Justine: The GMC, Ma’am, Just the GMC

conflict, gmc, debra dixon, goal, motivation, conflictSo I’ve been in judging hell this week. Last week, I’d spent a bunch of time totaling scores for the contest I’ve been managing…this past week, I’ve been reading paranormal entries for the 2015 Golden Heart (the “Oscars” for unpublished romance writers).

Elizabeth wrote in this post about some recurring items that pulled her out of the story (poor grammar/misspellings, not following rules, starting at the right place, etc.).

For me, there was one BIG issue that hit me over and over again on the poorly written entries. It’s something I admittedly didn’t know much about (at a conscious level, anyway) before I started writing, but I’m glad I learned about it. Those of you just jumping onto this writing wagon would do well to learn it yourself:

Goals. Motivation. Conflict. GMC for short.

The entries that scored the lowest for me were the ones with no discernable goals, motivation, or conflict.

So, what is GMC? In simple terms, it’s:

  • Goals – what the character wants to achieve above all else
  • Motivation – why does the character want to achieve this?
  • Conflict – an action taken by another character to prevent it

Let’s use a Cinderella story to define all of this.


Goals should be concrete. Something tangible. “I want to be happy” is not a goal. “I want to go to the ball” is a goal. Goals can be external (“go to the ball”) or internal (“I want someone to love me”).

Every major character, particularly your protag and antag, needs to have a goal. Cinderella’s goal is to attend the ball. The stepmother’s goal is to have one of her daughters married to the prince.

If you haven’t written out external and internal goals for your characters, then it’s time to sit down and do it. Make sure you know what your protag and antag’s goals are upfront, because trying to achieve them will result in conflict.


This is the “why.” Why does Cinderella want to attend the ball? Because she’s not a servant, she’s a daughter of the household and wants to be treated as such. Why does the stepmother want her daughters to marry the prince? Because she has grandiose royal dreams and wants the status (and presumably money) that comes with it.

The motivation should ally with the goals. Frex, if my goal is to win the Golden Heart, my motivation is because I want the street cred that comes with winning such an award.

Now that you’ve created goals for your characters, take a look at their motivation. WHY do they want to achieve their goals? The motivation can be a driver for the actions they take to complete those goals.


This is what I had the biggest beef with and the one piece I saw missing the most from each poorly scored entry.

News Flash, newbie writers: Conflict should be in EVERY scene in your book.

So what is conflict?

It’s when one character’s actions to achieve their goals interferes with another character’s actions to achieve theirs.

Here’s what it isn’t:

An argument or some such discussion that could be resolved if the two characters stopped being so obtuse.

I’ve read plenty of books where two characters go in circles about some stupid and inane topic simply because one of them isn’t cutting off the other with, “Wait, stop. This is silly. Here’s the point I’m trying to make: _____. What is it that you’re saying?”

Conflict should also not be confused with trouble. Trouble is when something happens to your character that wasn’t done by your antagonist. Cinderella getting a tear in her dress is trouble. But her stepmother slashing her dress so she can’t go to the ball? That’s conflict.

Sometimes the conflict is big (stepmother locks Cinderella in her room when the Grand Duke arrives looking for the slipper’s owner). Sometimes it’s smaller, scene-level conflict that isn’t related directly to your characters goals. “Wait!” you’re thinking. You just said it had to be actions that block goals!

That’s right. BUT. When I said that conflict should be in every scene, it doesn’t mean the conflict has to be between your protag and antag relative to their goals. There has to be some conflict, though, but it can be smaller. Call it mini-conflict, or that which does not directly affect your character’s goals. Said another way:

The scene conflict doesn’t have to be directly related to the protag or antag’s stated goal.

Because if it were, it would probably make the book a fast-paced, high-wire act that makes it difficult for the reader to draw a breath and process everything they’re reading.

Mini-conflict is vital to your story because it allows you to:

  • Develop nuanced, complex characters
  • Enhance romantic or sexual tension
  • Reveal aspects of a character’s behavior or nature
  • Slow the pace of your story
  • Show, don’t tell

I blogged about conflict and mini-conflict last year in a New Year, New Writer feature we did. You can view the posts here and here (hint, hint…do it!).

The best way to think about conflict is it’s an action to block someone else’s goals. It’s not a misunderstanding. It’s not an argument. It’s not an accident.

To master GMC, buy Debra Dixon’s book GMC: Goals, Motivation, and Conflict. I  encourage you to go through the list of categories on the left and check out the posts we’ve written on GMC, as well.

Too much sittin’ and talkin’, pointless dialogue, accidents, misunderstandings…all of these things are recipes for book disasters. Witty dialogue is nice, as are scenic descriptions, but focus on the basics…your character’s goals, motivation, and conflict, and you’ll quickly be on your way to a bestseller.

