How to Make Sure Your Story’s Engine Runs Smoothly

Photo by Harley-Davidson on Unsplash

Sometimes you hear about a novel or see the trailer of a movie with a unique premise. It’s a brilliant idea. You are curious about the execution, intrigued by the story’s possibilities. You can’t wait to read or watch it.

Finally, that day comes. You open the book or sit at your seat at the movie theatre. You get hooked by the story as you expected. It goes great for a while, then… you yawn. What? You lose interest and force yourself to read or watch, trying not to fall asleep.

Somethingis missing in the story. It is no longer grabbing you. Why could that be? Of course, there could be many reasons. You might not be interested in the newly introduced subject material. Or, it might be written in a way that no longer pulls you along. Maybe the engine of the story stalled.

When I first began screenwriting, I learned that the engine of the story was “conflict.” Conflict is what makes a scene alive, and there is no drama without it. It is what makes the audience stare at the screen even if they have turned on their TV right at that moment. However, “finding a conflict” for each scene isn’t necessarily enough to grab and pull the audience towards the finale.

Later on Janice Hardy’s blog, I came across the idea of GMC as a story’s engine, which made a lot of sense. When I first read it, GMC reminded me of the enormous military trucks I had seen in Turkey as a child. They must have powerful engines to pull heavy vehicles like that; to create enormous momentum. But of course, in this context, GMC is short for Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. I don’t know if she is the first person to formulate this concept, but Debra Dixon has a book titled GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

So how do these three concepts work together to pull a story forward?

Before I begin talking about the engine, let me tell you one essential thing about how a story moves forward. Stories move along storylines. The storylines are made of several scenes, each with a plot point that defines the story’s direction. All these storylines and plot points combine to form the general plot.

To have a smooth drive, each scene should connect to the next one with causality or conflict. This means that between each scene, you need to be able to say “therefore” (so) or “but.” Instead, if you combine them with “and then… and then… and then…” they won’t really be connected. This type of plotting is called “episodic,” It doesn’t pull the audience from one scene to the next smoothly. The action stops and starts and stops again.

According to Hardy, not only scenes but each action in the scenes should connect to the next with causality or conflict. For example, in Ratatouille, two rats Remy and his brother Emile find a mushroom and a piece of special cheese. Remy wants to do something special with these ingredients, SO they go up on the roof to cook it. (BUT they are hit by a bolt of lightning, SO they fall to the ground.) The mushroom is cooked, BUT Remy isn’t satisfied; he wants some saffron. SO they go to the kitchen to find some. BUT he gets distracted watching Chef Gusteau on TV. SO the homeowner woman spots the rats and starts shooting at them with a rifle. Etc.

On the larger scale, Remy cooks the mushroom but needs saffron to create something unique, SO they go into the kitchen. BUT the woman sees them SO starts chasing them with a gun. SO the whole colony gets discovered. SO the colony evacuates the house, BUT Remy goes back to steal Gusteau’s cookbook, SO he gets separated from the colony. SO he becomes lonely, lost in the sewers.

Every story has a major goal. Sure, there might be many things a protagonist wants. But one thing makes the spine of the story. When a character seems to have more than one primary goal at the same time, it gets confusing to understand the story. e.g., “Does he want to kill the guy for revenge, or does he want his money?” However, this doesn’t mean the character’s goal never changes. As the character draws his arc, his goal evolves too.

In addition to the main goal, each scene has its own little goal. These all serve the primary goal. The goal of a scene is the reason that scene exists. At the same time, each character has their own goal in each scene.

As Hardy points out, writers sometimes confuse their own goal with the characters’ goal. Apart from our own goal for a scene, we have to pay attention to what each character tries to achieve.

My screenwriting group and I would have long story meetings. Sometimes we would try to build an intricate storyline that involved many characters and ideas that would reveal an important truth. Even though we all agreed on what we were trying to achieve, sometimes it would be tough to decide on the order of events that will unfold in the best way. Storylines just wouldn’t fit:

  • “Character A needs to talk to Character B first, get the information, and then go to the next place for Event B.”
  • “But that’s impossible because Event A didn’t happen yet. This should be on the second day.”
  • “Second day is too late. Then there is not enough time for Event C to unfold before the finale.”

We would thresh about half an hour on a sequential order without success, then one of us would suddenly become aware of the problem and ask, “Hey! What’s this guy trying to achieve? Why would he do this in the first place?” Then we would all realize that we had overlooked the character’s goal while trying to build an order to reach our own goal.

At the end of the scene, the characters reach their goal, win, or lose. Depending on this outcome, the characters decide what to do next. And this becomes the next scene’s goal.

For example, in Ratatouille, the writers’ goal for the early kitchen scene is to discover the rat colony by the owner of the house — which is a major plot twist. However, Remy’s goal for the kitchen scene is to steal some saffron. Things go wrong, and later in the scene, the woman starts shooting at the rats. Her goal is to kill the two rats. Again, the writer’s goal is to make her discover the colony. So Emile runs to the chandelier hanging on the ceiling. His goal is to run up to the attic to join the colony. Remy shouts after him, “you‘ll lead her to the colony!” The woman shoots her rifle several times, and as a result, the ceiling collapses, a large piece of the roof falls on the ground covered in hundreds of rats. The writers accomplish their goal: The owner discovers the whole colony. Now all rats have to evacuate the house and find somewhere else to live. Remy’s Emile’s and the woman’s original goals are forgotten. The story takes a big turn in a new direction.

Motivation is the reason why the characters want what they want. Characters’ motivations are fundamental because they provide context and power to our story. When the audience understands why a character wants something, they can empathize and connect with the story much better.

Motivation can be external or internal. Internal motivations are more substantial in terms of storytelling. For example, in murder mysteries, a detective can be motivated to find a killer as part of his job. His motivation would be to be successful, get a promotion, or merely keep his job to pay the bills. Yet, as he works on the case, another motivation kicks in: The victim reminds him of his dead child or gets convinced that the killer is someone he couldn’t catch years ago. His motivation gets personal and stronger.

At this point, in many detective stories, something happens, and the detective gets taken off the case or fired. This move is made to shift the detective’s motivation from external to internal. We know that the detective still needs to solve the case even though he isn’t obliged to. It will mean so much more to him, and the audience.

Motivation is often connected to an unmet need. We all know the hierarchy of needs by Maslow. At the bottom of the pyramid, there are physical needs like food, water, and shelter. These are our most basic needs. Then comes safety and security. After we meet our basic needs, we want to live a life in which we won’t be harmed, and we will feel safe. The third level is love and belonging. Once we are safe and secure, our internal wellness is our next basic need. After that, we need success and self-esteem. After they satisfy their needs of belonging, humans want to experience success and feel pride in their personal and professional lives. Self-actualization comes next. Humans who have met all their essential needs turn to realizing their highest potential and actualizing their biggest dreams.

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder says the more basic or ‘primal’ the need, the stronger the motivation, and the more powerful the story. When the need is basic, such as the character’s life is in danger, they need to find food, etc., all humans can understand and identify with the protagonist. These stories are accessible by entire humanity; they are universal. Even a caveman could root for the protagonist of such a story.

Yet, this doesn’t

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