Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt
Goal, motivation, and conflict are the foundation of everything that happens in the story world. Using charts, examples, and movies, the author breaks these key elements down into understandable components and walks the reader through the process of laying this foundation in his or her own work.
Learn what causes sagging middles and how to fix them, which goals are important, which aren't and why, how to get your characters to do what they need for your plot in a believable manner, and how to use conflict to create a good story. GMC can be used not only in plotting, but in character development, sharpening scenes, pitching ideas to an editor, and evaluating whether an idea will work.
Be confident your ideas will work before you write 200 pages.
Plan a road map to keep your story on track.
Discovery why your scenes aren't working and what to do about it.
Create characters that editors and readers will care about.
"This book belongs on every fiction writer's bookshelf. Anyone who has ever had a story to tell and is dying to get it down on paper will find guidance and inspiration in GMC. The presentation is clear, immediate, and relevant to all writers--from novices to seasoned professionals. Experienced author Debra Dixon has done a magnificent job of demystifying the toughest aspect of fiction writing: that of a giving a story shape, form and urgency." — Susan Wiggs, New York Times bestselling and RITA® Award winning author of over 40 novels and novellas
"One of the best in her craft.” — Toronto Star
"Goal, Motivation & Conflict is one of my all time favorites.” — Jane Porter (Flirting With Forty), award winning and bestselling author with 10 million books in print, in twenty languages and 25 countries
If Writing Were Easy, Everyone Would Be Writing.
At the beginning of my career, a well-known writer once remarked to me that "We don't like writing. We like having written.”
A profound observation.
At least it was for me. I was incredibly relieved to find out that the mega-stars of publishing didn't sit joyfully down at their keyboards and spew forth effortless prose that coalesced into compelling blockbuster novels without the authors ever having had to work at it. Nope. They had bad days, too. But they kept writing.
Writers write. Period. No matter how hard it is. One word after another. Sometimes the sentences spill quickly from our fingertips, and other times we bang our heads against the wall wondering why we do this to ourselves. "Because you can't NOT write,” whispers our sneaky, grammatically incorrect subconscious. And so we go back to our masterpiece-in-progress or we start a new story.
With each new project, we become just a little more determined to find an easier way. To avoid our past mistakes. To put the next novel on track and keep it on track.
We go to seminars, workshops, and classes. We buy "how-to” books. We enter contests. We join critique groups and writers' groups. We listen very carefully to what other writers have to say because maybe they've found a shortcut, a magic formula, or the secret of the universe. And sometimes we realize that we're the ones who have something to share.
"Goal, motivation, and conflict” was born when my local writers' group asked me to do a program on plotting. I have a vast collection of writing "how-to” and screenwriting books. That's where I learned most of what I know. Almost without exception, each of the books harps (in one way or another) on the concepts of goal, motivation, and conflict. The craft books on my shelves call these three elements by a variety of different names:
Goal—desire, want, need, ambition, purpose
Motivation—drive, backstory, impetus, incentive
Conflict—trouble, tension, friction, villain, roadblock
Regardless of what you call GMC, the bottom line is that these three topics are the foundation of everything that happens in our story world.
And what happens in our story world is called the PLOT. (Yes, that complicated and scary thing called plot can actually be broken down into three elements.) To me, this concept of GMC was simple. Something I had internalized from bits and pieces of more books and workshops than I could count. Yet to the members of my local writers group, GMC was a foreign concept. To my surprise, instead of nodding off in boredom, the writers in my local group sat with mouths open in shock or scribbled notes furiously.
Being the clever creature I am, it wasn't long before I began to suspect that I had discovered something. Not something new or incredibly brilliant, just something understandable. In the quest for the secret of the universe, writers want something which can be applied to our own work. Something we can internalize and utilize.
After giving that first workshop on GMC, I found that I was using GMC in a variety of ways beyond plotting. I use the concept for character development, sharpening scenes, fixing sagging middles, creating memorable secondary characters, writing synopses, pitching ideas to my editor, and evaluating whether an idea is going to work before I've written two hundred pages. GMC seems to be a part of my thought process—an unconscious filter I apply to my work.
After having taught the concept in my university course as well as around the country, I've seen that GMC can be valuable for almost every type of writer. Some use GMC in "prepping” the book or "pre-writing.” Other writers just write the book by the seat of their pants and then use GMC during their revision process. Still others use GMC only when preparing for an editor interview or composing query letters.
