard copies can currently be obtained from Gryphon Press for a much more reasonable price than those listed on Amazon.
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About the Author:
A friend asked me once how I chose my pen name. I told her the following: “Melissa, because when people mix up my first name, it’s the most common goof up. Snark, because it amuses me. A) I love the word ‘snarky’ and B) I love Lewis Carroll.”
As an individual, I’m sarcastic, stubborn and blunt to a fault. I have a strange sense of humor and I like to laugh (usually at my husband or children), but also at myself. I’m not particularly extroverted, although I do enjoy time with my family and close friends a great deal.
At the moment, I’m a stay at home mom who writes in my spare time. I’ve got a B.S. from Arizona State University in Business, and I’ve worked a variety of different jobs, including as a medical device documentation specialist, a technical writer, and an auto liability adjuster. I live in the San Francisco East Bay of Northern California with my husband, three kids, and three cats. My hobbies include roleplaying, cooking and reading.
Where to find Melissa on the Internet: