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Goal, Motivation & Conflict:
 The Building Blocks of Good Fiction

Reviewed By Cheryl Bolen

Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction
Debra Dixon
Gryphon Books for Writers, 1996
164 pages

To those of us who are long-time members of Romance Writers of America, GMC is old news, but it never hurts to take a quick refresher with Debra Dixon's easy-to-remember simplification of plotting.

The author/editor/motivational speaker freely admits she borrows from the late fiction writing instructor extraordinaire Dwight Swain. But Dixon's GMC simplifies his precepts.

In her quickly read book, she makes plotting even easier with her Who, What, Why and Why Not. The who is the character. The what is the character's goal. The why is why the character needs to achieve his or her goal (motivation), and the why not is why the character cannot achieve his or her goal (conflict). Put in all these things, and you've got a pretty good basis for a story.

As Dixon points out, there is no story if everything runs smoothly. She uses the movie Wizard of Oz to illustrate. Dorothy's goal? To get back to Kansas. Motivation? She believes her Auntie Em is dangerously sick, and she must apologize to her and tell her how much she loves her. Conflict? Dorothy must get the broomstick from the Wicked Witch so the Wizard will use his power to send Dorothy back to Kansas. Of course, many obstacles (more conflicts) come between her and getting that broomstick.

According to Dixon, each main character needs a GMC; hence, in Wizard of Oz, the Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow all have GMC, and all will have character growth over the course of the story.

Dixon also stresses the need for there to be both internal and external GMC for each main character.

What about the goal in our genre? "Excuse me while I climb on my soapbox," Dixon says, "The heroine's goal in a romance is not to fall in love and get married."

Another important thing she stresses about goal is to make it important and urgent. Reading those words was just what I needed while writing my current WIP. I had a pretty whimpy goal, but after rereading Dixon's handy-dandy little gem, I was able to bump up the importance and immediacy of the goal that propelled the first part of my book. (Yes, goals can change during the course of a book.)

She also says, "The large, central goal of the character is often accompanied by a series of smaller goals that drive the action of the book."

In a really good story the main characters' goals should come crashing into one another.

Moving to motivation, she says motivation is usually preceded by the word because. Dorothy wants to get home to Kansas because. . .

On conflict, she says story can be strengthened with several smaller conflicts, in addition to the central conflict.

"The outer conflict usually reveals or causes the big black moment, but it is the character's internal GMC which will resolve the big black moment," Dixon says.

Just as because precedes motivation, the word but precedes conflict. Therefore, Dorothy's goal is to get back to Kansas because Auntie Em is sick, but she must first get the broomstick from the Wicked Witch. Pretty simple stuff. Yet it can drive an entire book.

Dixon also brings home many other lessons we fiction writers know, but it's never a bad idea to refresh ourselves. Thus, she stresses that 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. Also, there should be three reasons for every scene. She provides a lengthy list which includes introduction of suspects, foreshadowing, discovering clues, and establishing trust between characters. But remember, there must be three reasons for each scene.

For more juicy tidbits, buy the book.

An appendix includes GMC charts for various characters in the movies Wizard of Oz, Ladyhawke, Casablanca and The Client.

This article was first published in In Print in May 2011.  

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