(NOTE: this is just an overview and from my perspective. For a more detailed analysis, I highly recommend going to the best source I know and that is Debra Dixon’s book GMC: Goal, Motivation, & Conflict The Building Blocks of Good Fiction (from Gryphon Books for Writers). It’s an amazing tool. Also, if you ever have the chance to attend one of Deb’s workshops on GMC or the hero’s journey, run—don’t walk—to sign up and attend. Even if you think you’ve got it and don’t need any more knowledge on it, go to the workshop. Okay now on with the show… and yes, it was my dear author’s last post that prompted me to kick her into gear and force her to post this post.)
Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts are essential to any story, hero’s journey, and character arc. Frequently, they will be abbreviated as GMC. GMC is what moves your story from the Ordinary World to the New World. To make it even more complicated, GMC comes in two forms: external and internal. GMC is not only useful in working your story plot, but can also be used to help your writer in their Ordinary World. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at what I mean about external and internal, because (IMHO) if you don’t get this, then working with GMC will be less fun than it should be.
Internal and External…
Sounds pretty simple, right? Internal represents the inner workings of a character or person (i.e., the writer that you are working with) and the other (external) represents the outside world of the character or person (i.e., your writer). But how they work together is interesting.
Internal thoughts of a character (or person/writer) can have a HUGE impact on a character (and this character’s external world). This internal ‘item’ can be a thought, belief, value, emotion, or anything internal that is non-tangible. It can be known or unknown to the character, person, or writer. It can be wanted or unwanted. But it is there. It can be changed or (if applicable to the character, person, or writer) not changed (static). It can be good for the character or bad.
Typically, if the internal idea, thought, belief, value, emotion, or non tangible ‘item’ is not healthy for the character, person, or writer, then the Universe or Ordinary World will construct external events, situations, scenes to show the character (in a physical, tangible manner) that the internal is flawed and in need of change/improvement. THIS is why it is always best to know thy character, person, or writer internally before venturing on to constructing the external GMC. But don’t worry if you’re not sure what your character’s internal is before you see the external… many times, you can figure out the internal by working backwards from the external.
The external represents the outer world/workings of a character. This is the stage or scene around a character that everyone can see. The external is tangible and visible to everyone (who pays attention and who is around to see it). It can be a phrase (spoken or written word), a touch (battle scene with the villain), or an uncontrollable event (like a natural disaster—hurricane or tornado). In a story, the external world should always have an impact on the internal—in some form or fashion. In the natural world, if the external impact on the internal isn’t strong enough, then trust me… the external event will repeat itself in the same or different form, as many times as is necessary, to impact the internal and initiate the internal lesson learning and metamorphosis of the character, person, or writer (forcing them from the Ordinary World to the New World).
Next, I will explain GMC (to the best of my ability, which is IMHO infinite) where I use my very own wonderful author to explain internal and external Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. To help with this, I am going to use my dear author as the character we shall establish GMC for.
But before I delve into that quagmire and if you haven’t already met her, here’s a background on her. Her current occupation is as a Research Scientist for big biopharma. She is naturally a predominantly left brain sort of person, but in the past few years you could say that she has become the reason that the word ‘anal’ is in analytical thinking. Of course, she wasn’t always like this. Oh no, before the left brain took over, she spent some time in creative right brain mode and totally ignored the left brain (well, as much as she possibly could). See, writing a creative romance story with solid structure requires the use of both the left and right brain, because to write an effective story you must be logically creative. If you remove one of those elements, then… well, the word screwed comes to mind. And not in the good way.
So let’s take a look at what sort of GMC we can dig up so my dear author can learn the lesson that she needs and become logically creative.
Every character wants something or needs something. Especially if they have a lesson to learn. Sometimes they know the goal and sometimes they have no clue. My dear author had a goal. Actually she had two goals; an internal goal and an external one. The external goal was well known to her: To write salable, creative romance novels. On the other hand, her internal goal was (until the end of 2009) relatively unknown to her: To restore balance between her left and right brain. To become logically creative.
