Archive | March, 2012

Goals and Motivations in Fiction Writing

When we talk about a character’s “motivation,” exactly what do we mean by that?

Diane posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I just recently found your blog love it. I am really hoping the snowflake method will work for me, because I struggle with planning — and, therefore, finishing — my novels. My difficulty right now is step 3, the one-page character sheet with motivation, goal, etc. I don’t really understand the difference between the motivation and the goal: they make sense in my head, but when I write them out, they seem to be almost the same thing. And I assume the one page is one typed page, or about 500 words. Does the motivation, goal, etc., discuss the motivation through each Act (in the three act structure) of the character’s personal timeline?

Randy sez: Different people mean different things by the word “motivation.” It’s an amorphous concept and I prefer to break it down into several parts which I can clearly define:

  • Values. The beliefs a character has which he considers “self-evident.”
  • Ambition. The abstract thing that the character wants to get or achieve or become.
  • Goal. The concrete thing that the character wants to get or achieve or become.

To figure out a character’s values, interview him (in your mind) and ask him to fill in the blank in as many ways as he can in this sentence: “Nothing is more important than _________.”

Typically, most people can give you two or three things that they think should go in the blank. If they have 20 things, then something is wrong, because some of them are going to be more important than others. But most people have two or three that they would judge to be equally important. A strong story comes from putting those in conflict.

For example, in THE GODFATHER, Vito Corleone would say instantly that “Nothing is more important than respect.” Vito is a man of respect. That’s how he lives.

But after half a second of thought, Vito would add, “But nothing is more important than family.”

Now what happens when Vito’s oldest son shows him disrespect? Not intentionally. Without thinking about it. In front of one of Vito’s competitors. Now Vito has a problem, and this is what drives the novel.

So much for values. What about ambition? What do we mean when we say that ambition is “abstract”?

That’s easy. What does every Miss America contestant say that she wants? Everybody knows the answer to this question. They all want “world peace.” Whatever that is.

The problem is that “world peace” is abstract. You can’t hold it in your hand. How do you get it? What does it look like?

World peace is a fine ambition, but it’s abstract, and an abstraction is not enough to drive a story.

In order to fully define the motivation for Miss America (or anyone else), you need to know what they want concretely. If Miss America says, “We’ll have world peace when all nuclear weapons are abolished,” now we know what her concrete goal is. You know exactly what it looks like to eliminate all nuclear weapons. You’ll know when you achieve that goal, because there won’t be any more nukes on the planet.

Somebody else might say, “No, that’s not it. We’ll have world peace when every person on the planet who wants a job has one.” Once again, that’s concrete. You’ll know when you achieve that goal.

Obviously, it’s possible that even if you achieved either one of those goals, you still wouldn’t have “world peace.” That’s not the point. The point is that the character THINKS that achieving that concrete goal will be the same as achieving the abstract ambition. So the character puts all his energy into reaching that concrete goal.

Your character can have fine values and a noble ambition, but until she has a concrete goal, you don’t have a story. The goal will the concrete realization for some abstract ambition that is built on one or more values.

When you understand your character’s goal, ambition, and values, then you have a very good handle on your character’s motivations. If your character has multiple values that conflict, then you also have an unpredictable character. Actions are dictated by values. When your values are in conflict, it’s anybody’s guess how you’ll act.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Some Special Problems in Writing First Person

Gracie posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I LOVED LOVED LOVED your precis of Downton Abbey (in your newsletter) and why it rocks. Having everyone with secrets and goals certainly keeps things hopping.

My question is: If I’m writing first person POV how do I convey the goals and dreams of my other characters in a way that makes the story as exciting as (if not more exciting than!) a multiple third person POV story.

Randy sez: Gracie is referring to the article WHY DOWNTON ABBEY ROCKS in the March, 2012 issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine.

When you’re writing in first person point of view, you can’t get inside the heads of any other characters. So how do you let your reader know their hopes and dreams and goals?

That’s a good question. Remember that in the movies and on TV, we see all the characters from “outside.” It’s very rare to do a voiceover that lets the viewer in on the thoughts of the focus character.

The answer is by looking at their actions and listening to their dialogue.

