writing fiction

Understanding Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: MOTIVATION


By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Last time we talked about goal in the triad of goal, motivation, and conflict. This week, we’re going to take the next step by talking about motivation.

Motivation is one of the most powerful forces in fiction. Our readers will follow our characters through anything as long as they believe the motivation.

Motivation is the why. Why does your character desperately want to achieve their goal?

This ties tightly into why the goal is important. It’s what’s at stake. What do they stand to lose if they don’t achieve their goal? That’s going to be part of what motivates them to reach it.

What’s easy to forget about motivation is that it comes on two levels—the external, conscious level and the internal, subconscious level. The best stories will have both and they’ll work together.

The external, conscious level is the obvious why.

The internal, subconscious level is the underlying need that your character probably isn’t even aware that they’re trying to fill.

I’ll give you a really simplistic example just to make the difference clear.

The character wants to get a raise at his job (his goal) so that he can buy a bigger house (his external motivation) because he believes that will earn him respect from his family (his subconscious need).

That one’s pretty obvious, but the connection doesn’t have to be blatant as long as the dual motivations work together.

An example that I really like is from the movie White House Down. The main character is ex-military, and he’s in the White House on a tour with his daughter when terrorists attack. The main character’s external goal is to save his daughter and the president from the terrorists who’ve taken over the White House. His external motivation is that if he doesn’t save his daughter, she’ll likely die, and if he doesn’t save the president, the terrorists will be able to launch nuclear weapons and start a world war.

His internal motivation is that he desperately needs his daughter to be proud of him and to prove to her that she can count on him.

Another way to look at this is that the external motivation is our plot and the internal motivation is our character arc. That internal need is the true driving force of the plot, and what our character experiences on the outside forces them along their internal arc and forces them to grow. We are all driven by our internal needs, whether we’re aware of them or not. 

Here’s why understanding the difference between external motivation and internal, subconscious motivation (the need) is so cool.

Your character might fail at their original external goal, but as long as that failure still meets their internal need or motivation, you’re going to have created a satisfying story.

Next time we’ll talk about how conflict interacts with goal and motivation! (If you missed last week’s post about the goal, you can find it here.)

Do you have any other tips about character motivation that you’d like to share?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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Image Credit: Jacek Raczynski/www.freeimages.com


Four Situations When We Should Tell Rather than Show

When to Tell Rather than ShowBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Blasphemy! After my previous post where I gave four techniques to help you show rather than tell, how dare I suggest we should sometimes tell rather than show?! Won’t that lead to weak, flat writing.

I’m not recanting on what I wrote last week. When you come across one of the four ways that suggest you’re telling rather than showing, you should rewrite.

But times do exist when it’s better to tell than to show. In 2011, I had the privilege of being mentored by Randy Ingermanson (of Snowflake Method and Advanced Writing E-Zine fame) at a conference. One of the things I remember best is what he said about showing and telling—it’s all about balance.

In these four situations, telling is actually better than showing.

1) You’re Dealing with an Insignificant Fact

When he needs to decide whether to show or tell, award-winning science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer asks, “Will it be on the test?” In other words, when you take the time to show something, readers assume it’s important to the story. If you spend two paragraphs showing the snow and ice, later in the story you’d better have someone’s car slide off the road or someone near death from hypothermia. Otherwise, just tell the reader “It was snowing, and ice covered the roads.” 

2) During Transitions

Sometimes you just need to get a character from point A to point B without bringing the story to a grinding halt by describing it.

The next morning, Marilyn drove to Bob’s house.

We don’t need to see Marilyn drive to Bob’s house. We just need to know she did. We don’t need you to describe the sunrise or the morning traffic jam in detail to try to get around telling us she went in the morning.

Half an hour later, they arrived at the mountain summit.

If nothing eventful happened on the climb, if it wasn’t essential to the story for us to see them climbing, we don’t need the blow by blow.

Sometimes, narrative is the most efficient, best way to get the job done.

3) When Showing Would Bog Down Your Story or Confuse Your Reader

Sometimes the reader absolutely needs to know a fact that all the characters already know, and creating a scene to show that fact is going to slow down the story and feel forced.

For example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, the first in the series about the colonization of Mars, depends on complex technological and biochemical ideas. Robinson can’t stop and create a scene every time he needs to give the reader a piece of information. The story would be unreasonably long and slow. He also can’t leave it out or the story wouldn’t make sense to readers.

Here’s an example with the telling element in red. Frank is pushing his arm into a special plastic.

[Frank] stopped breathing. He felt the pressure of his molars squeezing together. He poked the tent wall so hard that he pushed out the outermost membrane, which meant that some of his anger would be captured and stored as electricity in the town’s grid. Polyvinylidene diflouride was a special polymer in that respect—carbon atoms were linked to hyrdrogen and flourine atoms in such a way that the resulting substance was even more piezoelectric than quartz. Change one element of the three, however, and everything shifted; substitute chlorine for flourine, for instance, and you had saran wrap.

When you’re telling in a situation like this, make sure you do it in small bites and that you make it interesting.