Every writer is unique. Each writer's process of writing is unique. There is no right or wrong way to approach your manuscript, story idea, or revision. Seek first to understand the concept of GMC, and only then ask yourself how you can use GMC in your own work.
To help you understand GMC, I'm going to pick it apart—letter by letter. Goal. Motivation. Conflict. By the time you've finished this book, those words will be burned into your brain. You'll never be able to watch a movie again without thinking of them. And your reading is going to suffer too. Once you become aware of GMC, you'll find it's everywhere!
And speaking of movies...
You have your first assignment. Go rent and watch the following movies.
The Wizard of Oz (absolute necessity)
Why am I asking you to watch movies instead of asking you to read books? Because people's reading tastes vary too much. Movies are visual. Movies can't "tell” you anything. Movies have to show you. Movies can't bog you down with exposition, narrative, or description. Film is a quick, accessible medium. And most people can watch six movies more easily than they can read six books.
One word of caution: Even if you have already seen these movies, please rent and view them again. Little details are important. Especially watch The Wizard of Oz. This movie is the backbone of our exploration of GMC. There is a very good reason this movie became a classic, and that reason is goal, motivation, and conflict.
Chapter One Who, What, Why, and Why Not
These are the important questions for any story. Your job as a writer is to answer them quickly and clearly. The benefit to doing your job is the satisfaction of knowing that you're hooking the reader. Once you've got the reader hooked, you want the reader to continue turning those pages.
For most writers, that first reader is an editor or an agent. Both are jaded creatures, tired of turning pages. The size of the "slush” piles of unsolicited manuscripts in New York would give you a heart attack. In some publishing houses and agencies, slush piles—three feet high—literally line office walls. Then you have to add the piles of solicited or requested manuscripts and partial manuscripts.
Before you become depressed, I should tell you that every editor I have ever met wants to discover someone new and wonderful in that pile of manuscripts. Editors and agents are book lovers. They are also industry professionals, which means they have high standards and high expectations. If you want to publish your work, then you've got to get their attention.
Editors and agents are a little like Clint Eastwood. No, they don't grab a manuscript and utter, "Make my day.” But you can bet they're thinking, ‘Make me care.' Flashy metaphors and proper sentence structure aren't going to do it. You need a strong foundation. You need compelling characters.
That's what all readers want when they sit down with a book. They want the writer to make them care.
So how do you do that? How do you make readers care? You give them something fresh. You give them unique, well-rounded characters with goals and motivations.
If you push cardboard characters through a tired and predictable series of events, you'll end up with a generic book and a generic rejection from a publishing house. Instead of handy stereotypes like dumb blondes, macho jocks, and spoiled little rich girls, give readers someone who walks off the page and into their emotions. Give the reader someone to agree or disagree with. Give the reader someone who is in a world of trouble with no way out.
Consider Jo from Louisa May Alcott's book Little Women. Jo is much more than a stereotypical tomboy. She has a sensitive side, writes passionate fiction, and isn't afraid to show tenderness to those she loves. She even has a maternal streak that peeks out from time to time. In fact, being a tomboy is only one facet of Jo's complex personality.
There are no new plots, but there are plenty of fresh new characters with whom you can grab the reader. Characterization is the key to successful commercial fiction. Characterization starts with goal, motivation, and conflict.
Character is the who of "who, what, why, and why not.”
Remember those important questions? The ones that you have to answer right up front in order to grab your reader?
Spend time developing your characters beyond the physical aspects. Answer that important question—who is this book about? Some writers fill out character questionnaires with information such as hobbies, relatives, achievements, etc. Some writers prefer to write character sketches or mini-biographies as a way to understand their characters.
I use a role-playing technique called the character interview. My critique partners interview me as though I were my character. First, I tell them a little bit about my character and then the grilling begins. A typical interview lasts forty-five minutes to an hour. There is no pre-determined list of questions, and I always use a tape recorder so that I don't have to waste time taking notes.
Questions can be as simple as "What's your favorite color?” and as complex as "Who has disappointed you the most and why?” The interviews usually take unexpected twists and turns like this exchange.
"Did you go to your prom?”
"I don't like crowds.”
"Because I can feel the emotions of the people around me.”