In Downton Abbey, one of the young housemaids, Gwen, wants to quit service and work as a secretary. This is extremely important to her. But we never get to hear the thoughts inside her head about this.

Here’s how the makers of Downton Abbey showed us this dream of Gwen’s:

First, we see her in the post office sending off a letter. We don’t know what’s in the letter, but she acts secretive about it when she runs into Mr. Bates. So we know this is important to her but it’s also something she can’t share with anyone.

Later, Gwen returns to her room, which she shares with another maid, Anna. Anna is rummaging around in Gwen’s things, and Gwen gets angry and asks what she’s doing. Anna asks what’s in that big case, and she won’t quit asking until Gwen admits that she’s taking a correspondence course in typing and shorthand because she wants to become a secretary.

There, the secret’s out. But we still don’t know why. That comes later, in a scene where Miss O’Brien has found Gwen’s typewriter and brought it down to the servant’s dining room for inspection by the butler, Mr. Carson. Gwen bursts in on them and demands to know why they’re violating her privacy. Carson insists on knowing why she has a typewriter in her room.

Gwen then explains more fully her dream and why she wants to leave service. She has nothing against being a servant. There’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s not what she wants to do. She wants to be a secretary, and that’s that.

Eventually, word gets back to the Crawley family. Some of them are appalled at the idea of a servant leaving service. Others think she has a perfect right. The youngest daughter, Sybil, is a huge fan of women’s rights, and she argues that Gwen should be allowed to do what she wants.

Then Sybil goes the extra mile. She finds Gwen and tells her that she’ll give her a reference which is suitably vague on her work experience, so it won’t be obvious that she’s just a housemaid. For several episodes, Sybil actively looks for job opportunities for Gwen, makes her send in applications, and goes with her to interviews.

That’s how you show a character’s hopes and dreams when you can’t go inside their head. You use actions and dialogue. You use conflict to force the character to explain her motives in dialogue.

Notice that when Sybil comes into the picture to help Gwen achieve her dream, we learn more about Sybil’s own dreams of a world where women have the right to vote and work and do whatever they want.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Chapters, Scenes, and Fiction Writing

What’s the best way to write each individual chapter of your novel? Or … is that the wrong question?

Dusty posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I planned out every chapter of my novel but I can’t seem to make the magic happen.
I can’t seem to write the individual chapters.
What’s the best way to write chapters?

Randy sez: Planning is good, if you’re the kind of writer who needs planning. I would guess that half of all writers make a plan before they write, either by creating a synopsis or by using the Snowflake method or something similar. The other half just write.

I’m going to rephrase Dusty’s question, because the fundamental unit of fiction is NOT the chapter, it’s the scene. Chapters are not related to story structure. A chapter typically contains one or more scenes.

The scene is the important thing in writing fiction. Each scene needs to be its own story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When your reader finishes each scene, she should feel a sense of completion.

Dusty, it’s a little unclear what’s holding you back. I can think of two possible reasons, each with its own solution:

  1. It’s possible that you don’t understand scene structure. If that’s the case, then the easy fix is to learn what makes a scene work. Once you know the three essential elements each scene MUST have, it’s not hard to plan those out and then write the scene. Let me refer you to my article Writing the Perfect Scene, which explains in detail how to write a scene.
  2. It’s also possible that you’re overthinking things. Some people get so knotted up with anxiety that their first draft won’t be exactly right, they’re afraid to type a single word. If that’s the case for you, Dusty, then the easy fix is to take off your Editor’s hat and put on your Creator’s hat. When you wear the Creator’s hat, you get to be sloppy. Just type. Don’t edit. Slam out the words. You can always fix it later. In fact, you will fix it later when you take off the Creator’s hat and put on the Editor’s hat. It’s a lethal mistake to wear both hats at the same time. This is like driving your car pressing both the gas and the brake. Don’t do it!

Of course, there may be some other reason you’re having problems getting your scenes written, Dusty. I don’t have enough information, so I’ve given you a couple of guesses based on my experience in talking to thousands of writers over the years.

What do you think, Loyal Blog Readers? Is there something I may have missed? What might be holding Dusty back? What is a possible solution? Leave a comment here and we’ll see that our combined wisdom is better than just mine alone.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.