Writing Tip #2 – Goals, Motivations, ans Conflicts

This tip needs to be credited to some very talented ladies I once had the pleasure of working with.  Thank you Vickie and Marne.

So, now you know what you know and what you will write about.  How too, then, to start writing?  Well, in truth whether you are a plotter, someone who will outline each chapter, who will have a list of each character attributes, will have photos of the setting and back drop and will keep notes on everything you want to put into your story; or you are a pants-er, someone who will simply sit down and start typing and see where you go (this is me in all honestly) the one thing you will have to have confirmed in your mind or on paper before you type even one letter is the “GMC”.

Now I don’t mean GMC as in the auto company so no you don’t have to start thinking about buying a Volt.  In the story telling world GMC stands for GOAL, MOTIVATION, CONFLICT, these are the base in every single story ever told from simple nursery rhymes to Bible stories, to complex political thrillers and even grizzly horror tales.  Goal, motivation and conflict is the meat of the story, the story cannot exist without these three things and the writer must have them solidly fleshed out before setting fingers to keys.

So what are they?

GOAL:  Quite simply this is what the characters in the story want.  The protagonist and antagonist often have opposing goals but not always.  It could be they both want to marry the fair maiden or reach the treasure or kill the beast.  The difference of course will be the manner in which they go about achieving the goal which makes the story dynamic.

Goals in a story can change; often do.  Perhaps at the beginning the characters were after the treasure but somewhere during the treasure hunt someone falls in love and rather than going after the treasure he go after the girl.  The shift in goals within a story often helps the character development and brings about a distinction between the “good guy” and the “bad guy”.  For while we may have been cheering for one character to get to the treasure first we become more concerned for his life after the treasure hunt is over.  We pick up the pace of reading to see if he runs back to the cliff to pull the girl up or if he chases down the guy running away with the treasure chest.  We know in our minds what will happen but we have to get to the confirmation because the character’s goal has become the reader’s goal.

In your writing your goals should be distinct and achievable; or at least be achievable within the constraints of the world you have created in your story.  It’s hardly a goal for a knight in 1215 to want to travel to the moon; this goal wouldn’t be believable based on the technology (science) and the social standards of the time.  However, it would be possible for that knight to want to travel to the moon if he had first be transported through time to say 2020 when people were taking trips to the moon as a vacation get away.  The goal must match the possibilities of your over all story, but they do not mean you are limited in the possibilities you can create for your characters.

MOTOVATION:  This is the “why” of the story.  Why do the characters want to achieve THAT goal? Why do they want to find the treasure even when they know it’s a dangerous undertaking?  The motivation is sometimes very hard to nail down.  Often as a writer we think the motivation should be simple and understandable even if it’s not spoken.  But this is not true.  Motivation is personal.  No two people will do the same thing for the same reasons and the motivations will direct the way they try to achieve those goals.  The motivations will help build character development the same as goals will.  For your protagonist maybe he wants the treasure to save grandma’s house, while the antagonist wants the treasure to buy up the wetlands and build a mall; which might make grandma’s nice little home next to the wetlands an unbearable place to live.  Motivations do not have to be all good or all “evil”, but they have to be strong enough to carry through the story.

Motivations, like goals, can change as well.  Maybe the motivation was to save grandma’s house but now that the character has fallen in love with the pretty biologist there is the bigger motivation to save the wetlands which would also save grandma.  Again motivation need not be completely altruistic, perhaps saving grandma’s house wasn’t as important as just becoming wealthy or having an adventure.  However, as you develop your character his motivations will define him to the reader and will give your voice as a writer a clear sound.

The important factor is to match goal and motivation.  I like to use the goal of a person wanting to run in a marathon.  There are millions of people who try to achieve this goal for no other reason than they want to try it.  There are many different levels of marathons and many people try them each year for the first time.  So really if you do not have very much of a story to tell your goal and motivation can be this basic.  But what if the goal is to win the marathon and the marathon is a new and extremely treacherous event?  What then would be the motivation?  Well it would have to match the goal to be believable.  So maybe the winner gets a large cash prize and can then save grandma’s house.  I think you get the idea.

Now once you have your goal and your motivation aligned and you have some idea of how each character will develop with just those two factors in play here is the last thing you will have to add to the mix.  CONFLICT.

CONFLICT:  In other words what is keeping the character from achieving the goal even though they are fully motivated?  The conflict could be internal, external or some combination of both.  If we take the goal of running in a marathon with the motivation of simply wanting to finish one we can make the simple goal and motivation work if we say add a conflict of the character having some kind of disability.  Maybe some tragic event caused the character to lose a leg.  And maybe it was an accident that happened while the character had been in training for the even a year before.  This means your conflict is both internal, having to deal with the traumatic stress of the event and external, having to learn to deal with the limitations of being disabled.

Conflicts can be multi-faceted as well as come from many places.  So your character dealing with a traumatic event, a physical disability may also be dealing with an antagonist who is discouraging and interfering or maybe wants to outright destroy the character, maybe the antagonist is the one who caused the accident and is trying to stop the protagonist from regaining the memory of what happened while he trains for the new marathon.

Conflict is what keeps the reader in the story.  If there wasn’t any conflict there wouldn’t be any reason to follow the characters on their journey.  Conflicts can change in the story but often they do not change as much as say a goal or motivation does.  If you take saving grandma’s house by getting the treasure to the shifted goal of helping the biologist you remain with the conflict of having to get to the treasure first before the developer does.  But if you take the goal of running the marathon to the goal of learning what really happened the night of the accident you may have the conflict go from simply having to work though physical issues to being one of having to turn a best friend into the police or even giving forgiveness.

Conflicts are added, shifted between characters, or become more complicated but they are always there until a resolution is achieved often in time with the gaining of the goal.  This is the climax of the story so don’t give resolution to quickly.  And do not think to limit yourself to simple resolutions.  Just because you have climaxed doesn’t mean you have ended your story (this isn’t sex after all).  You still have to tie off all lose ends in a satisfactory manner so the reader feels they have closure.

I am sure I will come back to GMC several times and with more detail for each aspect but this should get you thinking about how to get started on your writing.  You know what you know and now you know what your story will contain in a basic form.

I hope this tip generates some goals and motivations of your own to continue to write and develop your skills.  READ ON!