Sunday, June 14, 2009

Goal, Motivation, Conflict

Yesterday I was eavesdropping on a writing workshop for children held at my bookstore. It was an excellent event: the kids had a great time and the teacher, who is a children's book author, really engaged them. But she said something that kind of startled me. "Your character has to want something," she told them. "They have to want something really badly, and it has to be something that's really hard to get. That's the engine of your story."

This startled me because it was a piece of advice I hadn't heard until about 2004, after I'd been writing pretty seriously for almost 20 years, and a few years after I published my novel. No one said this to me in elementary school, or in high school, or in college or graduate school. I didn't hear it until I was in a writing group with friends who wrote romance and young adult fiction. My friends described a method of figuring out a goal and motivation for each character and then making sure they conflict with each other. My friends actually made charts. It seemed like a very efficient way of putting a plot together, so I tried it, but had trouble making it work. My mind is almost freakishly disorganized for tasks like this and I just couldn't find a way to fill in the chart so it made sense.

This is not to say I hadn't heard about the concepts of motivation and conflict before. It's just that usually the terms came up when discussing what might have gone wrong with a story -- not enough conflict, wonky motivation. I had never sat down to write a story with these things in mind. I never thought of them as the engine of the story. Characters tend to want things, and problems tend to arise, and these situations usually came out of the elements of the story I was focusing on -- some feeling, some place, something.

When you examine most recent novels or screenplays, you can't help but notice that there's a very strong goal-motivation-conflict structure. I watched UP with my kids recently (in 3D!) and every single character, even the giant, voiceless bird, had a very clear goal and motivation that conflicted with the other characters' goals and motivations in really obvious ways. It was actually kind of irritating, because the conflicts just deteriorated into logistics by the climax (one too many people dangling over precipices for me). The movie seemed enslaved by its structure.

My suspicion is that this way of structuring a story came from screenwriting, where there just isn't enough space to fool around and slowly figure out what you're trying to say. And then it worked its way into genre and literary fiction (though if I had it my way, there'd be no such distinction). And I don't think it's a bad thing, entirely. But I do think it can be limiting. Not every story is about someone desiring something they can't have. Sometimes what motivates a character is hidden from the writer, or from the character, or just isn't part of the story at all.

But I do wonder if my writing life would be different now -- if I'd be a little more focused -- if I had heard in third grade, "Your character must want something." What did they tell us in those days? I think it was something along the lines of, "What if?" Like what if you woke up, and you were a dog? What if you were a princess, trapped in a lonely castle? What if you were an orphan cowboy? Though we did precious little creative writing at all in elementary school -- I'm pretty convinced the 1970s were the nadir of language arts instruction, and the reason why my generation hardly reads at all.

And in college? In the late 80's we were all about Carver. Ha ha! A little Goal-Motivation-Conflict would have headed off a zillion self-indulgent ruminations on cigarettes and vignettes about people washing the dishes.

Anyway, I don't really know what people are talking about in writing classes these days, so maybe I've got it all wrong. But my sense is that young writers these days are much more focused and goal-oriented, and their stories are too. And perhaps the aimless, instinctive writing we did in the Carver era was kind of a mis-step, and turned off a lot of readers. At the same time, I would hate to think that kids are growing up thinking that a character in hot pursuit of a goal is the only kind of story.

29 comments:

zoe said...

That approach to writing is too formulaic for me. I am definitely a fan of the "what if?" school of writing. Although I do think that nowadays that's too vague for many kids who are used to things being much more structured and much less wooly and open to interpretation. This structured, scaffolded approach is depressing to teach and it takes a lot to bring back vague and imaginative. One of the problems is that kids today (gross generalisation here) tend to retell films and TV shows. That's very, very dpressing and boring, let me tell you. Especially as they don't watch indie movies or Six Feet Under. It's all Highsical Musical (as it's refered to in our house) and See Saw. Sigh...

rmellis said...

Yeah -- to prevent the retelling of stories they've seen on teevee, my kids' schools have had them write exclusively about personal experience. Which usually bores them to tears.

jrlennon said...

I have to admit, I didn't notice that about "Up" while we were watching it. But it is indeed the one thing really wrong with it, and with pretty much every movie for children, with very very very few exceptions (all of Miyazaki's stuff, for example).

You certainly didn't let the overdetermined structure of that movie prevent you from enjoying my honey-roasted pecans, though, did you.

mstephen said...

