Monday, January 13, 2014

On Writing: GMC | Goal, Motivation and Conflict | An Anlysis 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. It opened my eyes and continues to influence my writing as I grow as an author.

GMC:Goal,Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon offers a road map 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, back story, 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 novel, HUNGER MOON:

"Look." She pointed to the broken trail he had created leading through the snow to the clearing.
"What am I looking at?"
"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?"

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:
1.       Conflict is a struggle against someone or something in which the outcome is in doubt.
2.       Conflict is bad things happening to good people.
3.       Conflict is bad things happening to bad people.
4.       Conflict is friction, tension, opposition.
5.       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.

Having a firm grasp of the GMCs is essential to every author seeking to move their story forward. These are top level toolbox skills, fundamental to good storytelling.

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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Hard copies of GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction can currently be obtained from GryphonPress for a much more reasonable price than those listed on Amazon. A Kindle version of the book is currently available and worth every penny.

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About the author of GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction:
Debra Dixon has published with major publishers, written ten books, contributed to twelve anthologies, served as Vice President of RWA, and her popular GMC:Goal, Motivation, and Conflict workshop spawned a book that has become a how-to bible for writers. These days, she’s better known as Publisher and President for BelleBooks and its imprint Bell Bridge Books, which tackles a broad spectrum of genres in both print and ebook formats. Their hundreds of titles have been picked up in translation and by major New York publishers in subrights deals for mass market paperback, book club, audio and large print. The company has published work from NYT’s bestselling authors: Anne Bishop, Sarah Addison Allen, Deborah Smith, Sharon Sala, Sabrina Jeffries, Sandra Hill, Jill Marie Landis, Kathleen Eagle, and Jill Barnett.  As well as USA Today bestsellers Kalayna Price, Patricia McLinn, Susan Kearney, and Judith Arnold. Debra lives in the South with her husband. When she's not working in publishing, she moonlights as an award-winning quilter. 

*This article was originally published on Fight for Your Write in August 2013. It has been slightly modified from the original version.

Take a virtual cookie if you've made it this far. :-D


  1. This is an excellent book! Reading GMC helped me understand conflict in a way I hadn't before. Another book that I always recommend is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Kicked my butt into gear!

    1. Thanks, Ashantay. I've been meaning to read Save the Cat. I'll go check it out at Amazon. :-)

  2. Yum! The cookies distracted me at the end. Great post with some great advice! Now, I can see why Hunger Moon was sooo good!

  3. I went to a Donald Maas seminar several years ago, and his advice mirrors Deb's in many ways. They both know what they're talking about. Great post!

    1. Alison,
      I've heard of Donald Maas before but I haven't encountered his advice before now. Sounds like he's worth checking out.

  4. Hi Melissa. Thanks for the GMC refresher. I'm preparing for a writing challenge in my local RWA chapter next month and am struggling with flushing out the details of my new story. Reading your blog post reminded me to get back to basics and dust off my copy of GMC. Thanks!

    1. Maria,
      You're welcome! I like to go back to the GMCs periodically and refresh myself on them. Good luck on your writing challenge! :-)

  5. Excellent, thanks for sharing these pearls.

    1. E.L. F.
      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  6. This was a great reminder. And I'll definitely be looking up this book. Thanks for sharing.
    The Ocean Between – Romance for the True Romantic

    1. Lynda,
      Of course, and I hope you find the book helpful! :-)