Goal, Motivation and Conflict:
The Building Blocks of Good Fiction
By Debra Dixon
Reviewed by Valerie Comer
Copyright © 2010, Valerie Comer, All Rights Reserved
Author Debra Dixon has written a book about GMC. If you're thinking GMC stands for General Motors Corporation, you need to get your mind into writing mode. According to Dixon, GMC stands for the building blocks of good fiction: Goals, Motivation, and Conflict.
Dixon explains that most writing craft books talk about these three elements in assorted ways, but they're often buried amidst other concepts. She believes that focusing on these three words will give direction to each major character, as well as the over all plot, in any story. Each word merits its own chapter, using the movie The Wizard of Oz as an example that everyone is familiar with.
The first question Dixon suggests the writer answer is: Who? Who is the story about? She doesn't give character checklists but reminds us we all know where to find a dozen of them. She urges us to go beyond the basic physical descriptions and get deeper into what makes the character tick. The character's introduction in the first scene is vital for the reader to identify and empathize with them. How are we to do that? By showing the character's GMC.
Dixon says: "Your reader wants to become involved in the character's struggle 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 actually achieve that goal. Conflict creates the worry."
Goal--What (desire, want, need, ambition)
This is the what of the story. What does your character want? This needs to be clear to you, the writer, so you can portray it to your reader. In turn, this helps your reader become immersed in your character's struggles.
Goals should be important and urgent, leading to action. While sometimes you may choose not to have your character achieve those goals, remember that closure is satisfying to readers. Dixon also points out that in romance novels, the characters' goals cannot be to find love. Instead, romance should be inconvenient for them. The romance itself should provide a conflict.
Dixon also addresses changing goals. Sometimes shifting priorities up the ante in the story. She says this is fine so long as the reader is privy to the process, understanding what the new goal is and why.
Characters need external and internal goals in order to be complex. Dixon says that: "if you can see it, touch it, hear it, or smell it...that's external. If the character has to feel it (experience emotion), then you're dealing with the internal side of your character."
Every major character in your story should have his or her own agenda. These lead directly into the plot, and because their goals will not jive, conflict is a direct result.
Motivation--Why? (drive, backstory, impetus, incentive)
This is the why of your story. Why does the character want the goal badly enough to act upon it? Motivation is usually expressed in a sentence containing the word "because." Everything the character does should come from something in their past. Once again, this applies to both external motivation and internal.
Dixon points out that coincidence is a poor substitute. She defines coincidence as the failure of the author to properly develop backstory motivation for the characters.
With proper motivation, even the most unlikeable character can be made sympathetic. Just make sure the reader understands what happened in your character's past to make this goal vital to them.
Conflict--Why not? (trouble, tension, friction, villain, roadblock)
Dixon says: "Conflict is the reason your character can't have what he wants. If your character could have what he wanted, then you have no book! Conflict is the obstacle or impediment your character must face in obtaining or achieving his goal. Conflict is not an optional element."
She goes on to say that if dreaming up conflict for your characters makes you uncomfortable, you should consider another line of work. Books without conflict are boring.
Like goals and motivation, the best conflicts are both external and internal. In both cases, they must test the characters so that they may become heroes.
Dixon suggests that having a solid handle on GMC gives you a basic sentence to explain your story to editors, agents, or anyone else who might be interested. If you plug your character's GMC into this sentence, you've got a useful personalized sentence: A character wants a goal because he is motivated, but he faces conflict.
Throughout the remainder of the book, Dixon discusses various techniques to heighten conflict, as well as pointing out that some things, such as pointless bickering between characters, really doesn't qualify. She also demonstrates, through dissecting The Wizard of Oz and other movies, how to chart out GMC for each major character in your stories.
In fact, Dixon firmly believes that your novel will plot itself if you have a clear picture of your character's inner and outer goals, motivation, and conflict. I'm finding the concept very useful myself in my current novel.
If you're looking for a slim, readable book on writing--a book that will cut to the chase and make sense of characterization and plotting--you'll want to read this book. Be warned that (as near as I can figure out) it's only available in hardcover and is sold at Amazon at prices of $50.00 and up. You may find that your library has a copy, as I did. Or you can purchase the book for less via Debra's website at http://www.debradixon.com/gmc.html.
Title: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction
Author: Debra Dixon
Publisher: Gryphon Books for Writers
Publication date: January 1999