Looking at those two goals, I notice right away that there is no way in Hades that she can achieve her external goal without having first changed internally and achieving that internal goal. That being said, for the sake of this study, the internal goal MUST be learned first. The character, person, or writer has to learn and be able to execute flawlessly the internal goal before they can achieve the external goal (or the main story goal).
Now let’s look at why these are the goals for our characters, persons, or writers. What motivates characters, people, or writers to want to change their Ordinary World to a New World.
It’s all about the why. The motivation is the catalyst that pushes the character to do something (anything) to achieve the goals. It is the why that pushes the writer down the path to redemption or the why that pushes the story along. If there is no motivation, then there is no story. Motivations, just like Goals, can also be known or unknown to the character, person, or writer. (Or perhaps I should call it understood and non-understood.) Regardless of whether it is understood or not, the motivation is still there and it better be strong enough to propel your character into motion.
Now here we go, back to my dear author and her ‘writer’s imbalance’. To identify her external motivation, we need to look at her external goal. They should be linked in whatever manner makes the most sense to the architect of the story. So why does my dear author want to write creative, salable romance novels? (And yes, there can be one or a few reasons for this.) She wants to write the stories because: it makes her happy; to find added financial benefits; to create a writing career where she can spend more time at the home office rather than the other one (so she can be more readily available for her family); she craves to be her own boss and get out of corporate America. So can we sum those up into one strong motivation? Sure, but let’s kick it up a notch and say: my dear author’s external motivation of why she wants to write creative, salable romance novels is because writing romance is her calling, her passion.
How about her internal motivation? Why does she need to restore balance between her right and left brain? Because she feels a void inside herself. She wants to be whole and happy. That fits, so now let’s move on to… conflict.
It’s not an argument. An argument is two or more people with differing views on a situation who are verbally “discussing” their views. The conflict in the argument is their views. My author argues with her daughter over dinner. Both tries to persuade the other: I want McDonalds—No, I want to cook at home. Why does one want McDonalds? Because it’s tasty. Why does one want to cook at home? Because it should be healthier. Result of argument? Compromise? Agree to disagree? Does it matter? Did both parties walk away from the argument changed? Heck no. How do we know this? Because the same argument happened again the next night.
True Conflict is what makes a person or character change. It is the obstacle that MUST be overcome in order for the character or person to achieve the story goal or learn the lesson needed to achieve the story goal. Let’s go back to our dear author… what obstacle (both internal and external) has her stalled on the road to her goals?
Externally, what obstacle is preventing her from writing creative, salable stories? Her external life. She’s got a full plate as a single parent who works outside the home. She’s not organized and hasn’t scheduled her life to include the time she needs to… delve into the internal. But even if she got totally organized, would that solve her writing problem? Perhaps? Honestly, from firsthand knowledge, I have to tell you that organizing and making time would not solve that problem for her. (That might work for some, but from experience I know that organization is not the root of her issue.) If you want to know the external conflict for this author, look at her internal conflict and see how it impacts the external.
Internally, what does she need to restore balance to her inner and outer world so she can write creative and salable stories? What inner emotional item must she overcome? What fears does she have? And dig deep… because she will have to overcome this life stalling, panic attack inspiring, emotional pit of despair to achieve her ultimate story goal.
She’s afraid. What is she afraid of? Give it a name. She’s afraid of writing again. How so? She’s afraid that she will write again and produce non-salable creative stories (like she did way back when). Why were they non-salable? Because they were not crafted well. Why weren’t they crafted well before? Because she didn’t understand the craft of writing in a manner that was useful and made sense to her. (Aha! Now, we’re getting somewhere.) Her knowledge of the craft was not complete in a manner where it could be used effectively.
So what’s her inner conflict? Her inner conflict is to get over the fear of writing. And how is she going to get over it (physically or externally)? What is the one thing she has to do in order to be able to get over her fear of writing?
Think and be logical about it… she needs to restore balance to her inner and outer selves and to do that… Our dear author must get the two sides of herself (the creative and logical, aka inner and outer) to work together to learn the writing craft in a format that works and can be implemented (without pain or suffering) for her. You can break that down even farther and say that she must prove physically to herself that she understands the craft of writing by writing a series of articles about the subject. (Notice that the author cannot achieve her goal without overcoming this obstacle. And that is what makes this a true conflict.)
So to recap, the GMC, both internal and external, for our dear author with control freak tendencies is as follows:
GMC for one spunky, yet naturally left brained, creatively constipated writer is… (insert drum roll please):
External Goal: To write complete creative stories that are salable
Internal Goal: To restore balance between her left and right brain. To become logically creative.
External Motivation: Writing is her calling, her passion
Internal Motivation: To be whole and happy (to fill a void inside her)
External Conflict: Must prove physically to herself that she understands the craft of writing by writing a series of articles about the subject
Internal Conflict: Fear of writing (in her ordinary world)
How does that sound? Does it make sense? Notice the addition to the internal conflict: In her Ordinary World. The internal conflict resides in the ordinary world. After our dear author walks through her journey, then this conflict will not be in her new world. She will have conquered this beasty and broken free of its paralyzing effects. In essence, after overcoming this conflict… she will be a new person who is ready to be tried by… writing creative, salable stories.
A Little Note about My Dear Author’s Writer’s Block/Constipation…
My poor, dear author had writer’s block bad. The poor thing craved so badly to write the stories in her head, but was frustrated by her inability to connect to me (her source of creativity). She simply could not make the snippets (that she kept receiving in her physical mind) transform into the creative masterpieces she knew (intuitively) they could become. The poor dear worked and struggled to change her external world so she could open up her internal/creative self. All along she fought the knowledge and belief that she already knew (intuitively), which was that her internal connection to me, her beloved and most beneficent muse and source of her creativity, was blocked. And blocked for a damn good reason., even if I must say so myself.
Without going into a long blah-blah-blah session where I recount the past 10 years of my author’s life, I’ll sum it up by saying that she had writer’s block. In the worst possible form. And it was torture (for both of us). For her there was no ‘write through it’ that would produce creative fiction (and trust me, she tried). But did she stop writing all together? Absolutely not. She journaled—just about everyday for 10 years. Most of the time that she wrote about writing, there would inevitably be a new and different external action she either planned to pursue or had already pursued with the sole goal of opening up her blocked creativity. I know, you’re getting to the point where you’re wondering where the hell I am going with this, but just bear with me, I do have a point.
And that point is… those external events that my dear author constructed and pursued, were NOT strong enough to break through the obstacle that stood between her and me, her muse. So attempt after attempt failed. As disgusting as it sounds, the best thing that ever happened to her were those failed attempts. Why? Because it loosened (over time) her choke hold on maintaining the block that separated her internal and external selves (or rather, her left brain and right brain–and yeah, it was the left brain that instituted the block, but THAT is a totally different series of rants from me).
However, not one to let the world keep her down, my dear author is a plucky thing and she recovered and the left brain choke hold slipped right back into place. After a few years of this, I (yes that is right, me Elijana the Great) had had enough and I took charge by calling in some favors from the Fates. And just like any good writer of a really, really good story, I arranged for a series of trigger events (external, out of my author’s control) to occur. But they didn’t occur just at random. Oh no, they occurred at a particular time and place with the main objective being to the overcome the left brain choke hold for a short period of time. (Hey, nothing worth doing is easy and I couldn’t just remove the block for her without her really having worked with it, now could I?)
The series of events that I arranged (with the help of the Fates and Universe) were not meant to completely overcome my dear author’s conflicts and forcibly restore balance to her left and right brain. The series of events were designed to illuminate the path for my author to walk down where she would find her own solution and understanding of the complex nature of the conflict which would naturally lead her to crafting her own personal solution (surmountable obstacle—i.e., writing articles about writing that would in turn release the fear of writing again). Once she figured out how to fix her own problem, then it was just a matter of marching down that path. But getting to that point… that was story making magic.
Which brings us back to how to craft a story (or illuminate an obscure path) using the hero’s journey, character arcs, and three act structure with doses of internal and external GMC… which will be another post all together.
I hope you enjoyed today’s journey into Muse Time with Elijana and that it gave you something to think about when you’re dealing with your very own writer or character and his/her path to salable story land.
Take care and happy writing, everyone!