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Motivation

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Much like with my post on “the blurt,” I invite you today to consider that characters actively making conscious decisions and taking conscious actions has more power than them acting impulsively, especially in important moments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine to have a character surprise him or herself with an action, like falling offstage during a monologue or tripping. Calamity happens.

For the more consequential actions, like slapping one’s best friend or driving past one’s house and ending up in, I don’t know, Argentina, though, I would prefer that some more thought goes into it. Here’s why: I fully believe that building anticipation is important to nurturing that connection with the reader. I’m going to get so much more out of the scene if I sort of know what’s coming.

I don’t need to know how it’s going to be executed or what the outcome will be–that’s the fun part where you build your suspense and where the unexpected happens. But I want to have some vague idea of where things might be headed so that I can start getting invested.

Let’s say that Julie has beef with her best friend Chris. They’ve been inseparable since kindergarten but, lately, Chris has been saying really mean things about Julie (often within earshot) to get in with some people who he thinks are cool. That’s part of the picture, but it’s just the situation that these two characters are in. Imagine, now, that Julie goes to see Chris and all we have to work with is the following. I see this sort of thing in a lot of manuscripts:

Julie sat down across from Chris and watched him carefully. “You don’t have anything to say to me?”
“Not really.” He chewed his granola bar like he was thinking about it for a minute. “Yeah, no.”
“That’s it, then?”
“What’s it?”
Before Julie could think, her hand flew up and connected with his cheek. She’d never been more hurt in her life. “I can’t believe you!” she hissed. Before she even knew where she was going, she was running out of the cafeteria. Julie had no intention of letting it go that far, but she hadn’t been able to stop herself. Great, now Chris and his stupid new friends could have something new to laugh about. All she wanted was some reassurance from her supposed best friend that they were still on track. But he apparently couldn’t see anything wrong with his behavior. Well, if he had no time to be nice to her, she wouldn’t waste hers on him, either!

Why did she slap him? I have no idea, unless the writer had gone through the trouble of establishing context for the action first. And it’s not as gratifying to have her unpack the event after it happens and worry about it, as you can see here. Without that work on objective before the scene, this seems like she’s just flailing around, acting on raw feelings that I don’t have access to. Getting her motivations later just isn’t nearly as satisfying.

Now let’s add some context. Let’s say Julie’s getting peeved that he’d rather sell out their friendship to impress some douchebags rather than maintain something that used to be important to both of them. Not only is he not sticking up for her when the bullies start to crowd around, he’s being outright mean and a bully himself.

So Julie goes over to Chris’s house to clear the air or to get some answers, she doesn’t know which. All she knows is that if he doesn’t apologize, she’s going to break up with him as a friend, even if it’s just for a little while. She’s clear that something needs to change, because she’s really, really hurt.

This is a lot of context and I know what Julie is going into the scene with, objective-wise. She wants clarity on a relationship. And she has thought through some bottom lines, boundaries, and possible outcomes. From all of this, I can tell that this confrontation with Chris means a lot to her, and that she’s really taking it seriously. As a reader, I begin to take it seriously as well.

Once all of these pieces are in place, if Chris continues to be a butt and Julie ends up slapping him in the heat of the moment, I am totally fine with it! It’s an impulsive, unconscious action when it comes down to it, but a whole lot of consciousness went into getting her to that scene.

Let’s try this scene again with some interiority to motivate the slap in the moment, instead of letting it all catch up to her after the fact:

Julie sat down across from Chris in the middle of the busy lunch room. She searched his eyes for a trace of the old Chris, her old best friend. Nothing. If only she could get him to really see her, to remember the old times, then maybe he wouldn’t treat her like crap. “Hi.”
He didn’t really react, not at all like the kid she used to know.
“You don’t have anything to say to me?”
“Hmm, let me think about it.” His voice was mocking. He chewed his granola bar. “Yeah, no.”
Julie’s hand tensed into a fist. Twelve years was a long time to be friends, and he was throwing it all away. Well, she wasn’t going to take it. If he wanted a punching bag, he’d have to find someone else! “That’s it, then?” she asked. She pleaded with him, deep down, to just snap out of it.
“That’s it.”
Nothing. The rejection stung all over again. Before Julie knew what crossed her mind, she reached across the table and slapped his smug face.

These are quick examples, dashed off for illustrative purposes, but I want to try and convey here that unmotivated sudden action isn’t nearly as satisfying as something with backstory, sudden or not. Interiority, what the character experiences during the event, is a huge part of this, too. The more we know about what they want and what they’re going through, the more we can follow their conscious and unconscious movements through the story.

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I had a great phone call with a coaching client a few weeks ago, and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years. He was really passionate about his first five chapters, the ones he’d already drafted. He had a strong goal to finish his manuscript, but no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t progressing. Why? He was fixating on revising those completed chapters!

Some writers sit down and bang out a draft, no problem. (Those jerks!) Some writers have the hardest time pursuing new pages when they already have part of a draft completed. This can be trouble for a few reasons.

