Monday, February 18, 2019

Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running

GMC, plotting, scenes
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Without a strong GMC, your story engine can stall. 

With “What’s your story about?” being a common question for writers, it’s easy to think about our stories as being one conflict or idea. We pose a problem, and then the book is spent trying to solve that problem. We postulate an idea, and we go on to explore that idea. We introduce a character, and we live in that character’s life for a while.

While stories might be about one problem, the plot is actually made up of many pieces all building on each other toward a resolution. Just like words form sentences, sentences form paragraphs, and paragraphs form pages, which is turn create scenes that form chapters and chapters that form acts. Everything builds to create a larger construct.

At the end of it all, is a novel (or short story if you prefer).

Unfortunately, getting to the end of a novel isn’t as easy as getting to the end of a page. But when we have the right engine driving or narrative, it gets a whole lot easier.

Luckily, plots are made up of scenes and every scene is driven by the GMC—goal-motivation-conflict. What does the protagonist want? Why do they want it? What’s preventing them from getting it? Answer all three of those questions, and you can write the scene. The stronger the answers, the better the scene.

The GMC was coined by Debra Dixon back in 1996, and has since become a staple in fiction and storytelling. Pick up her book on the subject if you'd like to dig further into it.

(Here's more on Taking the Scenic Route: Scenes and Sequels)

The Goal: The Entire Point of the Scene

scene structure, writing a scene
Goals drive the scene.
Every scene has a goal, and the point of that scene is to pursue that goal. Unless you’re brand new to writing (and if so, Hi! Welcome!), you’ve heard this many times before. But despite knowing this, writers can mistake their goal for the scene for the protagonist’s goal for the scene.

The author’s goal encompasses the whole novel. You might know this scene is where:
  • the protagonist discovers her mother is still alive, or
  • the detective finds a clue that the main suspect is lying, or
  • the love interest realizes he’s falling in love with his new neighbor.
But to the protagonist, this is the scene where:
  • she goes looking in the attic for old toys for her son and finds a box of letters from her mother postmarked after her death, or
  • the detective questions a witness about what they saw the night of the murder, or
  • the love interest cancels an important meeting to fly cross-country and attend a wedding to save his neighbor’s business.
The G part of GMC is what the protagonist wants in that scene. That goal is what the scene is going to dramatize. That’s where the action of the scene comes from. That’s what the plot is going to illustrate.

Yes, there will be others things going on as well, such as world building, character building, dropping clues and foreshadowing, subtext and subplots—but what’s driving the scene is that goal.

If the only thing the protagonist does is sit there and wait for someone to come tell them things, or do things to them, or they go along with whatever happens around them—they don’t have a goal and the scene is missing the point of it being in the story

At the end of the scene, the protagonist either gets the goal, doesn’t get the goal, gets it with a catch, or doesn’t get it and makes things worse. The goal is resolved in some fashion, win or lose. What the protagonist chooses to do next is the goal for the next scene, and the story engine keeps chugging along.

(Here’s more on Oh, Woe Is Me: Giving Your Characters a Goal)

The Motivation: The Reason for the Goal

character motivation, how to write a scene,
A lack of motivation can kill a scene--and a story.

Every goal has a reason why the protagonist wants it, and that motivation is what gives the protagonist agency and makes them a proactive force in the plot. They’re pursuing this goal because they have a personal reason to do so that fits the story and isn’t because the author said they had to do it. They’re acting because they need and want to act and their actions are what’s driving the plot and making the whole story happen.

Just like goals, the author’s motivation isn’t the same as the protagonist’s motivation. The author might want the character to pursue this goal because:
  • the protagonist needs to discover her mother is still alive, or
  • the detective needs to find a clue that the main suspect is lying, or
  • the love interest needs realize he’s falling in love with his new neighbor.
Notice how the reasons are the same in both the goal and the motivation for the author? That’s because as authors, we look at the scenes as how they fit into the larger novel. But the protagonist just sees how this scene is affecting their life. To the protagonist, they want to pursue this goal because:
  • her son is demanding her attention and she can’t focus on sorting her father’s papers as she prepares to put him in a nursing home due to his Alzheimer’s and she needs something to distract the kid besides the TV, or
  • the detective thinks the main suspect is lying, and feels the officers who canvassed the neighborhood after the murder didn’t do a thorough job, and he believes someone saw something that will back up his hunch, or
  • the love interest flies cross-country because he knows his neighbor needs a fake fiancĂ© to appease a client who won’t sign with her if she shows up alone and she needs this deal to save her business, and he can’t bear the thought of her losing everything she’s worked hard to build.
The M part of GMC is why the protagonist wants to pursue the goal in that scene. The more personal this reason the better, and the reason why should matter to the character.

The motivation for the scene also shows the stakes and why pursuing (and achieving) the goal is so important. Scenes without motivation also tend to be scenes with no stakes, because there’s nothing to lose for the protagonist because they really don’t care about the outcome of the scene. They aren’t doing it for a reason, they’re just doing it for plot.

If the protagonist has no good reason to pursue this goal aside from the plot says so, that’s a red flag that the protagonist doesn’t have enough agency in the story. They aren’t being proactive, they aren’t making plot happen, they aren’t making decisions that will affect their life, they’re just clicking off plot check boxes.

(Here’s more on Why Am I Doing This Again? Plotting Through “What’s Next?” Part Two)

The Conflict: The Reason Pursuing the Goal is Hard

creating conflict, fixing problem scenes
Without conflict, there is no story.
Conflict is at the heart of every scene, because without it, there is no story. The struggle to overcome in the face of adversity is what drives the entire plot and thus the entire story. Otherwise, all we have is a series of dramatized explanations about how a protagonist did something. Without a risk of losing, there’s no satisfaction in winning.

