I asked JoAnn Ainsworth, author of five successful novels, "Matilda's Song" and "Out of the Dark," "Polite Enemies," "The Farmer and the Wood Nymph," and "Expect Trouble" in an e-mail, for advice as to how to learn the craft of fiction, and JoAnn recommended Debra Dixon's "Goal, Motivation, Conflict." Debra Dixon is also a successful romance novelist although her works are contemporary.
I pretty much liked overall how Debra Dixon lays out her information. This book is almost solely about the external and internal goals, motivations and conflicts of the protagonist and antagonist, as well as other major characters, although there is also helpful information about dominant impression (giving your characters an adjective and a noun -- like angry father or guilty ex-military man) and something called "tag lines" which is what the writer thinks each character learns in the process of development through conflict. Finally, Debra Dixon writes helpfully about what is a scene (showing) in contrast to what is a narrative (telling).
This book easily could be twice its length without once boring the reader or would-be writer. In Chapter Nine, there is a "GMC Brainstorming" workshop in which is displayed the schemata for how one comes up with a character as well as the goals, motivations and conflicts, both internal and external, for the character.
Debra Dixon asks writers to answer these questions:
Who are we writing about? A bookkeeper, a Navy SEAL, who?
What's our overall impression of him?
What does your character want? (He wants one thing outwardly in order to fulfill an urgent inner desire - and in order to satisfy his urgent emotional want, he has to do something physical)
What is your character's inner goal? What does he/she want emotionally? Why does he want to feel this, to emotionally experience this?
Is what he wants urgent? How can we make it urgent?
Why can't your character get what he wants? What's the problem? (What's the opponent's agenda?)
What does your character have to learn?
What is the conflict to your character feeling the way he wants to feel?
Debra Dixon uses "GMC" as a single unit or word to convey a lot of information, and in the beginning of the book -- for the first 58 pages, she defines only the "G" and "M" while continuing to use "GMC" as a term without defining what "C" or "Conflict" means. I found this approach irritating and distracting because while her approach is to lay all her cards out on the table right from the start, she doesn't really do it -- until after Chapter Four, starting at page 59, is finished. This is not a major complaint or criticism; it's merely a logical one.
Debra Dixon gives good examples of her own of what she means by goal-oriented, motivated characters who will experience conflict, and she supplies further clear examples from scenes in "The Wizard of Oz" and "Ladyhawke," in particular. Debra's own examples are sharply drawn and vivid and make for a great teaching tool or model.
I like that her approach is simple and direct and well-illustrated with examples. I like also that she tells you "because" is the word that reveals motivation and "but" is the word that reveals conflict as in, for example, "The midwife wants the hero's help as a guide BECAUSE he can ease her transition into the community, BUT he's a recluse and doesn't trust outsiders."
There is, at the near-end of the book, a chapter on writing a query letter to publishers in which all the above information is used to describe the finished novel the writer wants to pitch called "Twenty-Five Words or Less."
Debra Dixon recommends the works of Dwight Swain ("Techniques of the Selling Writer") and Robert Newton Peck ("Fiction Is Folks") as well as Ansen Dibell's "Plot" (published by Writers Digest) in order to further refine one's understanding of the craft of fiction.