So 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I’ve been managing…this past week, I’ve been reading paranormal entries for the 2015 Golden Heart (the “Oscars” for unpublished romance writers).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
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.