16 thoughts on “Justine: The GMC, Ma’am, Just the GMC

  1. I had an interesting experience reading a self-published book recently. The book was full of punctuation errors, formatting errors, and some grammar and misspellings. Even though these jabbed me constantly, I enjoyed the book anyway, precisely because its characters had goals, motivations, and conflicts. Of course, it would have been a smoother read if the details had been adequately handled. But in the end, I could essentially overlook the minor stuff because the major stuff was so engaging.

    • And there were a few brilliantly edited manuscripts I read that were full of nothing…no goals, no motivation, and no conflict. Boring!

      Glad you found an engaging book, Kay! Hopefully the writer will take Elizabeth’s advice and fix those technical errors. Then it will really be stand-out, I’m sure.

  2. Great post, Justine! I taught this in a class last fall and a multi-published mid-list author in the class reacted like I’d just poured down manna from heaven. If/when I teach again, I’m going to use this post as extra reading.

    • Thanks, Jeanne! When I learned this in Jenny’s class, it was like manna from heaven for me, too. I find it so interesting that when the GMC is lined up, the story falls into place (at least it did for me…once I got Susannah’s GMC squared away).

  3. Perfect timing, Justine. I am starting my first pass of edits on my project manuscript. I have a lot of trouble and chat, but haven’t nailed down the GMC for each scene. I just edited scene 1 and it isn’t great, but I’m going to plow on and hopefully tighten up the GMC in other scenes in this first pass and then really nail it in the second pass. I have the GMC book. I need to re-read it.

    • I wrote a post on my personal blog a long time ago about the form I use when I’m sketching out a scene (I do a cliff-notes version first, then write a first draft…if I don’t do that, I meander).

      The things I identify/write down before I begin writing are:
      –Who are the characters in the scene (only speaking characters)?
      –Who’s POV?
      –What is the conflict in the scene?
      –What are the beginning stakes?
      –What are the ending stakes?

      I’ve found that doing that really helps me, and makes sure there’s not trouble, but actual conflict. In fact, when I’m sketching out a scene, I’ll frequently come back to that info to make sure I’m staying on track. You might try doing that for some of your problematic scenes to see if it helps at all. Good luck!

      • I have a very similar (but more questions) that I use when I edit. My post for Thursday will have it. I put it together during the McD program and I know I pulled some of it from various people’s posts – probably you, I know Jeanne, and there is a signature Jenny one – lather, rinse, repeat.

  4. Great post Justine! I love Debra Dixon’s book and have found the GMC concept useful on so many occasions. To go along with this, if anyone out there wants more on goals, it’s worth popping along to Jenny Crusie’s Argh Ink blog – recently, she’s had quite a few posts relating to the importance of positive goals – you touch on it in your blog Justine but – if anyone wants more detail – Jenny’s posts really flesh it out. If a scene seems a bit rubbish, when I analyse it, often it’s because goals are rather wishy washing rather than strong positive action.

    • That’s an excellent point, Rachel, about positive goals. I saw a couple of Jenny’s posts, but haven’t read all of them. I probably should. Something like that bears re-reading!

  5. (-: This was one of my huge problems when I was starting out. (Still is, but let’s leave that for now.)

    I’d start out with a concept that I couldn’t get out of my head and some characters — for example, some “let’s bring back some old-fashioned skills” women attempt to make root beer on a space ship. I suppose the goal is there. The stakes . . . um, not so much. And conflict? Women against yeast. Hmmmm. No. Looking back NOW, I can see how I could make that work — make it gengineered sentient yeast, turning into intelligent root beer. Now THERE’S an idea (for a short story). LOL, or maybe not.

    • Love that, Michaeline! Jenny used to *headdesk* and tell us man v mountain was not conflict, because the mountain can’t fight back. Woman v sentient root-beer…yep, that’d do it!

      Edited to add – but you have to know what the root-beer really, really wants 😉

      • (-: Yeah, there’s a subtext or unintentional echo problem there. Women and yeast — really hard to reconcile those in the same sentence.

        What does root beer really really want? Hmmm, delicious question! World domination? Too easy. Root beer doesn’t want popularity. It’s really, um, rooted, so it wouldn’t want something silly. There’s something vaguely healthy and medicinal about it, despite the sweetness. Possibly love, and being recognized as a sentient being with voting rights and freedom of marriage.

        Root beer romance in the 25th century. Sigh, I’m getting off-track. Back to the masquerade ball in 1899.

        • BTW, making root beer with yeast carbonation is possible, interesting but very yeasty unless you are super-careful with your decanting. A better alternative for the 21st century: make a root beer syrup (flavoring, half water and half dark brown sugar), and dilute it with Pellegrino or your favorite cheap soda water. It has the added advantage of not exploding out of plastic bottles, and staining the soffit over the sink.

          Write what you know. I tried, lord knows, I tried.

  6. Pingback: Michille: First-Pass Editing | Eight Ladies Writing

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