From this exchange I discovered that my archaeologist was also empathic. Surprise! Surprise! The possibility might never have occurred to me if I hadn't utilized the character interview process. This character's empathic ability became a critical element of conflict between my hero and heroine in Mountain Mystic.
No matter which method you choose, the reward is well worth it. If you can trace every action in your book to a unique character's goal and motivation, then the character will create the plot right before your eyes. The plot will be inevitable, because your protagonist (or main character, also referred to as "hero” in this book) will have an "agenda” that drives him or her. The character will make decisions that turn the book in new directions.
Most importantly the character will compel your reader to turn the page by ushering the reader through the story. And speaking of ushering, let me caution you to go easy on the number of characters you introduce in the first ten to twenty pages of your book. Certainly many of you are writing books that have several important characters. Most books have a minimum of two important story people—the hero/heroine and the villain. And some writers naturally gravitate to complicated stories with a multitude of characters.
But be careful of introducing a cast of thousands. Nothing will make the reader put down your book faster than a disjointed, confusing first chapter. And nothing can kill your chance to capture the reader more quickly than a flat first chapter—a chapter that is bogged down with too much character history or backstory.
First chapters are like a first impression—you only get one chance. So don't blow it.
As Dwight Swain writes in Techniques of the Selling Writer, "... let your readers know there's going to be a fight... and it's the kind of fight that will interest [them].” Swain is absolutely right about this point. As a writer you want your reader to identify with the character and situation. You want your reader to understand what your book is going to be about.
Don't you hate missing the first few minutes of a movie? That's because in those first few minutes, the movie will establish who, what, why, and why not. When you miss those critical moments, you may feel a step behind. Outside the circle. Left out of the joke. And cranky.
The first chapter of a book performs the same function as those first minutes in a movie. The first chapter must establish what's at stake and make an introduction. You are introducing the reader to their guides for the evening—the hero, and/or the villain, and maybe even one or two other important characters. (Note: Your story hero may be a male or female.)
Keep in mind that the reader is supposed to identify and empathize with your character from the moment the character makes an entrance. (If the first character you introduce is clearly a villain, you still must engage and fascinate the reader. But for the moment I am going to assume your first character is going to be the protagonist.) You want to "fix” that important character in the reader's mind. And you don't want to waste time doing it.
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.
If the hero has a wonderful life and everything he wants, then your book is going to be boring. An editor won't buy the book. Readers won't pick it up. And if they do, they won't finish it. Because you will not have met their expectations of being taken on a journey of uncertainty.
What we are talking about are the expectations of commercial fiction readers. Someone buying a literary work focusing on one aspect of a character's life or someone buying experimental fiction, or even someone buying a biography may expect slower pacing. Less dialogue. More exposition or description. (Please note: I am not saying that all literary titles or biographies are slower, speechless and flowery! No. I'm simply saying that different forms of fiction carry different reader expectations. What a writer might try in experimental fiction, just won't fly with the mass audience in commercial fiction.)
Commercial fiction readers expect your characters to have goals, to be motivated, and to face conflict. They expect you to answer four simple questions.
Who = character
What = goal
Why = motivation
Why not = conflict
Why am I harping on these questions?
These elements all work together in your book. We've all heard the saying that no man is an island. Well, none of these "W” words is an island either. They are linked so firmly together that they form a complete sentence when put together correctly. Here's how it works:
A character wants a goal because he is motivated, but he faces conflict.
See what a neat package these elements make? But this sentence, as written, is generic. To see the real power of the relationship of these elements, let's look at something specific:
An unhappy teenager wants to get home to Kansas because her aunt is sick, but first she must fight a witch to win the aid of the wizard who has the power to send her home.
Another way of conveying the same information, but in a shorter version, would be:
A tornado blows Dorothy to a magic land where she must fight a witch and seek the wizard who has the power to send her home to her sick aunt.
Either version gives you a good idea of the story concept. Both versions were created using the W's. Knowing the who, what, why, and why not of your story will give you a handle on the idea. How you actually express that information isn't the issue. What is key is that you understand that "who, what, why, and why not” are important questions to readers and to editors. They want answers. Editors especially need information that is clear, concise, and helps them understand your work.
In this chapter I've introduced the W's to you and discussed the importance of the first W—the "who” of your book and why GMC is so important to creating character. In the next few chapters I'll examine the WHAT, the WHY, and the WHY NOT. That's goal, motivation, and conflict.