I tend to think the idea of "wants" works better as a structural device for short stories or openings of novels than for an entire extended narrative. A single desire can propel a character for a few pages quite well, I think, but it's the consequences of pursuing that want, and the consequences of the consequences, that make a novel worth reading for me. When that one desire is stretched over 200 pages--even if it morphs into other desires along the way--there's a risk of tedium and a sort of narrowness to the plot.

AER said...

I definitely agree that the "hot pursuit" approach towards a goal can be woefully restrictive, but on more subtle levels it's a good way to better understand your characters, and more importantly, get readers/audiences to sympathize and understand as well. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, "Every character should want something -- even if it's just a glass of water."

I think it's especially instructive in getting an audience to sympathize with characters they might normally be averse to. Hitchcock was great at this: look at Psycho after Janet Leigh's killed, and the audience is left wondering, who do I follow/sympathize with now? We watch Norman Bates clean up the bathroom and dispose of the body, putting it in the car trunk and pushing the car into the swamp bog. Then, just as it's about to sink out of sight.... it stops, still visible.

I remember seeing this in a theater and some woman who had somehow never seen Psycho before cried out at this moment, "Oh no!" Which is funny, if you think about it: we should be thinking, "Thank God! Now this crime can be discovered and justice may be served!" Instead, because Norman wants/needs that car to sink out of sight, suddenly our sympathies are with him, and we're even relieved for poor Norman with the car finally sinks out of sight. That Hitchock's quite the crafty one....

Structuring a whole plot-line around wants/goals can quickly get boring, but it's been my experience finding small "glass of water" moments like this are still pretty useful, if not essential. To point to Raymond Carver, think of the narrator of "Cathedral" who doesn't fully become sympathetic until he wants/needs to explain what a cathedral is to the blind guy who's never seen one before. Or the mother in "A Small, Good Thing" who wants someone to take out her grief upon after her boy dies, and who finds just such a person to serve that role in the baker. Convenient? Yes. Great for the story? Absolutely.

Gary said...

Very stimulating discussion as always. The 'character must want something' is a beast that inhabits creative writing classes, and while useful it surely leads to a certain kind of character, ie the driven one. What does Sherlock Holmes 'want'? Another case to lift him from cocaine-induced torpor, yes, but on a deeper level we are never told. That mystery at his core is far more satisfying than if we knew he was trying to avenge the murder of Mycroft by persecuting London's criminals. It is a rule on a par with 'eliminate all your adverbs', and it may (as has been pointed out) tend towards homogenizing people's writing. Unnecessarily.

jrlennon said...

Good point about Holmes, and the mystery of motivation lies between a lot of great characters, and makes them what they are. The one the popped into my head when I read that is Anton Chigurh, from No Country For Old Men.

One of the most offensive desire/motivation apostasies in recent years was the remake of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, the Johnny Depp movie, in which we are forced to watch scenes from Wonka's candy-deprived childhood. In that case, the screenwriters couldn't find the required motivational origins in Dahl's book and decided to fix the problem. Horrors!

Gary said...

I'd like to see you start a thread on 'endings' based on that film!(mind you, I think you already have). I immediately felt it was a mistake.

rmellis said...

I admit my hackles rise a little whenever I hear the word "must" in a writing lesson... though you wouldn't be quite human if you didn't want anything at ALL....

(right now I want the bird squawking out my window to shut up, I want my laundry to magically fold itself, I want more coffee, I want peace in the middle east...)

Querulous Squirrel said...

Interesting observation of what we were told then versus now. Either way, I never follow directions, which explains a lot...

Diana Holquist said...

Heh, heh. Goal Motivation Conflict. Deb Dixon. The one writing book I NEVER lend out. But what can I say? I'm a genre writer. The thing about GMC is that it simplifies things enough so that you can write two to four books a year.

I know.

But that's what romance writers are expected to do.

My experience with GMC is that yes, I make the charts. But then things tend to go their own way as I write. But the charts do become great diagnostic tools after the fact. Some writers I know live by the Jim Butcher every SCENE must have a GMC. (Check out his website/blog.) That is exhausting. But also, great diagnostics when things are stalled or dull or just plain boring.

And I agree, once you've read the screenwriting-type writing books, you can never see movies the same way again. It's all so obvious...and yet works so well when it's done right.