What you’ve already written is a known. It’s there already, and you can begin to work on it. Plus, there’s the idea that if you really polish those first few chapters, you’ll have a stronger springboard for the rest of the story. The blank pages that follow are unknown, they’re not nearly as appealing. In fact, they can be downright intimidating. So who would blame a writer for sticking to the familiar?

In addition to being done, your existing chapters also provide a lot of opportunity for distraction. When we’re tinkering with the same few chapters over and over again, we tend to feel pretty productive. But we may also miss the forest for the trees. Because while you’re working on syntax and trying to decide what order those three scenes should go in, the “bird’s eye view” of the entire project itself is getting ignored. Just like some manuscript revisions tend to devolve into moving around commas rather than dealing with larger issues like plot and voice, tinkering can take you away from what needs to be your focus, especially in an early draft: getting the big picture down on paper.

What do I recommend to writers who are getting caught up in their early pages at the expense of finishing a draft? Write a long outline where you detail what you plan to do in each additional chapter. Cover what scenes you’ll include, what the big plot turning points will be, and how characters might grown and change as a result. It doesn’t have to be fancy or thorough. The goal here is to give yourself a map for finally committing those unknown chapters to the page.

The hard truth is this: once you finish a manuscript, you will most likely discover things you didn’t know about your story, you’ll have developed your themes and characters, and you will want to go back to the beginning and start planting some seeds that will eventually grow and blossom over the course of the novel. So those first chapters that you’re polishing are likely to change as your own understanding of the manuscript changes.

Tinkering can be good if you recognize it for what it is, and don’t indulge it too much. When writers come to me with a promising first few chapters or one really rough complete draft, I am much more intrigued by the draft, each and every time. In the first chapters, you are still very much in the idea stage and trying to figure your novel out. When you’ve completed a first draft, you’ve at least put everything down on paper and you’ve executed a version of your vision. It may not be the final version, and it may not be terribly polished yet, but at least it’s complete. Pulling that off may be more intimidating up-front, but it’s definitely more gratifying in the long run.

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I’ve been preaching all along that characters need a clear sense of motivation and objective, those twin drivers that are often part of the same coin. Objective is, simply put, what a character wants to do, and motivation is why they want to do it. Each character should have these things in their back story, even if the objectives are smaller (for secondary characters and such). The protagonist of your story should have the clearest objective and motivation of all, with an overarching need/goal for the entire story arc, as well as more tangible objectives and motivations throughout, from chapter to chapter.

When you’re thinking about this, I also want you to think about balancing positive and negative motivation. Let’s start with negative motivation. Maybe you’re someone who hasn’t had the, ahem, pleasure of experiencing a lot of negative motivation in your life, and for that I commend you. But it goes something like this:

Everyone always told me I’d never make anything of myself. Well, I’d prove them wrong. Smoothing my brand new thrift shop suit down to get rid of any last wrinkles (though doing anything about its smell was impossible this late in the game), I headed into the job interview.

I joke that spite is a terrific motivator. And it is. We often react to adversity by stubbornly wanting to best it. But it’s important to note that this is a reaction to something negative in life that we’re inspired to overcome. It’s negative motivation to want to show your bully what’s what, or land a new job because your stupid current boss thinks you’re a bad employee, or want to claw out of poverty because you never had anything growing up. The motivation is valid, but the aspiration had roots in something negative instead of something positive.

On the other hand, positive motivation is more of a proactive goal. Take one example from what I just wrote: growing up in poverty. You could write two very different characters with the same backstory and related-but-distinct motivations, one negative, one positive. Character A wants to claw their way out of poverty, indeed, because they never had anything good growing up and it sure feels crummy. The buck stops, or rather starts now, and they’re going to do something about it. Character B grew up the same way, with the same kind of deprivation. But they’re positively motivated, they see what they want to do and why in a different light. Maybe they aspire to be the only person in their family to go to college, or maybe they’d like to provide a better childhood for their own kids than they ever had.

I bet I conjure very different people in your mind just by describing Character A vs. Character B in terms of motivation. One is negatively motivated, one positively. They’ll do different things to reach their goals, and justify them with different logic.

In your own manuscript, keep an eye on who is negatively motivated and who is positively motivated. If you want to mix it up, get their negative vs. positive motivations in balance, so that there’s a little bit of both in each. They feel adversity but also possibility. That’s where you’ll find complexity.

Related but slightly different are passive and active motivation. Passive motivation is a condition that exists (unfairness in the world, for example) that your character thinks about and wants to solve or overcome. But it’s not something they can affect directly, it’s more part of their general situation. Active motivation, on the other hand, refers to something they have control over and that they can work toward by taking concrete steps. The needle is obvious and they know how to move it.

All of these are shades to the same issue, and it gives you more to think about as you craft your characters.

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I’m working on a lot of freelance editing client manuscripts these days and loving it. (Maybe working a little too hard, hence the blog neglect!) Every time I make a note that I think will be a good post, or that can apply to more than just the moment in question, I flag it for potential follow-up on the blog. I’ve now stockpiled so many that I have material for weeks. All I need to do is figure out the most engaging way to illuminate all of these craft issues that I’m feeling so passionate about for a wider audience. (Easier said than done, ha!)

