The Birdcage - GMC

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Summary of this month’s movie:

Armand Goldman owns a drag nightclub in Miami, and is in a relationship with the club's star Albert, who performs as a drag queen. Armand's son Val is home from college with an announcement: he is getting married to Barbara, whose father is a conservative senator. And oh yeah, she told her parents that Val's father is a cultural attaché for Greece and Val's mother is a housewife, and that their last name was Coleman. And now, her parents are on their way to visit Val's.

Val begs his father to go along with the charade, and after some deliberation, he concedes. They both set to work remodeling their apartment. Albert is offended at Armand and Val asking him to be absent. Armand calms him down and reaffirms their devotion by giving him partnership of the nightclub. Out of ideas, they ask Val's birthmother Katherine.

Unfortunately, Katherine gets stuck in traffic the night the Keeleys arrive. Unexpectedly, Albert dresses as a woman and takes her place, to the horror of Armand and Val. But it works, and the senator is delighted with Mrs Coleman, much to Louise's indignation. However, through a series of awkward events, the Keeleys start to suspect that the Colemans are hiding something.

Inevitably, the Keeleys find out about the lies and decide to leave immediately. But they discover a mass of news crews and duck back in, trapped. Albert comes up with a plan: he dresses the Keeleys in drag and gets them out through the nightclub without being spotted.

Val and Barbara get married, in an interfaith ceremony presided by both a rabbi and priest, attended by Kevin and Louise, Katherine, and Armand and Albert. Jeni, what’d you think about the movie?

Jeni: Okay so, like a lot of our 90s movies, I watched this when it came out, and I don’t think I really got the heavy dose of satire intended in the plot. I had picked up on the cultural commentary, but I expected to find the characters more problematic than they really are. I mean, yes, the depictions are super stereotypical for sure. But there’s a lot here that’s positive, and really, I think the movie wants us all to be more like Albert–unapologetically who we are. And yes, omg, shame on Val for asking this of them. And Barbara for lying about it to begin with. And then Armand for trying to change or hide Albert. I think a lot of these issues are still around today, even as much as we want to think American society has changed. But I think what really makes this movie worth a rewatch is the flawless performances by an amazing cast. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are incredible, and honestly, I love Diane Wiest in everything I’ve ever seen her in. What did you think?

Carly: I’ve always loved this movie, from when I was a kid. And while some things don’t age well, a ton of it really does. It touches on so many serious issues while still making it a fun comedy. But yes, Val’s privilege and horribleness is on full display. It basically makes it clear they gave him such a safe home if he thinks it is okay to ask this of them. Honestly, my biggest problem is that Barbara is 18, Val is 20, and they’ve been having sex for a year so… yeah. I don’t think they did the math there. Also I hate that they get married and all is fine after all the terrible shit the Keeleys put them through. But I don’t know, maybe we’re supposed to think they’ve changed? I’ve become too much of a curmudgeon to believe that. Robin Williams is amazing in this movie. And while it would need to be done very differently now, you can tell how much they respect and love the material. How much they are trying to honor the reality while making it palatable and funny to a 90s audience. I was worried about watching this again, but I’m glad I could still love it.

So Jeni, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?

Jeni: So, one of the things that really struck me in this story is that each character has their own motivation, and it’s really clear throughout the story. It made me think about GMC (which is short for Goal, Motivation, Conflict), so I think it’s a great film for writers to watch with that in mind. This cast is interesting because it does have so many amazing actors, and they all do a great job of portraying those motivations throughout. The best part of it is that, because you get to see that throughout the movie, you can really see how these different goals and motivations cause so much of the conflict. It’s not only between Val’s family and Barbara’s family. We see those conflicts and motivations within the families as well. When you have that all set out from the beginning and carry it through the story, it gives you, the author, a lot of opportunity for character development and to have some serious tension, even in a comedy. In this movie, that tension looks like an almost visceral feeling of uncomfortability because you just know the lie will come to light at some point–you just don’t know how or when. And I also want to note that in writing, you can use this GMC information with pretty much any plotting method or structure because it’s related but not the same as plot structure or pacing.