Okay, so who read the New Yorker piece this week on Nora Roberts? Please, please blog about that. I'd love to hear what you guys have to say. I'm still waiting for my copy....

rmellis said...

Romance is ALL about desire, though, right? That's what it IS.

Did I even see that Nora Roberts article? I will definitely check it out...

rmellis said...

As for the charts -- I wish I could work that way. My problem is, I don't know what I'm saying until I say it, and usually not even then. If I could streamline the process, maybe I could eventually finish another book...

zoe said...

I know what you mean, Rhian. My writing unfolds on the page. I don't entirely know what's going to happen until it does. And, yes, all humans want something, so there is always that in a character. I suppose it's whether you're deliberately writing that way or if you are subconsciously doing it.

Either way, those pecans sound good.

Diana Holquist said...

Assuming love/desire is the goal is the biggest mistake newbie romance novel writers make. Love/desire is the conflict.

In a well-crafted romance, the hero and heroine have to (sorry for all the rules...genre and all that...) want something else and getting that thing is what makes their love impossible.

That way, they get to choose love in the end over their other, less important goal, and live happily ever after.

And, yeah, it's all about streamlining. The charts are a great tool, I think. But my new fave tool is Scrivener software (for the Mac). I'll never go back to Word or other non-book-writing-specific software. It's making a huge difference for me.

-d.

Zachary Cole said...

Diana-- I don't think genre writing and "literary" writing aren't as separate as you think. All you have to to do is change "love/desire" to "holding onto tenure" and "why my wife left me." ;)

jrlennon said...

Holding onto tenure isn't the problem, it's getting it in the first place! though I wouldn't want to read a novel about that...

Interloper said...

a, motivation) It seems to me that you *can* write a character without stated (or clearly implied) motivations, but in order to pull it off -- Suttree comes to mind -- you have to be such a goddamn sentence crafting virtuoso that the project is utterly hopeless for all but an infinitesimal fraction of the universe's book writing population.

2, conflict) The issue of motivation reminds me of another oft-heard writer's edict (and one hinted at in the post): that characters must change, must grow (or regress, I suppose), but must, in either case, because of some conflict, be fundamentally different than he/she was at the beginning of the story. In the movie Adaptation -- the Charlie Kaufman flick based on Susan Orlean's Orchid Thief -- there's a pivotal scene in which Nick Cage is admonished by a screenwriting guru (as played most brilliantly by Brian Cox) for even questioning this basic precept. Here's the brief scene to which I allude. Cox's sentiments are equally relatable to writing books, I think.

iii, Thirdly) Basically, as writers, we want to avoid navel-gazing. It's indulgent. When characters don't do anything, we are more or less writing about ourselves. But in fiction there is, I think, a tacit expectation that as a writer you are simply the conduit for some story that is independent of (if maybe informed by) your personal experiences. When a story can be reduced to a character peering out over a cliff contemplating the vastness of the cosmos and her own dust-particle place in it, the story is not about that character; the story is about the writer. Readers, for their own complicated reasons, don't take kindly to that.

jrlennon said...

I'm indifferent to goals and motivations, really, when writing, but not to conflicts. I don't consciously think "time for a conflict," rather, conflict is just the thing I write about at all times.

rmellis said...

Yeah, JR, a character of yours can't go get the mail without some kind of drama! Geez.

jrlennon said...

Or deliver it, for that matter.

Gary said...

After my last comment I was reading Performing Flea, a collection of letters of PG Wodehouse, and came across this snippet. It relates so neatly to the discussion, and to JR's comment about Anton Chigurh, that i thought I wd quote it:
'Taking Moriarty as the pattern villain, don't you see how much stronger he is by being an inscrutable figure and how much he would have been weakened if Conan Doyle had switched off to a chapter showing his thoughts? A villain ought to be a sort of malevolent force, not an intelligible person at all.'
By the by, this book (Performing Flea) is actually all about the writing life, and on every page there is some thought on what lies behind the written page, how PGW handles characters or plot. For example this: 'What a sweat a novel is till you are sure of your characters. And what a vital thing it is to have plenty of things for a major character to do. That is the test. If they aren't in situation, characters cant be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troupe talk their heads off about them.' As this reveals PGW often thought of his characters as actors (he wrote dozens of musicals) and he had noticed that important actors - the real people - would often walk out of a production if they thought their character wasnt given good enough lines. So he treated his fictional characters the same, as if they were prima donna actors - he pampered them, gave them good lines and made sure they were in the thick of the action. Highly recommended.

rmellis said...