(4) In Your Opening Sentence

This might sound crazy at first, but look at a lot of the strong first lines from bestselling and award-winning novels. You’ll see what could be considered telling. (Personally I prefer to call it compelling narrative.)

Rivka Meyers knew something was wrong when she bumped into a wall that wasn’t there. – from Transgression by Randy Ingermanson

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. – from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

He had the look of a man who was afraid that tonight would be his last on earth. – from The Forgotten by David Baldacci

Carla knew her parents were about to have a row. – from Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Telling isn’t always bad.

The trick with writing is that we have to learn the rules before we can break them, and when we break them, we have to be sure we’re breaking them because it makes the story better rather than because we want to be rebels, because we’re lazy, or because we think the rules don’t apply to us. The rules do apply to us, lazy writing is crappy writing, and there’s no value in being a rebel just for the sake of it.

What do you think? Am I right about the need to sometimes tell rather than show? Do you have a favorite author who manages to perfectly find the balance?

Image Credit: Via sxc.hu

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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Three Ways The Emotion Thesaurus Helps You Write Better

The Emotion Thesaurus

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

As writers, our job is to create a meaningful emotional experience for readers. One of the best ways to do this is to convey the quality and depth of our characters’ feelings through their thoughts, body language, and visceral reactions. This is the primary focus of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and is at the root of the “show don’t tell” principle.
–       Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi in Emotion Amplifiers (A Companion Guide to The Emotion Thesaurus)

Writers are just like every other profession in one important way—the right tools make our job easier.

The Emotion Thesaurus is one of those tools.

When we’re writing, it’s easy to fall into certain standbys without even realizing it. He’s angry—he frowns. She’s frustrated—she sighs.

But those unimaginative responses don’t begin to do credit to the variety of non-verbal communication we use every day or to the unique, three-dimensional characters we’re supposed to create.

That’s where The Emotion Thesaurus comes in. Today I wanted to give you the three ways I think The Emotion Thesaurus can help you write better stories.

(Just for the record – I don’t get any sort of compensation if you buy The Emotion Thesaurus after reading this. I’m recommending it because I’ve used it, liked it, and think it can be a tool almost any fiction writer could benefit from.)

(1) The Emotion Thesaurus Saves Research Time

Because I want to find fresh ways to express emotions in my writing, I often spend a lot of time, especially at the editing stage, looking up emotions online and studying non-verbal communication. Even as someone who has a degree in Social Psychology and loves digging into what makes people tick, I don’t enjoy how much time this eats up and I’m tempted to skip it.

The Emotion Thesaurus brings the research you need together in one place. Each entry defines the emotion and gives physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, signs of that emotion over the long-term, and cues that the emotion is being repressed.

What that allows us to do is figure out what emotion our character is feeling and look through the lists to find expressions that fit our character and the situation they’re in.

Then we can personalize it. For example, one of the internal sensations for agitation is feeling overheated. How will your character describe that sensation? A middle-aged woman with a good sense of humor might think of it in terms of getting a taste of the hot flashes she’ll experience in menopause. A teenager might liken it to when the air conditioning broke in their house for three whole days. A character with money might describe it as similar to how he felt when he stayed in the sauna too long. Same sensation. Different points of view. Infinite possibilities.

(2) The Emotion Thesaurus Helps with Ideas for Increasing Tension

As you read through the list of characteristics for the emotion you want to convey, you’ll notice some symptoms of that emotion are perfect for increasing tension.

In the agitation entry, the first three mental responses listed are

  • Mounting frustration that causes thoughts to blank
  • Compounding mistakes
  • A tendency to lie to cover up or excuse

You can use agitation to lay the groundwork for bad things to come or to make the current scene more stressful. Many emotions, even positive ones, can have these undesirable consequences.

Becca and Angela also include a “Writer’s Tip” at the end of each emotion with a special hint for other ways you can use that particular emotion to add tension or some other depth to your story.

(3) The Emotion Thesaurus Keeps Characters’ Emotional Arcs Believable

One of the tricks Blake Snyder shares in Save the Cat is that in every scene the character needs to end at a different emotional place from where they began. I struggle with this because I tend to be hyper-logical and tamp down on my emotions. I’m not always certain of the progression an emotion might take in someone who’s less like a Borg.

Becca and Angela added a “May Escalate To” list for each emotion. So, for example, if your character starts the scene agitated (or becomes agitated early on in the scene), you can look at the list and see that likely emotional outcomes by the end of the scene or in the following scene are annoyance, frustration, anxiety, or anger. Then you can go look at the physical signs of those emotions. In helps us bring our character to that next step.

Another thing mentioned by Becca and Angela in their front matter (which is a great look at emotion in itself) is that we often need to seek the root emotion to bring out the correct signs. A person might believe they’re angry, but that anger might actually be a cover-up for something else. So while your character might be screaming at their teenager for wreaking the car, they’re also grabbing their child into a hug because the true emotion isn’t anger—it’s fear and relief that their child survived.

For places where you can buy The Emotion Thesaurus and a lot of great free resources, make sure you check out Becca and Angela’s site The Bookshelf Muse.

What’s your biggest struggle when writing character emotions? Have you checked out The Emotion Thesaurus?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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