Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon: (Another) Review.


I know, I know, this is a concept that is discussed time and time again! But the more I learn about writing, the more I understand what this simple plan can bring to a novel.

Goal, Motivation and Conflict (GMC) by Debra Dixon was the first writing craft book I bought, and now having read several other excellent books, this is still the one I repeatedly come back to. Why? Because for my easily confused, pantser brain, the message is simple.

The premise of the book is that a plot can be broken down into three parts:

A character wants a goal, because he/she is motivated but conflict stands in his/her way.

Typically, a character will have both an external and internal GMC, with the internal outlining a characters emotional arc. “If you can see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, or smell it . . . that’s external,” the book explains and uses movies, such as The Wizard of Oz, to demonstrate the idea:

External: Dorothy wants to go home, because Aunt Em is sick, but the wicked witch stands in her way.

Internal: She wants to find a place where she’s happy (think Somewhere Over The Rainbow), because she’s miserable and always in trouble, but she doesn’t know what she really wants.

As a pantser with aspirations of becoming a plotter, I’ve tried The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson, The Six Stage Story Structure by Michael Hague, but my disorganised, right-brained mind, always rebels. These two GMC sentences, however, I can manage and never start a story without having them in place. It provides the essential who, what, why and why not.

“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.”

I have found this to be true. Not only for the story as a whole, but also at scene level. When I get stuck, it’s almost always because I’ve lost sight of what one or more characters want, and why.

“Every scene should illustrate a character’s progress toward the goal, or bring the character into conflict with opposing forces, or provide the character with an experience that strengthens or changes his motivation.”

But, although at the most basic level those sentences may appear easy, they are not. It’s easy to confuse internal with external, or to discover your character goal is actually her motivation. Or the GMC may be beautifully laid out in the first chapter, but then there is no follow-through, especially if you’re writing romance like me. It’s very tempting to get distracted by the developing relationship between your characters. The romance maybe the heart of the story, but it’s not, the book stipulates, a character goal:

“The heroine’s goal in a romance novel is not to fall in love and get married. Ditto for the hero. The last thing on their minds is meeting a soul mate. In fact, it’s darned inconvenient. Romance will be a conflict for your characters.”

The book additionally covers  black moments, scene development, query letters, turning points plus a breakdown of the movies Casablanca, The Client and Ladyhawke. Also included is an example of Miss Dixon’s own query letter for her book Mountain Mystic.

Every writer has to find their own way, and different things click with different people, but this is the book that works for me. Debra Dixon is known in her own writing for pushing the boundaries of category romance, in particular with her book about a hit woman, Bad to the Bone (1996), which I recommend it to anyone wanting to write in this field.

For help outlining GMC and additional character development, the Mid-Michigan chapter of the RWA has a great chart here:

Click to access gmc-charts.pdf


Lizzie Hermanson is a wife, mother and talented procrastinator. She writes contemporary romance when her cat isn’t hogging the keyboard and loves Happy Ever Afters. Find her @lizziehermanson


Flying by the seat of my pants

I only just opened my e-mail to discover I was up for a blog post today and nearly missed it altogether. I’m a bit of an airhead these days I’m afraid.  Ironically, that personality trait is a pet peeve of mine.  And so it is that in this season of my life I should begin to display such symptoms.  Rats!  Double Rats!  Ah well, even airheads deserve their dues, I suppose. Right? Of course right!

So, here I am up at bat, desperately wanting to wow the lot of you, who follow this blog, with my winning personality and skilled writing and … I’ve no clue what to write about. The timer is ticking; I can see the sand falling through the hourglass. It’s my time to shine and all I’ve got with me is a dim flashlight. Bullocks! Double bullocks! (It’s not a bad word if you’re not British, is it? *grin*) Therefore, I have decided to pants this posting–thus, the title and our topic. Quick, grab a cup of coffee and a popcorn ball (because, they’re just so grande and they remind me of being a kid) and lets have a go from inside the mind of an airheaded pantser. That sounds like jolly fun, doesn’t it? (I must confess, this entire thing is being written with a British accent, in my head. Reason being–that I’ve been on a bit of a Celebrity Big Brother binge of late and well, the show’s done in the U.K. now isn’t it? So, for the most part, the majority of people on it have lovely Brit accents–which are now stuck in my head! *another silly grin*)

There’s lots of opinions and ideas and discussion about plotting versus (not plottering verses, plotting as opposed to)–I guess they call it “pantsing”.   I’ve just learned that recently, the word for the way my wacked-out brain handles the stuff of creating when it comes to prose and even poetry.  I quite like the word–Pantsing!  In high school it meant something all together different, didn’t it?  Something you were not just scolded for doing, but punished for, yes?  And now, I can choose to pants all I want and it’s perfectly acceptable.  That is, to the other pantsers.  The plotters–eh, not so much sometimes.  But I’ve found a place where we pantsers and the plotters can all live together peacefully; where we can coexist, and give & take from each other’s creative styles. Isn’t that lovely?  Want to follow me into that world?  … The world of … a Pantsers mind? Let’s go!