Today, I want to talk about “blah” words as they pertain to your objectives and motivations. This is a topic I’m super intense about. I’m writing my annual article for the Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators’ Market about it, in fact. (Which reminds me, I should really get on that…) My theory is that it’s more difficult to engage with character if we, as readers, don’t know what they’re doing (in the small and large sense over the course of your story), or, very importantly, why. And if you’ve followed me for a while, you probably know what I mean by “blah” words. If you have no idea, check out this post. To summarize, they’re generic words that have shallow emotions attached to them because they can mean many different things to many different people.

I encountered a character recently who made plenty of statements about motivation. This is great. I was excited. Hearts popped out of my eyeballs, anime-style. But something was wrong. Instead of being specific about motivation/objective, the character resorted to “blah” words. What does this look like? Example time:

I’m seeking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
He won’t stop until justice is served.
Her highest goal is peace.
If I could only get proof.

These are not from client work, or any work. They’re merely samples. Do you see a connecting thread, though? They all rely on “blah” words (truth, justice, peace, proof) that are connected with positive, wholesome emotions, but don’t really tell me much of anything about the character or the plot at hand.

A character will ideally have many small pieces of objective (what they want) and motivation (why) throughout a story. These elements exist from scene to scene and overall, for the entire arc. These “blah” words tend to work themselves into the larger objective/motivation that drives the character throughout the story.

You’ve long heard me say that generalization or the generic are the enemies in fiction. Specificity is where it’s at. Instead of having a character walk around talking about achieving justice or getting proof, break it down further so that it applies to the character where they are in the story and the plot as it’s progressing. For example:

If I could only get proof that Sadie stole the parade float, I’d feel so much more at peace. The Girl Scouts have been framed, I just know it. Nobody will listen to them, and that’s an injustice. And, worse, nobody seems to want to know the truth. Hmm, I wonder if the gas station across from the high school has any video footage from last night…

Here, we have tons of “blah” words (proof, peace, justice, truth), but they have taken on a concrete meaning in context. Not only do we get a sense that morality and “the right thing” are important to the character (this is likely applicable story-wide), but we get a sense of what’s going on now, what’s driving the character now, and what they plan to do in order to achieve their specific objective in this section of the story. The vague has become the specific, and now it applies directly to the events at hand. Establish and reinforce objectives/motivations through, on a scene-by-scene level, and for the larger arc of your manuscript. Don’t rely on some “blah” words and principles to stand in for specificity.

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Before a reader will believe your plot and story, they need a good reason to buy in. Plots that have a guess or a misconception at the heart of them are very difficult to pull off because there is not a lot for your reader to hook into and believe in. Let’s say that you’re writing a book where a girl goes after a boy because she thinks he is the serial killer terrorizing the town. Thrillers are more popular on shelves today and this is a premise that’s bound to have some romantic tension. Great.

But the author in this example must do a lot of work at the beginning to make sure that her guess seems reasonable and logical to the reader. “I just knew it in my bones that he was the Shady Pines Strangler” isn’t going to convince your reader to go along for the ride. Telling isn’t going to do it. Something needs to happen in the action of the plot that makes your character–and, by extension, your reader–sure. A tangible event or something seen with one’s own eyes is as close as you can get to concrete facts in fiction. So your audience will need nothing short of that to be convinced that your protagonist is on the right track…and to want to follow her on the plot.

The same goes for misunderstandings and misconceptions. It is very difficult to suspend disbelief and follow a plot that hangs on a misunderstanding (that’s why characters in denial don’t work well). Especially if the reader knows that the character has made a mistake. Let’s just give a quick example here. A girl is in the cafeteria and a boy yells out that she looks like a fat dude in a monkey suit. She spends the rest of the story building a complex revenge scheme to humiliate him…and it turns out that, the entire time, he had been hollering over her head at a fellow basketball player. They laugh about it and, surprise surprise, fall madly in love and wear gorilla suits to their wedding, etc. etc. etc.

Despite the sarcastic ending to this pretend tale, I hope you can see why it wouldn’t be satisfying. The misunderstanding bit is way too weak to pin an entire plot on. This is extremely prevalent in romantic comedy style novels, so if you’re writing one, make sure you’re not relying on this trick too heavily. Weak plot also comes from character guesses that aren’t backed up by concrete evidence via action or something that happens in the physical realm of the story. In a fantasy novel about faeries, you can’t just talk about faeries for the duration of the book, telling over and over again about the magical atmosphere in the woods. If there are faeries, we better see some faeries. If the hot new guy in school is a serial killer, we better see brown traces of dried blood under his fingernails and smell a suspicious odor coming from the trunk of his car.

Otherwise, in both cases, your readers might see your character as jumping to conclusions…and you don’t want to make them feel like they’re going on a wild goose chase. With everything you write, you should make their investment in the plot more, not less.

 

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