In 1996, Debra Dixon wrote a book called GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict. This book, still in print, presented the three building blocks, as she calls them, of plot.
- Goal – What the character wants to accomplish or do.
- Motivation – Why the character is driven to do that.
- Conflict – What is stopping the character from reaching their goal.
If one of these three elements are missing from your story, the story will be flat and uninteresting. So, what better place to start when planning a novel, then by coming up with the most interesting and unique goal, motivation, and conflict?
Why Use the GMC?
If you have tried some of the other brainstorming methods I have suggested, you may already have ideas about what will be happening in your story. If you are just on the cusp of beginning a novel, you may have no idea where your storyline will go.
Either way, identifying a goal, motivation, and conflict for every main character in your planned novel can help solidify your plotline and provide an easy-to-follow roadmap as you write.
Later, the GMC can be used in revision for checking the strength of your plot and characters, and will prove especially helpful in writing your blurb and synopsis.
Brainstorming the Goal
Your character’s goal needs to be not only something desperately desired or needed, but also something that if the character does not get there will be horrible consequences.
A great goal also has a strong element of urgency. If the character does not get their goal by a certain time or event, something dire will happen. The right goal will set the character in motion and create the action the reader will follow throughout your story as they cheer your character on to the climax and worry that they will fail.
To brainstorm a strong, fresh goal, start with one or more of these of these action-rich verbs or similar ones and brainstorm specific details, such as A journalist must race home to prevent a madman, infuriated by an article he has written, from killing his invalid mother.
- Get home
Note: A good source of strong verbs is the Moby Thesaurus.
Learn more about the Focused Brainstorming Process
Brainstorming the Motivation
Motivation is the reason why the character needs to reach the goal your have brainstormed. Usually this is an emotion-laced driver which can either be external or internal, but usually is both.
In the example given above, the journalist is being driven by the killer’s threats (external), but he is also galvanized by his love for his mother, his fear he won’t get there in time, and his guilt over leaving her alone for years while he galivanted around the world looking for stories.
To go beyond the external motivator, I suggest using an Emotion Wheel like this one or choose one or more emotions and then brainstorm why the character feels that way. Ask yourself: What in your character’s background, life experience, or psychological make up causes them to be motivated by that emotion?
Brainstorming the Conflict
Conflict is the crux of your story. Without conflict, a story will be a boring read. To quote Debra Dixon:
If the characters never face hardship…
If they are never in danger…
If they never struggle…
Your book is going to be boring.-Debra Dixon
Conflict is whatever is blocking the character from reaching their goal. This can be a person, an event, a psychological issue, or a combination of these. Whichever it is, it must be powerful enough to prevent the character from reaching their goal unless they change (or grow) in some way [creating the character arc]. That means it needs to be big and powerful enough to throw up roadblocks for the length of the novel.
What often works best is an antagonist (or villain) who can create roadblock events as well as play psychological games with the main character.
So, let’s start by brainstorming a person who will embody the conflict. Start with a person who would want the character to fail. Next brainstorm why that character wants the protagonist to fail and how they will make it happen. (Note: Sometimes the antagonist is more than one person or changes during the story. That’s perfectly fine.)
For example, in the journalist storyline above, the killer may not only be angry about the news article, but also a rejected lover who knows the kinds of things that eat into her victim emotionally and is aware of how he will respond when she blocks his attempts to rescue his mother.
Developing the antagonist this way adds nuance and depth that is lacking if the antagonist is merely crazy or evil.
The Conflict Box
A conflict box can be used to provide a framework for exploring various combinations of conflict. To make it work, it is important that the goals, actions, and conflict be in direct opposition to each other.
|PROTAGONIST||What the character needs or wants to accomplish.||What the character will do to get it.||What is stopping them: Physically Emotionally Mentally|
|ANTAGONIST||What the character needs or wants to accomplish.||What the character will do to get it.||What is stopping them: Physically Emotionally Mentally|
Brainstorming the goals, motivations, and conflicts facing your main character is one way to build a high tension, cohesive story plot. For other approaches, see Brainstorming Your Novel Into Existence.