GMC – Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon
I‘ve been thinking a lot about contests lately, judging and being judged, and the driving comment is always: What‘s the GMC? GMC is so important it accounts for twenty-five per-cent on most score sheets. That it is that important is testament to a little, thirteen year old book: “GMC” by Deb Dixon.
Her message has become the Romance Writer‘s Mantra – beef up the GMC. Many new writers assume that juicy beefcake coupled with a sweet “meet” ground a good novel, but not true. Without GMC – goal, motivation and conflict – a story fizzles in chapter one. It needs the sizzle of goals thwarted by conflict to give it propulsion – and they must backed by big, wrap-your-mind around motivations.
What is GMC? In a nutshell: “A character wants X be-cause Y but Z. XYZ = GMC. This basic fact of story structure has been known and taught in Creative Writing classes for generations, but it took an award winning romance writer to deliver the message with a sock-it-to-me punch that made her sisters in genre sit up and take notice. Today, some carry everywhere like Bibles and my own copy is well-thumbed and highlighted in as many colors as Joseph‘s coat.
Dixon‘s book started with a series of workshops. As a result, it is written as colloquially as a classroom chat. Her advice “from a soapbox” is clear, concise, and easy-to-follow, tailored for writers of romance. Her basic thesis is that if you give each protagonist heavy-weight goals with “larger than life” reasons to achieve them, you‘ll have characters readers care about. Put those goals into dire conflict with a second protagonist, and your plot “becomes inevitable”. The book will write itself, scene after scene rising out of the conflicts between them.
We‘ve heard the premise many times. What make‘s Dixon‘s chatty little book compelling is that she tests our assumptions about when goals are good enough by giving us a step-by-step cookbook for assessing GMC, using familiar films for reference. A précis doesn‘t do her justice, but as a teaser, here is some of Dixon‘s advice:
1. GOAL. On page one, establish a main character‘s external goal and motivation ~ make the reader worry about whether or not the goal can be achieved. Make the goal urgent and important, so vital the character will “act against his own best interest and endure any hardship”, but the goal must be within the realm of possibility for the world you‘ve created.
2. GOALS: Internal/External. An external goal is practical and tangible – getting a job, going home; it has nothing to do with emotional fulfillment. The internal goal is intangible and seldom expressed aloud; it leaks into the story more slowly. Often, the internal goal arises from a wound and it may be redemption, acceptance, justice, love. Internal and external goals are often in conflict, but the two main character‘s individual goals must be. Try charting the characters‘ goals against one another. Do they clash? If not, there‘s no plot.
3. MOTIVATION. Behind every goal is a giant “because” – larger than life. External ones must be “simple, strong and focused”. Internal motivations are more fundamental – “garden variety” – they should resonate with any reader.
4. CONFLICT. This is the big “but” that stands in the way of a goal‘s resolution. Conflicts are zero-sum games where one character loses and another wins. That is, until the final “turning point” where the external goal drives the character into the “black moment” and a compromise involving the internal goals bring him out of it.
As a bonus, the book includes exercises to practice on your own or in critique groups: compiling the GMC chart, brain-storming to fine-tune plot, using “show don’t tell” in scene development, and practicing the “twenty-five words or less” handle for query letters.