Carly: So let’s start with a GMC overview. We will get into more specifics below. The quick overview basically looks like this: goal, what is it that the character wants; motivation, why do they want it; and conflict, what is stopping them from getting it. Every character needs a GMC, because honestly, that’s the basics of humanity. We all want something and we all have our reasons for wanting it. It can range from wanting food because we’re hungry to being desperate for love because we spent so much of our time alone as a child. The more you dig into this, the more you’ll know your characters. One of my biggest pieces of advice is to always flesh this out. Even if it doesn’t make it onto the page, it will inform on how your characters act in any given situation. It will show you what they prioritize, what they ignore, what will frustrate them, and what they will go too far for. If you know the GMC of all your characters, not just your main character, then the plot will unfold in a natural way because you will understand how they would act and what they would do. It is the basis of all your characters. You’ve thrown them into a plot full of tension and conflict, but how they react, what they care about, and what they want at the end of the book all support the tension and plot. Without those things, we won’t care about the story because we won’t understand how the characters tie into it. Basically, GMC is what ties your plot and your characters together. It is the link between the two.

Jeni: Okay so a goal seems fairly self-explanatory, but there’s actually a lot here we can dig into. On the surface, the goal is: what does the main character need to do to accomplish their mission? Do they need to reach a destination? Find an object? Rescue a person? Have a difficult conversation? In essence, what does the character want? This goal needs to be related to the main premise of the story. So, in this movie, the main character is really Armand, and what Armand wants is to make a good impression on Val’s future in-laws so that they won’t object to Barbara marrying him. But that goal is not easy to accomplish, and it conflicts with some of his other goals, like being a good partner to Albert and living his life in the way he and his partner have built together. So when you’re looking at your character’s goals, consider how they have other goals that might compete. The other thing to consider is what I touched on before–every character really needs their own goals. Albert has similar goals to Armand’s, but he also doesn’t want to be excluded. The senator also wants his child to be able to marry the person she loves, but his competing goals have to do with his public persona and political reputation. Louise has these as well as goals based on her expectations about her role as a wife. So when you get all these characters together and they each have goals that compete within themselves and with the other characters, it gives you this really rich starting place where there’s already a lot of inherent conflict that comes from that sense of having to balance all that.

Carly: Next we’ve got the motivation. This is very similar to the emotional wound, which we talked about in a previous episode. So listen to that episode too, if you haven’t already. But the motivation for a character is basically the reason that they want their goal. What is the void that they are trying to fill? What happened to your characters that makes them want to achieve their goal? Often, this ties into their emotional wound and some big event from their past, so again go listen to that episode. Let’s look into Armand first. He has spent his whole life making things good for Val. He wants him to have a safe place and to not get hurt. We see this when Val confronts him about what he told him as a child, to lie about who his parents are. Armand responds with “you were a kid, I didn’t want you to get hurt” and Val (very selfishly, I might add), says that he can still get hurt. This is punching Armand right in the gut. He has clearly faced a ton of hatred from others, he has been hurt in the past for just being himself. And all he wants is to protect his child. Protecting Val clearly comes from a place of pain, of his own hurt. And this motivation manifests in many different ways. In wanting to protect Val, but also in wanting to be himself. And struggling to put Albert into the same position of pain. To protect Val he has to hurt Albert. It is not fair and his motivation is pulling him to different competing goals, like Jeni was talking about. It is all so painful because of this motivation. Armand wouldn’t bother hiding his true self if he hadn’t felt that pain. He wouldn’t be so torn up about doing it to Albert if he hadn’t felt that pain. Not only does the motivation explain why a character wants a goal, it also creates the heartache that we feel as the characters struggle to achieve their goals. Which leads perfectly into conflict, Jeni?

