Book Review: Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon

When I filled out my paperwork for this term, I was presented with several options for my individual reading assignment. I wound up choosing Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (Reference 164 pages) by Debra Dixon because it came highly recommended and several critique partners have mentioned that some of my goals and motivation for the characters in Surveyors are not as clear as desired. This book was a perfect choice to help me focus Surveyors and to help me create more depth with my characters.

I think the most important part of this book is the formatting, which may sound like a rather odd thing to say, but the formatting really made this book work for me. One of the key reasons formatting was so important to me in regards to this book is because of how down-to-earth and user-friendly this book is for writers of all experience levels. At no time throughout the entire novel is the author ever condescending or pretentious, which is very refreshing to me. Some of the writer’s resources I have read in the past have used such an ostentatious way of talking about the writing process that they motivate me to throw the book off the top of my apartment complex. Debra Dixon explains all of her thoughts and ideas in this book in a clear and concise manner, which increased my desire to continue reading and provided excellent resources and a good knowledge base.

Starting on page 21 and then reoccurring on twenty-two additional pages throughout the book is the most useful chart for character development I have yet seen in any of the writing craft books I’ve seen. This chart is the main focus of the entire book, which is designed to identify the internal and external goal, motivation, and conflict for each individual character within your story. The best part about the usage of this chart is that Debra Dixon goes to great lengths to describe each section of the chart in detail, clearly demonstrating different methods of deciding on the goal, motivation, and conflict for a variety of different characters in a variety of different settings.

One page 13, Debra Dixon describes the primary focus of this book, which is a description of goals: “Goals should be important enough for the character to act against his own best interest and to endure hardship if necessary. ‘Important enough’ means that there will be unpleasant consequences if the goal is not achieved. People will move heaven and earth to avoid unpleasant consequences. It’s a fact of human nature.” This section of the book then goes on to talk about what constitutes “unpleasant” and how to develop a sense of urgency in your character. She explains that a sense of urgency is important because it adds action and forward momentum to the story. She reiterates this sense of urgency and the importance of strong motivation on page 36 where she talks about characters needing something other than “garden-variety motivations” because these motivations might be realistic but don’t provide the sense of urgency and working towards something bigger than the individual character’s own comfort. The majority of characters with strong motivations are those with consequences that will affect more than just themselves. Debra Dixon uses the example of a woman attempting to protect her child from an abusive husband, but some other examples for science fiction include having to survive a disaster situation and also save the entire planet or species at the same time. This kind of motivation affects more than just the individual characters.

Another really helpful part of this book was the chapter wrap up sections at the end of each chapter. These lists are found on pages 29-30, 56-58, 81-82, 103-104, and 121-122 and are a fantastic quick reference that would be worth printing out and posting around a writer’s work area to help keep on track with individual character goal, motivation, and conflict. The lists are not step-by-step ways to create well-rounded characters, but rather things to keep in mind about character growth, how you should have three reasons for every scene, and other small tidbits that are designed to help with the thought process behind a character’s goal, motivation, and conflict.

This book also contains a variety of writing exercises, and fill-in-the-blank chart opportunities, which I found to be very helpful. On page 118, you’re encouraged to write something outside your normal genre in order to get outside your writing comfort zone so you can focus on creating the goal, motivation, and conflict instead of world-building or any of the normal things you take for granted in your own writing. The example writing exercise, as described on page 117, is to “remove the editor who sits on your shoulder.” This forces you to practice creating new characters with new and potentially unfamiliar goals, motivations, and conflicts.

After reading this book, there are a lot of places in Surveyors that I feel I can make a lot stronger by following the guidance provided here, and I can see even more revisions in my future, especially after my latest submission which still seemed to lack a big enough individual conflict to move the story as quickly as readers would like in order to develop instant conflict. This book really is the best, most user-friendly writing craft book I have so far encountered in my professional writing pursuits and I am extremely happy that I have added it to my collection.

Works cited:

Dixon, Debra. Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: the Building Blocks of Good Fiction. Gryphon Books for Writers, Memphis: 1996.

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About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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