A warm welcome to visiting blogger and fellow Sweeter Than Tea Author, Martina A. Boone. Check back here soon to hear from other contributors to the collection.
GOAL MOTIVATION CONFLICT & TENSION
One of the most important lessons a creative writer should learn is summed up by Deb Dixon in her brilliant book: GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction. This book is quite literally a writer’s bible. It has helped me as a writer more than I can express, and as a consequence, I am especially thrilled to be published in the SWEETER THAN TEA anthology from Belle Books, the publishing company that Deb Dixon founded. It’s like being published by one of your heroes. Now add in the privilege of working with Deb Smith as an editor and appearing in the book alongside a phenomenal array of talented writers, and I have to keep pinching myself. In honor of the book’s release and Deborah Grace Staley’s invitation, I thought I’d share some thoughts about GMC and hope that they will help other writers as much as they helped me.
Use Goal, Motivation, and Conflict to Create Fascinating Dynamics between Characters.
The concept behind GMC makes it possible to create a story that is so compelling it’s impossible to put down, a story in which the relationships between the characters leap off the page and stick with you. GMC is at the core of every memorable work of fiction. In good stories, not only does each major character have their own GMC, but ideally, each relates to the major theme and they all come together to govern the characters’ actions in the climax. The goal and motivation will change as the story evolves, and the conflict will escalate and deepen.
- · (G)oal. What the character wants and strives for to move the story forward. Such wants or needs are divided into long-term and short-term goals. They must be difficult to achieve and come with their own inherent challenges and obstacles, and each choice and character change throughout the novel must make it harder or easier to attain that goal.
- · (M)otivation. The logical, believable reason or reasons the character wants that goal more than anything else in the world and is willing to work toward it instead of giving up when the going gets tough.
- · (C)onflict. The seemingly impossible obstacle or obstacles that will keep the character from attaining the goal until she has proven herself worthy through struggle and hard choices–and the way you keep your readers turning pages.
At its best, GMC is both internal (emotional) and external (physical) for every character, which provides them with depth and believability. More ideally, the internal and external GMCs will oppose each other. If the GMCs for your critical characters are also in opposition, you can more easily ensure that your novel not only contains conflict, but natural tension on every page
Tension, according to literary agent and author Donald Maass, is what makes a novel breakout, what makes it sell. He explains it like this:
In dialogue, [tension] means disagreement. In action, it means not physical business but the inner anxiety of the point-of-view character. In exposition, it means ideas in conflict and emotions at war.
All of this comes down to opposition of one type or another:
- · The character’s external goal conflicts with her internal goal.
- · Circumstances put two of her external goals in conflict with each other so she must choose between them.
- · Another character she loves wants something that conflicts with her own goal.
- · Attaining one suddenly changes circumstances and makes achieving the other impossible.
- · Achieving one would have an impact on others her conscience would not allow.
The options for creating opposition are nearly infinite, but they must arise naturally from the GMC to be believable and truly compelling, and there must be an equally compelling reason why those circumstances occur. Similarly, the reader must understand and believe the reason why opposing characters are thrown together and kept together in a situation of conflict. Externally, their characteristics and goals must be interwoven into the novel’s plot so they physically can’t evade the conflict that is thrown at them. Internally, their motivation must make it impossible to give up.
To set up this kind of situation, as with anything in your manuscript, it helps to start with a macro view. Debra Dixon provided a simple chart structure. I’ve filled it in with a twist on Cinderella, the archetype at the root of so much romantic fiction in every possible genre.
|GOAL||To escape her drab existence.||To go to the ball and have a chance to marry the prince.|
||Marrying someone is her only option for escape.|
|GOAL||To keep Cinderella from outshining her own daughters.||To prevent Cinderella from going to the ball.|
||She and her daughters are blowing through money so fast she has to help them hook husbands quickly and she wants one of them to land the prince.|
There’s a simple formula to filling out this chart:
Character X wants Goal because Motivation but Conflict.
That’s the overall framework. To turn this into a story though, we need to add a few layers, things like plans and reactions and revised plans, and each plan should create a new opposing factor which will add a new complication. (For a complication worksheet, see here.) This creates a recursive chain:
Character X wants Goal because Motivation but Conflict so
New Micro-goal because New Micro-motivation but New Conflict so…
The more interesting the GMC, the more interesting the character and the story. Obviously, the most fascinating GMC should belong to the main character, and based on the above, I’d much rather write about the wicked stepmother than Cinderella because she provides far more opportunities for tension.
To help me find and focus the tension in a story or scene, I like to tack an extra column on the right hand side of Debra Dixon’s chart.
|GOAL||To keep Cinderella from being reintroduced to the society she should be part of.||To prevent Cinderella from going to the ball.||This opposes what Cinderella wants both internally and externally.|
||She and her daughters are blowing through money so fast she has to help them hook husbands quickly and she wants one of them to land the prince.||There is a ticking clock on her goal, and there are consequences for her success that put constraints on how she will go about achieving the goal. At the same time, there are consequences for failure. This makes it clear she has to walk a knife edge all the way.|
||Attaining her goal will result in her losing what she loves. At the same time, the more overtly she acts against Cinderella, the more guilty she feels and the angrier she becomes, which she justifies so that she can act against Cinderella even more overtly and egregiously. Her behavior in turn empowers her daughters to also act against Cinderella.|
This is, of course, just a very quick example, and it is only the first step. But you can see how important it is to create the set-up for tension in the overall GMC so you will build-in the opportunity to put tension into every scene.
I, personally, would find it very difficult to write Cinderella’s story the way I set her up in this example. I would have to give her a much more compelling reason for going to the ball and far greater opposition to keep her from getting there. On the other hand, I could write the stepmother’s story in a heartbeat. Already, I’m wondering what made her the way she is, what makes her love her unworthy daughters so deeply, and whether her conscience will let her find redemption in the end. I feel the need to know, and the outcome isn’t clear to me. There’s room for tension and reader engagement as she encounters situations that driver her to change what she wants, to get what she wants and find it bitter, and to fail and be happy to have done so. I find that fascinating. But then, I’m twisted. I know.
As writers, we all know there are only a few basic plots we can work from. GMC is one of the reasons it seems as if there is a nearly infinite number. The individual stories in SWEETER THAN TEA are a great example of this. We were asked to create stories that showed a panorama of Southern life, both then and now. The resulting stories span the spectrum of fiction from family dramas to comic mishaps, from sentimental remembrances and poignant choices. The settings and the actions in each story are all different because the GMC for each story is different. They all retain that typical Southern flavor though, that quintessential warmth and vibrancy that makes them great comfort reads on a sunny porch or a rainy-day window seat.