Jeni: Now, to me, that’s the real crux of GMC. It’s not the goal or the conflict, only because I feel like writers pretty much know they have to have that. It’s how the pieces all tie together, and to me, the piece that really ties it together is the motivation. So if the goal is the “what” and the motivation is the “why” then the conflict could be characterized as the “but.” Or maybe it would be better to call it “the problem.” There’s a thing your character wants. They have a good reason for it. But something is stopping them. There’s an obstacle, and that obstacle standing in the way of what they want. That gap between where the character is and what they want is where all the conflict is, and they are going to have to take action of some kind to bridge that gap. But what really makes that unique in each story is the character’s motivation. Because that’s what makes it personal–those competing motivations. Val’s goal is to marry Barbara. He wants to because he is the worst and she is also the worst so they’ll make a great couple. Oh and I guess he loves her or something. He sees the obstacle as his father being a gay, Jewish drag club owner and not that his fiancee thought it would be a good idea to lie to her parents about his family. So the conflict is created by their need to get past her parents believing a lie about his family in order to get married. We don’t get into his goals as much as some of the other characters, but it seems like he really wants to protect Barbara and knows how important her father’s reputation is to her. I guess they assumed they’d never meet each other again? Or it just wouldn’t matter once they’re married? I don’t know. I hate Val. ANYWAY. So think about where your character is, what they want, and what’s stopping them from getting it. What action will they take to try to get around the obstacle? How does their underlying motivation impact their actions or even what they see as acceptable options?

Carly: It’s important to note that this can be used at a scene level and at a story level. Like I was saying earlier, GMC will help you make sure your characters are reacting naturally. And this means on every level. They will react to the larger plot challenges based on their GMC. Armand follows through and lies for Val. He eventually stands his ground on Albert being part of the family because he can’t lose him. These moments are extremely story level. But each scene also needs to be informed by a GMC. Having a GMC on a scene level looks more like: what are your character’s temporary scene goals (that often tie into their larger goals), why do they need to achieve that in this scene, and what is the scene conflict that is getting in their way? So let’s take a small scene from this movie. Armand goes to collect Val’s birth mother to get her to help them with the dinner. His goal is to convince her to come to the dinner. The motivation is that if she is there Albert will look more masculine for the Keeleys. And the conflict is Albert’s jealousy and they fact that he hasn’t seen Val’s birth mother in 20 years. The GMC here ties into the overall plot, but we’re also dealing with scene level GMC. Albert’s jealousy has been popping up from the beginning of the movie. He feels like a guest, like an outsider. And that bubbles up whenever Armand doesn’t include him in something. And while that informs on the major plot, by having Albert show up at the dinner, it also informs in small ways by causing fights between Albert and Armand. Conflicting character GMCs where you understand why each character is doing what they are doing, even if it hurts the other character, creates the best tension.

Jeni: Through most of this, we’ve been talking about external GMC, but it can be used on internal arcs as well. Your characters will have internal obstacles and goals in addition to external ones. So everything we’ve been talking about here can be applied at that level. In the same way that each scene will build on the external conflict, it also needs to build on the internal conflict. You’ll have an overall internal goal for the story, and that will need to be broken into smaller internal goals for each scene. What are those goals? Why are they important to the character? What is stopping them from accomplishing them? And how does that tie into the choices they have to make in the external plot? GMC really is one of my favorite tools because it’s a pretty simple concept but applies to storytelling on so many levels.

Our query this month is YA fantasy. Carly, what are your thoughts on this query?

Carly: This query is pretty solid on the stakes and conflict. But I’m not seeing what the personal, non-saving-saving-the-world stakes. She wants to save her sister, and stop the big bad. But what does the big bad want, and why (hey, GMC! It is in queries too!). The problem is that when you focus on such big things, we don’t get to see what is personal and special about your story. It won’t seem unique because we won’t get to know why this story is different and deeper when the stakes are saving the world. Basically, show us the personal, non-huge stakes. Not just why your character is involved, but why it has to be this character. Why is her sister kidnapped?

Jeni: This story sounds so good, and the query starts out really strong but then kinda starts to meander as it goes on. Make sure your sentences are flowing logically from one thought to the next. Right now, it’s sort of jumping around. You mention the monsters have her sister and then tell us about the monster and then go back to tell us again that he has her sister. Then the next paragraph does something similar with she has to find the sword and then she has to use the sword but then you tell how she has to find the sword. The flow would make more sense if you rearrange some: She has to find the sword. This is what she has to do to get the sword. This is what she has to do after she gets the sword.

Next month, we are watching the action-comedy Free Guy, as chosen by our patrons. We will also have another query or blurb critique. If you want your query featured on the podcast, you can find the details about how to do that on our website or Twitter page.
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