GMC: The one question to ask every novel you read

1024 576 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

What does it actually mean to read like a writer? To me, it’s about asking yourself questions about every novel you read so you can start to unpick the choices the author made, the devices they used, the effects they created. What flaw or desire links the main character to the villain? Which structure does the story fit? How does the weather foreshadow the climax? What made this book so damn good? If you’re writing your own manuscript you might be looking out for specific devices and effects that you’re stuck on and wondering how this author handled them.

But I just want to read for fun!

What if you don’t have the time or inclination to pull apart every book you read in this much detail and just want to enjoy the story? That’s completely fine – it’s important to read for pleasure and sometimes you need to turn off your craft radar and let yourself sink in to the story and experience it as a reader. As a developmental editor, I always read through clients’ manuscripts once wearing my reader hat without making any notes or thinking too much about what needs work, and then I read it again with my editor hat on. That way I can get a feel for how a middle grade or YA reader would experience the story the first time before digging deeper into the manuscript. But even if you’re reading for pleasure, you don’t have to take off your story craft hat completely! Once you finish the book, take a minute to identify just three things – GMC:

  1. The main character’s external goal
  2. Their motivation for chasing that goal
  3. The central conflict that holds them back from their goal

These three elements are the building blocks of most Western stories and when you pick up a middle grade or YA novel you’ll typically find

a protagonist who really wants something specific  for a believable reason rooted in their personality, circumstances and backstory, and their desire for that thing should  clash with an obstacle, whether that’s a person, a thing or the main character themselves.

The goal doesn’t need to be life or death but it should feel like the most important thing in the world to your character in that moment and there must be real-world consequences if they don’t achieve it. It’s not enough for your hero to feel sad if they fail in their quest – something has to be at risk: maybe they’ll lose their best friend, maybe the love of their life will hate them, maybe they’ll be kicked off the football team and their dreams of playing professionally will be crushed. If the goal really matters to your protagonist, it’ll matter to your readers too.

Goal, Motive and Conflict are everywhere!

Here are a few examples from well-known books and films:

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wants to get back home to Kansas because her aunt, whom she loves dearly, is sick but the Wicked Witch wants to kill her before she can leave Oz.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss wants to win the games because it will mean her family is taken care of (and she doesn’t want to die, either) but the Capitol keeps trying to kill her.

In Toy Story, Woody wants to get back home to Andy because it’s his job to be there for his kid but horrible Sid traps him in his bedroom and plans to blow him up.

In Home Alone, Kevin wants to protect his family home from burglars because he’s a good kid who, deep down, loves and misses his family but the Wet Bandits will stop at nothing to break in and, if necessary, hurt Kevin.

For your Reading Notebook

Train yourself to spot these every time you read a novel and ask yourself whether or not they work. Was the hero’s goal believable? Did their motivation make sense based on their character and backstory? Was the central conflict big enough to drive the story? Write down your findings in your Reading Notebook and keep a list of GMCs from every book you read and film you watch. This will make the importance of a good GMC really clear in your mind and maybe help you come unstuck on your own WIP.

The images in this blog are from the gorgeous Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Colouring Book by Johanna Basford, coloured in by my fair hand. 

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes