I highly recommend reading Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. Her method of planning and editing a book, a scene, or even a character according to certain criteria is very simple and very effective. Her GMC framework will not only help you plan and plot your novel, but it can help you through the editing process as well.
While working with critique partners and beta readers is helpful, you might get feedback that is tough to act on. “I didn’t like him” or “It’s kind of slow” are important notes, but not specific enough to know where to start. Dixon’s framework gives you that. Once you see it in action, you will appreciate the simplicity of the model.
Dixon is a writer, publisher, and speaker. She was vice president of the Romance Writers of America organization and hosts workshops around the country. If you get a chance to attend one in person, I highly recommend going.
GMC is not a new book, but it is one that I frequently recommend. Dixon says in the introduction that her framework is useful in a number of ways including “character development, sharpening scenes, fixing sagging middles, creating memorable secondary characters, writing synopses, pitching ideas to my editor, and evaluating whether an idea is going to work before I have written two hundred pages.”
That is a tall order from something so simple. And yet, it's true.
She recognizes that what she calls GMC, whether applied to characters or the overall plot, can go by various names. For example, a goal might be an ambition or purpose. Motivation might be found in the backstory. Conflict might be called a roadblock. But once you agree to her definitions of GMC, the framework comes together and can be applied to any genre, not just romance.
“Regardless of what you call GMC, the bottom line is that these three topics are the foundation of everything that happens in our story world.”
This book is like a semester long writing class summed up with charts and examples. Typical read time for the Kindle version is two hours and forty-five minutes, but your mileage may vary -- especially if you're like me and take notes while you read.
Dixon explains her framework using movies like The Wizard of Oz, The Fugitive, and my personal favorite, Star Wars. This is incredibly effective since you probably already have a familiarity with the storylines. She does recommend rewatching the movies, especially The Wizard of Oz, before reading the book because the details are important. Here again, you can decide how much time you want to invest. Personally, I didn’t rewatch all the movies first, I just read the book.
Dixon uses The Wizard of Oz as the primary example of the framework because there is so much to work with there. Between the lion, the witches, and the wizard (oh my!) she creates and intersecting tapestry of GMC as it applies to characters, scenes, and subplots (oh my!). For this post, and in honor of Solo: A Star Wars Story being released this week, let’s focus on everyone’s favorite scruffy looking nerf-herder, Han Solo.
As I said above, the framework is not just for planning or evaluating a work as a whole. You can use the model to plan or evaluate characters. When we look at the main characters of a story, in this case Luke, it is easy to see that he has a fully realized goal, adequate and believable motivations, and the central conflict of the story is focused on him. But what about a secondary character?
What makes Star Wars better than your average sci-fi movie is that Luke, Leia, and Han (as well as many of the other characters) each have their own GMC, making each of them fully developed and memorable.
Han Solo needs money so he agrees to take a couple of passengers and a couple of droids to Alderaan. This supports Luke’s goal of getting off his planet and starting his training to be a Jedi Knight. This simple ride-share plan gets much more complicated than he originally thought, of course, when it eventually intersects with Princess Leia’s goal of getting off the Death Star.
Dixon cautions that while you want to be sure each character has their own goal, or even multiple goals, you have to make sure they will eventually intersect or rather collide like meteors. Or in the case of Star Wars, the various collisions result in the fantastic explosion of the Death Star.
These individual GMCs complement and cross over each other, which makes for a nicely layered story. If you are not looking for it, as a movie fan or as a reader, then you just get a story that is fun to watch the first time, and holds up when you want to go back to it again and again.
This layering is important for romance authors because it is often these interesting secondary characters that make for an interesting series. I will talk more about that next week.