Several years ago, I signed up for writing classes with the excellent author and teacher, Shirley Jump. Although I had been a closet scribbler for years, I knew nothing about anything. I’d put fingers to keyboard without any idea of character or plot and one of the many things I took away from these classes was how to use goal, motivation and conflict.
The idea comes from the Debra Dixon book of the same name, who in turn, took inspiration from Dwight Swain. These three basic elements, she explains, may be referred to by a variety of names:
“Goal—desire, want, need, ambition, purpose.
Motivation—drive, backstory, impetus, incentive.
Conflict—trouble, tension, friction, villain, roadblock .”
Shirley describes GMC as “the cogs in your engine that make the plot run. Without them, your plot is stuck in idle, because the car has nowhere to go, no roadblocks to avoid on the way there, and no destination to reach.”
The goal is what a character wants and should be strong enough to carry the whole story; “important enough for the character to act against its own best interest”. 1
But even a small goal can be made more powerful with strong motivation. Motivation is the why. “You can do anything you want in fiction, as long as you motivate the characters.” 2
Conflict is what stands in the character’s way. It creates tension and stakes. It is what Dwight Swain called “two dogs and one bone”.
Debra Dixon describes two types of GMC; external and internal. External is physical and internal is emotional. She uses popular movies, such as The Wizard of Oz, The Fugative and Casablanca to illustrate her point.
In the Wizard of Oz, for example:
Dorothy wants (goal) to get out of Oz and go home, because (motivation) Aunt Em is sick, but (conflict) the wicked witch stands in her way.
Dorothy wants her heart’s desire, because she is unhappy, but she doesn’t really know what she wants.
I am still a panster, and probably always will be. Apparantly this comes from being right-brain dominant. But just completing those two little sentences at the start of a new story, provides me with direction, characters and plot.
Several years on, I am still learning the value of this tool. I have discovered it can be used to structure a scene, that smaller goals feed into the main goal, that if you lose sight of what your character wants, everything can stall. As Kurt Vonnegut says in his 8 Rules of Creative Writing: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
Now, every time my story runs into a problem, I ask myself if I still know what my character wants and why. Have I put roadblocks in their way? If not, I go back a few scenes or chapters. The chances are I find a point where the character failed to react to events, to make a decision and create a new goal for moving forwards. Then all that’s left is the execution…
1 & 2: From GMC by Debra Dixon.