Tuesday, September 28, 2010

21 GMCT: Goal, Motivation, Confict, Tension

One of the first lessons a creative writer learns covers GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict.  Without a viable GMC combination, it's impossible to create characters that leap off the page and burn themselves into your heart, so GMC is at the core of every memorable work of fiction. Not only does each major character have their own GMC, but ideally, each relates to the major theme and they all come together to govern the characters' actions in the climax.
  • (G)oal. What the character wants and strives for to move the story forward. It must be difficult to achieve and come with its own inherent challenges and obstacles, and each choice and character change through the novel must make it harder or easier to attain that goal.
  • (M)otivation. The logical, believable reason or reasons the character wants that goal more than anything else in the world and is willing to work toward it instead of giving up when the going gets tough.
  • (C)onflict. The seemingly impossible obstacle or obstacles that will keep the character from attaining the goal until she has proven herself worthy through struggle and hard choices--and the way you keep your readers turning pages.

 Ideally, GMC is both internal (emotional) and external (physical) for every character, which provides them with depth and believability. More ideally, the internal and external GMCs will oppose each other. And most ideally, the GMCs for your critical characters are also in opposition. Those last two steps ensure that your novel not only contains conflict, but natural tension on every page. But bear in mind that natural does not equate to realistic. To create tension, conflict in a novel must be magnified, just as characters must be larger than life.

Tension, according to literary agent and author Donald Maass, is what makes a novel breakout, what makes it sell. He explains it like this:
All of this comes down to opposition of one type or another:
  • The character's external goal conflicts with her internal goal.
  • Circumstances put two of her external goals in conflict with each other so she must choose between them.
  • Another character she loves wants something that conflicts with her own goal.
  • Attaining one suddenly changes circumstances and makes achieving the other impossible.
  • Achieving one would have an impact on others her conscience would not allow.
The options for creating opposition are nearly infinite, but they must arise naturally from the GMC to be believable and truly compelling, and there must be an equally compelling reason why those circumstances occur. Similarly, the reader must understand and believe the reason why opposing characters are thrown together and kept together in a situation of conflict. Externally, their characteristics and goals must be interwoven into the novel's plot so they physically can't evade the conflict that is thrown at them. Internally, their motivation must make it impossible to give up.

To set up this kind of situation, as with anything in your manuscript, it helps to start with a macro view. Debra Dixon provided a simple chart in her excellent book, "GMC: Goals, Motivation, and Conflict.

CinderellaINTERNALEXTERNAL
GOALTo escape her drab existence.To go to the ball and have a chance to marry the prince.
MOTIVATION
  • She's tired of being her stepmother's scapegoat.
  • She's exhausted by all the work she has to perform.
  • She's worn out by her stepsister's demands.
Marrying someone is her only option for escape.



CONFLICT
  • Her innate goodness and loyalty make her reluctant to go against her stepmother's wishes.
  • She is conditioned to fear her stepmother's retribution if she fails to complete her tasks.
  • She knows what she looks like and knows she has no chance of attracting the prince in her rags and cinders.
  • Her stepmother gives her extra work she must perform.
  • She has no dress to wear and no transportation to the ball.


StepmotherINTERNALEXTERNAL
GOALTo keep Cinderella from outshining her own daughters.To prevent Cinderella from going to the ball.
MOTIVATION
  • She loves her daughters and wants them to prosper.
  • Having once mistreated Cinderella she can't afford to have anyone. know what she has done.
  • Having stolen Cinderella's birthright, she needs to keep Cinderella powerless; a husband would have the power to force her to turn over Cinderella's  share of the father's estate.
She and her daughters are blowing through money so fast she has to help them hook husbands quickly and she wants one of them to land the prince.







CONFLICT
  • She knows what she is doing to Cinderella is wrong, but she loves her daughters so much she can't deny them anything.
  • She doesn't want to lose her daughters and knows she will if they get married.
  • The invitation to the ball was phrased in such a way that she would break the law by prohibiting Cinderella from attending.


There's a simple formula to filling out this chart:

Character X wants Goal because  Motivation but Conflict.

That's the overall framework. To turn this into a story though, we need to add a few layers, things like plans and reactions and revised plans, and each plan should create a new opposing factor which will add a new complication. (For a complication worksheet, see here.)  This creates a recursive chain:

Character X wants Goal because  Motivation but Conflict so
New Micro-goal because New Micro-motivation but New Conflict so...

The more interesting the GMC, the more interesting the character and the story. Obviously, the most fascinating GMC should belong to the main character, and based on the above, I'd much rather write about the wicked stepmother than Cinderella because she provides far more opportunities for tension.

To help find and focus the tension in a story or scene, tack an extra column on the right hand side of Debra Dixon's chart.

StepmotherINTERNALEXTERNALTENSION
GOALTo keep Cinderella from being reintroduced to the society she should be part of.To prevent Cinderella from going to the ball.

