Monday, August 18, 2014

GMC/MRU: the Muscles and Molecules of Storytelling - Part I

Jill Elizabeth Nelson here. It's that time of month to deliver a writing tip for the authors among us readers. Or for the readers who are curious what goes into the labor of writing the novels you enjoy.

The familiar phrase “put some muscle into it” applies to storytelling as much as to manual labor. The goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC) of the characters propel a story along, much like the muscles that move the human body, sometimes in vigorous action, sometimes in slight but significant gestures. Without GMC, we writers have no story to tell, but once we set up the GMC for each character, we have the power to move the story forward.

While the muscles of the story thrust the plot forward, the minutia of sentence and phrase provide crispness, clarity, and punch. Phrases and sentences are built from motivation/reaction units. MRUs convey a writer’s meaning to the reader by maintaining the logical sequence of events. Placing the reaction before the motivation creates awkward moments in the story; yet this is a common error, one that even the seasoned storyteller must guard against.


In a Q & A session with a writing class, one student felt overwhelmed about keeping these concepts straight. She asked if a writer must always be consciously mindful of the techniques or if they come naturally after a while. I assured her that she could wipe the sweat from her brow. Both GMC and MRU become second nature with practice. Not that any of us comes to the place where we execute our craft perfectly—at least not in the first draft—but the methods to the madness do become more instinctive over time and experience.

In a nutshell, goal answers the question “what,” and motivation answers the question “why.” Goal is concrete and externally measurable. In other words, by the end of the scene, chapter, or book, it should be obvious whether or not the character has achieved the goal. Motive is internal, not necessarily externally measurable, and provides the incentive that both generates the goal and causes the character to take action in order to achieve it.

Each of the three elements of GMC is necessary in order for a story to exist for the telling. But character motivations are the pivotal element that provides the goals, which dictates the conflict. Therefore, knowing why our characters are compelled to do what they do is essential to proceeding at any point within the story.

Author Omniscience?

But, you ask, must we know everything about our characters before we can write about them? Actually, that’s probably never going to happen. I find that I learn about my characters as I write about them and sometimes the sly creatures keep important matters to themselves for quite some time. Let me tell a brief story along that vein.

In my debut novel, Reluctant Burglar, my hero shared a significant piece of backstory with his FBI partner, who is suicidal. The baring of his guts to his partner helped turn the guy's thought processes in a better direction. With that worthy goal accomplished, I thought I was done with that bit of my hero’s motivational backstory. Well, hah! I was wrong.

In the sequel, my hero "told me" more about himself—backstory of the backstory, if you will—that deepened and enriched that second book in ways I never anticipated or planned. And the revelation came about because I constantly dig around in my characters' psyches to make sure they are properly motivated for everything they do. But you'd think the backstory business would end there all nice and neat. Not!

In book three, he told me even more of his backstory, and I was able to weave it all into the capstone of the trilogy in a way that both made sense and provided resolution. That's an example of the value of always being aware of GMC.

In next month's writing tip blog post, we will continue on this topic and talk about Motivation in Real Life. 

About the Author

Award-winning author and writing teacher, Jill Elizabeth Nelson, writes what she likes to read—tales of adventure seasoned with romance, humor, and faith. Jill is a popular speaker for conferences, writers groups, library associations, civic and church groups. She delights to bring the “Ahah! Moment” to students as they make new skills their own. Her bestselling handbook for writers, Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, is available at Jill on the web at: or look her up on Facebook: Her most recent release is Shake Down from Love Inspired Romantic Suspense.

About the Deep POV Book:

Novelists crave their readers to live their stories, not merely read them. The Deep Point of View technique anchors readers inside the psyches’ of the point of view character(s) of a novel. The handbook, Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, shows how to perform the transformation from ordinary narrative to deep narrative in clear, easy-to-master steps. Sweep your writing to the next level with a technique that creates immediacy and intimacy with your readers and virtually eliminates show/don't tell issues.

About Shake Down

House of Secrets! To clear his imprisoned father's name, Shane Gillum must find evidence hidden in a Martha's Vineyard cottage. But he arrives to find the "vacant" property being prepped for sale by real estate agent Janice Swenson. Is she tied to the notorious owners? Or is she in over her head as the "accidents" on the property grow increasingly dangerous? And who is the saboteur targeting--Shane with his search, or Janice with her dark, hidden past? With so much at stake, trusting Janice is a huge risk . . . but keeping silent about the cottage's mysteries could mire them both in a deadly scheme.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the Reluctant Burglar Series and would love to read more books in the series.