Gary, we will definitely look that one up!

janetlane said...

Interesting discussion. Craft is more apparent in children's stories, which makes them a good source for observing writing principles in action. More sophisticated stories require a closer look but have the same GMC format. Imagine Clarice in "Silence of the Lambs" as she explains to Lecter that she hears the lambs crying ... and that it kind of interrupts her sleep on some nights.

Characters grow when they face their fears. Like us, they're quite comfortable with the status quo. It hurts, or is embarrassing or scary, to step outside of their comfort zone and grow. What makes them do it is motivation.

Regarding intensity, Clarice can't just sort of want the crying to go away - she *desperately* wants it to go away.

This strong motivation is what carries her through very difficult moments in the story. Without it, she'd just leave Lecter and the next victim to their private hells and perform within the rules and requirements of her job.

That's just one example. In GWTW, imagine if Scarlet just "sort of" liked Tara.

GMC is the juice that charges the story.

rmellis said...

Yes, but not all stories have to be "charged." I'm thinking of one of my favorite novels, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. Only one character (the sister) has a sense of what she wants -- the narrator and the weird aunt are lost souls with no powerful goals or motivations. The story isn't about them getting what they want -- it's about looking at things, and sensing things, and being. You could probably dig down and find psychological motivations for everyone, but I don't think Robinson worked all that out ahead of time. As a result the book is anything but "charged." It's also one of the best novels ever written.

jrlennon said...

"Silence Of The Lambs" and "Gone With The Wind" are not sophisticated stories.

Gary said...

Perhaps there are two types of motivation in stories: 'monolithic motivation' and 'diffuse motivation'. The first is the driven style of motivation that some here have found themselves uncomfortable with. The second type is that found in most of us in day-to-day life as pointed out by Rhian (she wants a coffee, people to stop making a noise etc). I think fictions can be built on the second type as well as the first. A character might be ambitious for a career; then s/he might decide all s/he wants to do is emigrate; the go to Moscow; then stay in the dacha; then get married; then write a novel; then a blog; then get all worried about their social life. If anyone thinks complelling fictions can't be based on these sorts of characters they should read Chekhov (The Darling)!

sjwoo said...

I'm coming late to the party here, in more ways than one. I can't believe Ward Six has been around for three years and I haven't read it until now. Better late than never, I suppose.

This is a fascinating discussion, and yes, I do believe there may be a sort of an unholy transaction going on between films and the written word. The thing I've most admired about film writing (of which I have some experience, having taken a couple of classes at NYU and completing two full-length screenplays) is its crazy pace (as long as we're not talking about My Dinner with Andre, that is). At every moment, you are told to move the story along. Some famous screenwriter somewhere said that you must come to every scene like a pampered celebrity coming to a party -- come late and leave early.

Anyway -- as far as GMC vs. "what if" is concerned, I don't know if there's a better representative of the "what if" school of writing right now than Kevin Brockmeier, and having semi-recently finished his novel The Truth About Celia, I looked over my favorite chapter there, "As the Deck Tilted into the Ocean." This chapter centers around Janet, the mother of the couple whose child has disappeared, and her GMC might look something like this:

Goal: live without her daughter

Motivation: wants to repair the relationship with her husband

Conflict: Kimson, the guy she's having an affair with

So even though the GMC template might fit, the story is just full of wonder and mystery and everything else that we've come to expect from Brockmeier.

In the end, what does this prove? Probably a whole lot of nothing. I do think elements of GMC go a long way to make most stories interesting and readily identifiable. At the same time, you can still write a sustained work of fiction that does not leverage GMC so much, but then you'll most likely need to come up with something brilliant to keep the people reading (crazy-fantastic ideas a la Philip K. Dick, stylistic genius a la Nabakov, etc.).

- Sung

p.s. JR -- I finished Pieces for the Left Hand this past weekend. I don't know if I've ever smiled so much reading a book, ever. I hope you'll write more of these someday, and someday soon.

Jeffrey Alexander Martin said...

It doesn't have to be a "hot pursuit." The character can have external motivation towards the goal but internal hesitation or the reverse. The goal can lead to other goals as the character develops. The goal can even be to maintain the status que against an imposing force.