But conflict can be a tough concept to grasp, and often, instead of having conflict, we have delaying obstacles. Things keep the protagonist from the goal, but they don’t force the protagonist to either make a choice, or work hard to overcome that obstacle using their skills or ingenuity. It’s not something the protagonist must overcome, but simply something in the way.

Delaying obstacles are things that don’t affect the outcome of the scene. Had they not been there, nothing would have changed. The goal might be hard because:
  • the protagonist has to sort through dozens of boxes and move heavy furniture and risk getting hurt before she finds the right box, or
  • the detective has a series of small problems that keep him from speaking to the witnesses, such as bad weather, mean doormen, car trouble, random encounters with strangers who have nothing to do with anything, or
  • the love interest can’t find a cab to get to the airport, and once there the ticket line is huge, and then he doesn’t have enough money, and after that the security line is long and he might miss his flight.
None of these things changes the outcome of the scene, or causes the protagonist to have to do anything but wait to overcome them. But a good conflict is hard because:
  • the attic is full of her mother’s old things, and looking at them reminds her of the fight they had the day she died and dredges up painful memories, or
  • the detective has to use his persuasion skills to convince a terrified witness to speak, and might even have to make promises of safety, knowing he might not be able to protect her, or
  • the love interest has to decide if he’s willing to throw away his own potential success and risk hurting his livelihood for a woman who may not feel the same way about him.
The C part of GMC is the reason why the protagonist might fail due to their inability to overcome the conflict. It’s not about things that would affect anyone in that situation, but things that are hard because of who the protagonist is and what they want.

There might still be some random obstacles mixed in, but a solid conflict offers just as many chances to fail as it does to succeed.

If there’s nothing in the way of the goal but delaying obstacles, there’s no conflict in the scene. The more personal the goal, the more likely this conflict with force the protagonist to make a hard choice about what to do next. This is especially true for the major turning point of a plot.

(Here’s more on Forcing the Issue: Adding Conflict to Your Scenes)

The types of goals, motivations, and conflicts will vary by genre, but the core principles remain no matter what the story is. GMC drives every scene, and each scene advances the plot to the end. A weak GMC leads to weak scenes and weak plots, and no one wants to read (or write) a weak story.

Use GMC to craft the strongest scenes you can, and ensure your plot—and story—are the strongest they can be as well.

How much do you think about GMC before you write a scene? Do you plan them beforehand or let them happen naturally?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Very helpful. Thanks for posting this. I'm going to pay special attention to this is my very next story!

  2. "GMC drives every scene, and each scene advances the plot to the end. "

    Just to clarify, some of the direct plot driven goal/conflict/stakes or goal/motivation/conflict may not be picking up steam until the Act1/Act2 boundary, right? So GMC may be addressing something in the protag's normal world first, right?

    1. No, yes. Every scenes has GMC driving it, though the *stakes* will escalate and rise the closes it gets to each act ending. You still want every scene to feel like it's going somewhere and have some kind of consequence for failure, though it doesn't have to be as "life or death end all or be all" in the first act.

      You want the story drawing in readers from page one, not wait until the wend of act one to pick up steam and hook them. They should already be hooked well before than, and be hooked deeper at that point.

  3. Ok, if the goal is "Leave me alone I want to be a hermit in the woods", and an early scene, even one seemingly benign like buying groceries, starts dropping information that that lifestyle is at risk, even though that is NOT yet the goal of the plot...well, is THAT ok? I think I'm getting it but not quite adding up for for me yet...

    1. That's a goal, so yes, that work. The conflict would come from him not being able to do that. If you dropped hints that his life (goal) was in danger, you'd start building tension that something was about to happen to disrupt his life.

    2. I was wondering about something similar.
      Could a more profane goal with low stakes work in a scene (or at least in the opening scene) *if* an external incident (or inciting incident) triggers a new strong goal with high stakes?
      For example, after a tiring day at work a single mother wishes to just relax on the couch and recharge when she gets a call that her ex kidnapped her son, threatening to kill him if she gets the police involved.
      Her initial goal would be boring yet very relatable, the stakes low. The (inciting) incident would trigger a new strong goal with high stakes.
      Thank you!!

    3. Yes, absolutely. That's fairly common, actually. It's part of "establishing the protagonist's world and life" right before you throw them into the plot :)

  4. Very helpful, and gives me lots to think about with my current project. It would help even more if you gave some insights as to what exactly a "scene" is, or provided a link to this subject. As an extreme example, James Patterson's books have chapters of just one page (or less!), and if this qualifies as a "scene" then his scenes hardly ever accomplish GMC. In a way, my question is not the same as, but sort of in the ballpark of, the one posed by John White -- i.e., at what point does a series of sentences/paragraphs/pages/chapters become a "scene" where the reader expects GMC to be delivered. Thanks!

    1. The first link is about scenes, but here it is again:

      In a lot of writing, terms are used interchangeably, and that can be quite frustrating. Sometimes we treat "scene" and "chapter" as the same thing, other times we don't. Some scenes can span chapters and even have breaks in the middle of them, because technically, the goal hasn't changed or been resolve, so it's the same "scene." You might also have a sequel that's a single-page chapter, because you want the focus on the reaction to something that just happened. Or you might have a one-page chapter for another reason.

      How we break a book into chunks is arbitrary. We're used to the scene break and chapter format, but each "chunk" of story isn't necessarily a scene, even though we usually call them that for convenience. And most of the time, we do write in scenes and keep everything in one chunk.

      This is actually a good topic for a longer post, so hopefully I've answered your question enough here. I'll talk more about this on Wednesday :)

  5. Reading your articles, my mind start to open a lot of boxes containing amazing crazy good ideas...thank you very much!