Why: The Foundation of Your Story

by Katie Gowrie

If you’ve thrown yourself into this year’s SYTYCW challenge and are determined to write your romance novel in 150 days , you’ll notice we’ve been posting a lot lately on conflict and characterization. Let’s talk about something that goes hand-in-hand with these two things. And I’m so excited about it, I’m going to caps-lock about it from a virtual mountaintop:


Ah, motivation—the foundation of your story.

If you don’t believe me, you may want to grab Debra Dixon’s book, GMC—a must-read and one of our favourites here at the Harlequin Toronto office. But in case you need a quick breakdown (or refresher), SYTYCW’s got you covered.

GMC. Goal, motivation, conflict = the story in a nutshell. And while the first and last are important, motivation is at the center for a reason 🙂 The all-encompassing, big, fat why.

Why does your heroine want what she wants? What’s driving your hero to achieve his goal? When editors read submissions, the issue with proposals is most often a lack of strong conflict. And that usually ties in with character motivation that’s not compelling or simply not fitting for the story.

Let’s try this on for size: Ben wants to make an ice rink in his yard in July and skate on it dressed as Voldemort. Oooookkaay. Ben’s a bit of an oddball.

But wait, a reader will accept almost anything the protagonist wants. Provided they have a sufficient reason (and one they can get on board with).

If Ben wants to do this so he can film it for a laugh and then burn the tape because it’s just too embarrassing, we may have lost him. And donated that book. Character motivation that falls flat can deflate the whole story. Despite all the other reasons we want to love it—hilarious dialogue, an adventurous plot line—a story is only as strong as the forces driving its characters forward.

What if Ben wants to achieve his goal so his dying twin brother, Scotty, a Potterhead who will never see another hockey season again, can play once more on the backyard rink they’d make every year at Christmas? It’s his birthday, the puck drops and it’s the ultimate battle: Dumbledore vs. Voldemort on ice… Well, we may just whip out a vuvuzela and start cheering vehemently for Ben. Dig up that yard, order those costumes…defy heat. At this point, we don’t care how crazy Ben’s dream is. We want to see it realized because he’s got a really good reason for doing it.

Strong motivation thrusts the character forward–and it’s our pleasure to watch them take risks, despite rational thought or their own best interests. We’ll follow our protagonist anywhere, even into danger; we’ll watch them sacrifice everything.

What if Ben were a 70-year-old billionaire named Belinda? Would she exert herself making a rink in the yard, or would she simply rent out the Air Canada Centre (like a boss)? The character’s motivation should fit with who they are. And if you read our post on misunderstandings,  you already know that coincidence isn’t a substitute for strong motivation—because you can’t root conflict in something that flimsy 😉

In romance, when we’ve got two characters with a goal, and strong motivations driving them away from each other and towards those goals, we’ve also got high stakes and strong romantic conflict.

So, remember, the why is arguably more important than the what—ask yourself this question often. Happy writing! Nox.


7 replies on “Why: The Foundation of Your Story”

Thanks, Katie. You have some great tips here. Making the motivation strong enough is one of the things I struggle with. I do have a copy of Debra Dixon’s book, GMC, and keep it near my computer.

Incidentally, if anyone doesn’t have the book and wants one, you can order it through a link on her web site. Don’t order it from Amazon unless you want the ebook. It’s about $10, but for only $10 more, you can get the hardcover you can hold in your hands and flip through easily for around $20. They go for ridiculous prices on Amazon–$35-$113. So do yourself a favor and get it through her or go to Gryphon Books for Writers web site.

Too late! I just bought the eBook copy because the paper was too pricey! Darn it! 🙁 As a good point though I am totally enjoying this book. It brings out what I am trying to organize in my head and for the first time I am making a chart! Progress. Being a panster is still my style, but it never hurts to learn new things. Thanks so much editors!

Wizard of OZ is my all time fav movie. I waited for every Thanksgiving to be able to watch this movie. I have it memorized and now it is a great reference tool too. Thanks for this great GMC read, Katie! 🙂

Thanks Katie, for a great article. I really like your hockey rink example – turning everything up a notch or ten. Hockey and Harry Potter, what a great combination. Gosh, but those actors are so young! Time flies. And the late Alan Rickman, it still makes me sad to think of his passing.

Motivation is what gets us out of bed every morning. I’d be really ticked with my characters if I planned this great story for them (with a happily ever after, thank you very much) and they didn’t hop out of bed every chapter and strive to reach their goals. As it is, my heroine just dumped my hero – which was not pre-planned (but backstory motivated) – so she’s gonna have to buck up and get herself in gear PDQ.

Thanks, Katie! So true!! I enjoyed this article and I have GMC on my shelf. Read it years ago and also attended a Debra Dixon workshop. You’ve got some powerful stuff here and I’m so glad you reminded me about all of this! Have a fabulous day!

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