I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I am neither a plotter nor a pantser. What am I, then (besides confused)?
Maybe a tweener. Someone who is in between. I need to know some things about my upcoming novel before I start, but I cannot for the life of me create a full-on plot. I’ve tried. It just doesn’t work.
If you, too, find yourself stuck in tweener land, may I suggest the little book Goal Motivation Conflict by Debra Dixon. This method is nearly all the plotting I do in advance of writing these days.
What is GMC? How does it work?
Each story must include characters who want something (goal) for a reason (motivation), but have trouble achieving it because of certain things that stand in their way (conflict). In short: The character wants XX because YY but ZZ.
To confuse matters a bit more, each character has both an internal and an external GMC. If you can touch, hear, or smell the goal, it’s external. If it’s more emotionally driven, it’s internal. Usually these are linked together: the hero’s internal character arc and the more external plot arc.
Each of your characters wants something, desires something, or needs something. You can word it whichever way works for you or this character. Sometimes the character’s goal changes throughout the story, and that’s okay. Maybe they realize that their goal of getting into Harvard isn’t going to make them as happy as being a hippie on a commune. That’s fine, but they still need a goal at the beginning.
A goal should be measurable, urgent and lead to action. To find happiness is rather vague. Instead, what will this character strive to become or discover?
Why does it matter? Because if you, the author, don’t know what your character wants, how will you know when the story is done? How will you know what comprises the story?
You have a character with a need, but why? Why did that character want to go to Harvard enough to work at it? Has he always been told he wouldn’t amount to anything? Or is it because every male member of his family for generations has gone?
You can’t simply say, because I want him to. Also, coincidence doesn’t work. You need to dig deep enough into your character’s past to figure out why this goal matters to him or her.
If your character acts outside of our cultural norm, he needs a deeper motivation than someone who coasts along following protocol. Which story would you rather read? Me, I prefer reading about a doer rather than a slider, so these characters need a complex motivation for acting outside the box.
Please also note that motivation comes from back story. It often doesn’t need to be spelled out in the novel at all, and rarely in the opening chapter. It’s enough YOU know what it is so you can portray the character consistently and allow the motivation to seep into the story when hints are needed.
Even the most unlikable character becomes compelling when we understand why they act the way they do.
This is the ‘why not’ of your story.
You have a character with a goal. He has a good reason for wanting to achieve it, a reason that matters deeply to him. But there’s no story if he now simply goes out and gets it. He applies to Harvard because he wants to make something of himself and gets an acceptance letter the next week. Where’s the story in that? No, now you need to find a bunch of stuff that keeps him from getting what he wants.
Conflict makes a reader worry. They may believe the couple will get together in the end, or that the sleuth will solve the mystery, but at what cost? It’s conflict that keeps the pages turning until two in the morning.
What is conflict? It’s not bickering about smooth or chunky peanut butter. Both internal and external conflicts test the hero to see what he’s made of.
- Goal, Motivation, Conflict: Plotting for tweeners. click to tweet
- Plotting for Tweeners: have you tried GMC? click to tweet
Why GMC Matters
Why does knowing the character’s GMC matter to you as a writer, before you even begin writing the book? Because once you have these elements in mind, you’ll find the story practically plots itself. Take a look at the list of conflicts you’ve come up with and see how each of those could come into play to delay or derail the achievement of the goal.
You want your readers to be rooting for your characters. We all know that it’s important for our characters to be flawed–anyone ever read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm when you were a kid? Even then, I knew I could never be as good as Rebecca. I wanted bad things to happen to someone as sweet as her. Like Pollyanna. At least the author broke Pollyanna’s legs to test her incurable optimism!
While our characters need flaws and problems resulting from their life before the story opens, the reader still needs to find something to empathize with. Our job as writers is to make their motivations clear so that readers will be in their corner, rooting for them to overcome the conflicts.
Here’s a simple sentence to plug your character into:
“Character Name” wants XX because YY but ZZ.
I find that when I start working on a new story, I let the characters play around in my head for a while. I begin to get an idea of who they are and the shape of the story they’ll be part of. Then I begin to interview characters. What I’m really digging for in an interview is a clear picture of their GMC. At some point this comes together for me like an audible click. That’s not to say it won’t change a little as I get into writing the story. After all, I’m half pantser! But it gives a solid starting point to work from.
Not only that, but it provides a solid sentence to describe the story to an interested agent, editor or friend.
Goals, motivations, and conflicts. If you haven’t tried plotting with GMC, why not give it a try?
Image courtesy of scottchan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net