This opposes what Cinderella wants both internally and externally.
MOTIVATION
  • She loves her daughters and wants them to prosper.
  • Having once mistreated Cinderella she can't afford to have anyone. know what she has done.
  • Having stolen Cinderella's birthright, she needs to keep Cinderella powerless; a husband would have the power to force her to turn over Cinderella's  share of the father's estate.
She and her daughters are blowing through money so fast she has to help them hook husbands quickly and she wants one of them to land the prince.










There is a ticking clock on her goal, and there are consequences for her success that put constraints on how she will go about achieving the goal. At the same time, there are consequences for failure. This makes it clear she has to walk a knife edge all the way.




CONFLICT
  • She knows what she is doing to Cinderella is wrong, but she loves her daughters so much she can't deny them anything.
  • The more she knows what she is doing is wrong, the angrier she is at Cinderella.
  • She doesn't want to lose her daughters and knows she will if they get married.



  • The invitation to the ball was phrased in such a way that she would break the law by prohibiting Cinderella from attending.









Attaining her goal will result in her losing what she loves. At the same time, the more overtly she acts against Cinderella, the more guilty she feels and the angrier she becomes, which she justifies so that she can act against Cinderella even more overtly and egregiously. Her behavior in turn empowers her daughters to also act against Cinderella.


This is, of course, just a very quick example, and it is only the first step. But you can see how important it is to create the set-up for tension in the overall GMC so that you have the opportunity to put tension into every scene.

I, personally, would find it very difficult to write Cinderella's story the way I set her up in this example. I would have to give her a much more compelling reason for going to the ball and far greater opposition to keep her from getting there. On the other hand, I could write the stepmother's story in a heartbeat. Already, I'm wondering what made her the way she is, what makes her love her unworthy daughters so deeply, and whether her conscience will let her find redemption in the end. I feel the need to know, and the outcome isn't clear to me. There's room for her to change what she wants, to get what she wants and find it bitter, to fail and be happy to have done so. THAT provides room for tension and reader engagement.

What do you think? Which story would you rather write? Which story would you rather read?

Happy plotting,

Martina

21 comments:

  1. LOVE how you broke this down. I think this is so useful to map out and see how the goals of the protag and antags should clash to give greater depth to the conflict!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  2. This sums it up perfectly! Sometimes it's much harder outside of a graph though! Great post.

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  3. What a great post. I love how you used the example and the chart.

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  4. What a great post and I love the graphic organizer! GMC...I love it!

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  5. Wow! Awesome post, Martina!!!

    Now I want to read your Cinderella story from the stepmother's POV. ; )

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  6. I love how you broke this down. I'm so going to make sure I do this for my wip.

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  7. Oh, charts, be still my heart! I love having things laid out neatly for me.

    The way you've set them up I'd prefer the stepmother's story but, really, neither! :P

    I'm a Beauty and the Beast girl.

    I still haven't found a copy of GMC to read and I really REALLY need to. :/

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  8. WOW. I can't love those charts more. Amazing Idea! Thanks so much!

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  9. I'm such a visual learner, the tables worked really well to get your point across. Loved it.

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  10. Someone told me about eh GMC book, but I couldn't remember the author or find it. Now I can- yeah!1 Great post : )

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  11. As usual, AWESOME post. Love how you break everything down into logical pieces. :D

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  12. Whoa, what a great service you've done for us with the info' in this post. Thank YOU!

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  13. I am SO copying this info in a Word document. Thanks, gals! Such basic stuff, and yet...sometimes easy to overlook while in the heat of writing.

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  14. Oh yes, ps, I'd actually still rather read/write about Cinderella's motivations and story rather than the stepmother's!! I think readers like to identify with a main character who is the underdog, who has a romantic goal, etc. A mean and caustic MC is harder to identify with or read about. Though I suppose you could make the stepmother more identifiable if written right.

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  15. Thanks, everyone for the kindness! Ara--I'd love to write this story, but I've got four stacked up ahead of it. Don't know how I'd do it for YA either. Oh, well. Carol, you're right. An unsympathetic mc is harder to write, but you have to make her sympathetic. I love a challenge, and that's one of the reasons I was drawn to her as I started doing her GMC.I can see glimpses of the vulnerability and devotion to her kids that could make it work.

    Martina

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  16. What an awesome post! One for the bookmark. Thanks so much (and glad you're home safe and sound from your wild vacation)

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  17. I'm not sure I missed this post yesterday (especially since it was emailed to me), but WOW! This is great!!!!!

    I knew it, but thanks for the reminder. Perfect timing, too. :D

    *runs off to analyze her outline*

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  18. What about the Prince's GMC? :)

    This is a very simple and very powerful way of defining both characters and plot. Thanks!

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  19. Oh, Martina, I love this. It's awesome. My last ms was a little bit pantsy, a little bit plotty, but I ended up more on the pantser side. Now, I don't have the framework I had ready made for my last ms. This time, it's all nebulous and jumbled in my head. Your table helps tremendously. Thank you!!!

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  20. Okay, I was slow to find this, but it's wonderful. THANK YOU!

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