First, let me define for you the word: Pantsing. Though, you may have been able to contextually surmise its meaning, I’ll set the record officially straight. Pantsing, is when an author approaches the creation of a piece without plot and outline. No official plot and outline, that is. Nothing on paper, (I know, what’s paper? Who even uses it any longer?) and nothing in a document–no outline of a plot, just vast nothingness. I’m pantsing right now! (Don’t you wish you could see that?! *wink, wink, nudge nudge*)

I can only speak for myself, which believe me is not only enough but something you should all be grateful for. Here is an example of my writing process:

Inspiration: I’m really a words person. Language romances me.  Some are won with a beautiful melody but I prefer the caress of prose. Frequently, my inspiration comes from dialogue. Something I hear in a television show, movie, real life conversation, or perhaps a phrase or sentence I’ve read (on a sign, billboard, in a periodical, or even a book) that grabs my attention. These words begin to formulate ideas that ping from every direction of my red-headed brain. The ideas ruminate until the strongest of them surfaces and begins to take root. (Pardon me, while I conjure the image of a spermatozoa’s journey to penetrate an egg leading to the creation of a baby; that’s pretty much what goes on in here.)

Idea: Let’s use one I’ve already done. Technically, this part is the inspiration but I’m leaving it here under “idea”, cuz I’m a rebel like that! So there I am all snuggled in for the night watching my favorite medical drama when this doctor begins to explain the process for the being on a transplant list, and receiveing an organ from one, to her patient. She explains that transplant patients are clocked in to the second, so when an organ becomes available, it goes to the person on the list clocked in first. In this case, her patient missed receiving the available organ by 17 seconds. Which meant the person ahead of him on the list was clocked in only 17 seconds sooner.

I started thinking about one of my favorite sayings: “It only takes a moment for everything to change.” Then I started rolling about short spans of time and all the moments that can, and do, occur in those little blips. I tossed around different lengths of seconds to see what seemed most plausible for a handful of normal life events to occur within. I came up with 11 seconds. This birthed the idea to write a short story about a young girl and all the significant moments in her life that occurred within an 11 second time-frame.

Writing:  I loathe the outlining process. I need to get in there while the idea is fresh and new and exciting and follow that little creative burst swirling around in my head.  If I have any research to do, I sort of pants it too, by Google-ing things as I go. I can’t get bogged down with research because I’m jonesing to get to the good stuff — which is the writing of the story that’s waiting impatiently to burst forth.

This is where the “pantsing” occurs. After an idea takes hold, and I know it’s one I want to pursue, I sit down and start writing. The story just comes together and the characters emerge kind of on their own. They start doing things and saying things and lord forbid I have an independent idea of my own, they pretty much override my decisions and do what they want.

Like this one time, (hahaha, you thought I was going to say “at band camp”, didn’t you?) I was writing a piece about an overweight teen. She was going to share anecdotes about her life as a “fat kid” and people’s different responses to her as a heavy person. I wanted her to be casual and funny and easy-going and … when she poked her head out, she was bitter, angry, and apparently in group counseling. Her attitude was rough and her feelings were raw and she made everyone in the group sessions uncomfortable. By the way, group therapy was HER design, not mine! I mean, she hated it but she’s the one who wrote the back-story about her parents forcing her to go, you know–the whole parents that don’t “get” the teen angsty sort of thing, … anyway  I would have spared her from it but like I said, I get vetoed quite a lot.

Finishing touches to the first draft: Once the idea is down in story form, that’s my first draft. Then, and only then, do the tiny little rebel plotters and outliners, that hide out in my grey matter, get to come out with their pickaxes and pencils and make some notes. Usually, the notes are solely to remind me of one thing or another as I go along, so I can keep my details straight. Or, sometimes my Indy-500 brain speeds ahead and writes the ending, or maybe a scene for later use. I let the plotters make notes of intentions because as I mentioned in the beginning of this little journey, I tend to be a bit of an airhead these days and I don’t want to forget my genius ideas! *laughs*

That’s it, basically. That’s my pantsing process. If it makes no sense to you, don’t despair, you’re not alone. I know it doesn’t make sense to the Plotters either!

*waves goodbye*