November 5, 2009 / 3 Comments

What’s My Motivation?

The answer to that question, according to Hitchcock, is your paycheck. He was talking about actors, but there’s a bit of truth in there for writers, too.

So, a while back a friend of mine asked me to look at a script he’d been working on. It was pretty darn solid, overall, but right in the beginning I noticed something that struck me as a bit odd. Our hero’s renovating a large home and has been told one area of the estate is off limits. Don’t go through that door. Well, as tends to happen in movies… guess what?

It was how it happened that got my attention, though, and not in a good way. Just a few pages later said character is slamming his shoulder against the door three or four times until it pops open and he can explore a bit. Which was odd, because up until now this guy had seemed like a straight-shooting model citizen. Now suddenly he’s breaking and entering just to satisfy a mild sense of curiosity.

Here’s another example (not from my friend’s script). Let’s say Bob is hanging out with a female friend, they decide to go out, and she heads off to her room to get changed. It says one thing about Bob if, when he heads to the bathroom, he happens to catch a glimpse of his friend naked through the door and has a momentary “Wow.” It says another thing if, as soon as she walks off, he casually finds the angle that lets him stare into her room. It’s a third thing altogether if he pulls out his cell phone to use the camera and take pictures. On the surface, the same thing is happening–Bob is seeing his friend with no clothes–but these are three very different scenes because of his intentions in each one (innocent, lecherous, and kinda creepy).

Y’see, Timmy, motivation is one of the keys to storytelling, because it’s one of the keys to great characters. It’s why everything happens, and why someone’s doing something affects how they do it. People can be motivated by greed, survival, anger, hatred, fear, duty, love, lust, zealotry– any number of things. Everything a character does has to come from some type of motivation. Everything. Unmotivated characters will just sit on the couch for 300 or so pages, and nobody’s interested in that. We all know people like that in real life. Why read about it? More to the point of this week’s little rant, it’s the writer’s job to make sure motivations make sense and are consistent for both the characters and their world. When they aren’t, that starts chipping away at suspension of disbelief.

Now, hands down, the biggest and most common problem is when the writer confuses their motivation with the character’s. The big battle can’t happen if Wakko doesn’t do this, so he does this. I need Yakko to say something so we can get to chapter seven, so Yakko says it. Granted, this is how all writing happens, but if you’ve already established that Wakko would have a strong aversion to doing that and Yakko would never say this, the reader’s going to wonder where these choices are coming from. Just because the writer has ultimate power over the characters does not automatically mean anything that gets written is “right” for the characters. Even when you’re behind the wheel, you have to drive certain ways in certain places. If you doubt this, try shifting into reverse next time you’re on the freeway.

Probably the most common place for this kind of motivational mistake is dialogue. The writer comes up with a funny or cool line and needs a character to say it. Any character. Someone has to say this cool line! Suddenly Father Mike is cracking sex jokes and Sister Hannah is cursing like a sailor. Still great lines, but would these people really use them? The need for explanation can also lead to unmotivated dialogue and make monosyllabic characters start lecturing like college professors. This is a two-fold problem, because not only does it weaken the suspension of disbelief, as mentioned above, it also breaks the flow of the story.

Motivation also becomes a problem when the writer is trying to hit certain benchmarks or requirements with their work. Gurus exhort people to hit this point by page nine, have this action by chapter ten, or make sure this happens X number of times before Y. Fledgling writers follow these rules as a rigid gospel, make their stories and characters twist unnaturally to meet them, and often the result is just a bunch of false drama. In Hollywood, where they refer to elaborate stunt or effects sequences as set pieces, it’s not unusual for producers to hand the screenwriter a laundry list of set pieces to fit into their script– or to write the script around. Robert Towne’s script for Mission Impossible II is, alas, an example of just such a thing. Throughout it, stuff just happens. No reason for it, it just happens because the director, producers, and star wanted it in the script. Don’t even get me started on Wanted.

In all fairness, some times those requirements are self-imposed. Like that cool line of dialogue I mentioned above, the writer comes up with something they just can’t let go of. Maybe it’s a certain action sequence, a clever homage, or some odd wish-fulfillment being expressed on the page. Regardless, it usually ends up with some unmotivated decisions, violence, or romantic encounters.

Another common mistake, on the flipside, is to give the motivations for every single thing that happens, including characters or actions that… well, that just aren’t all that important. Odds are I don’t need to know that the woman at the bus stop ran away from home at age thirteen or that the long-haired waiter doubles as a male stripper to pay for med school. As I’ve mentioned before, if it doesn’t have a direct effect on the story being told, don’t waste time with it. It may feel luxurious and literary, but more likely it’s clumsy and confusing.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying these characters and actions shouldn’t have a motivation. Everything in your story needs a motivation, but the reader doesn’t need to know it all. They just need to see the consistent results of it. At no point in Casablanca is it ever brought up or discussed why Rick suddenly decides to be generous to the young couple trying to win money for an exit visa. People comment that he did it and it’s very out of character, but why he did it is never mentioned. Does it need to be? No, of course not. Anyone paying attention to the film can explain why Rick has this sudden turn of heart.

Now, there is another school of though in writing that unmotivated action is the best. Life is random after all. Much as we don’t like to think about it, people often suffer setbacks that have no deliberate machinations behind them. They get dealthly ill. They’re involved in fatal car accidents. In the real world, stories don’t always get happy endings and neither do people. Things get left unresolved and mysteries go unexplained. So doing this in your work can only make your writing more realistic and believable, yes?


I’m calling shenanigans on this one, and on every professor, critic, indie filmmaker, and self-proclaimed guru who pushes this viewpoint. If you take this approach in your writing it isn’t artistic– its lazy. Things like that happen in the real world, but we’re talking about fiction. Nothing on the page is coming from the randomness of the universe, it’s all coming directly out of the writer’s mind. It’s a created world, and as the writer it’s your job to resolve the issues you’ve created. To have readers invest their time and emotions in a character which the writer then kills off just for the heck of it is cheap. When doing so leaves conflicts unresolved, it’s a cop-out. It’s the kind of pretentious excuse made by people who don’t actually want to put any real effort into their work.

Nobody here wants to be that kind of writer, right?


Next week, before we get further into the sparkly holiday season, I want to talk about some stuff that really sucks. No, seriously.

Until then, hopefully this has motivated you to go write.

0 replies on “What’s My Motivation?”

Amen, brother.

I want to add another angle to the question of random events in stories. At some minor level it may be Okay. Sort of like having your characters deal with the weather, but if you build something only to break it in a way that doesn't advance the story, it's just another tangent.

Sure, the random death of the hero's buddy might be a terrible blow, but if the bad guy wasn't responsible it doesn't figure in the ultimate outcome of the story to, as you suggest, a degree commensurate with the previous investment in that character.

So the hero wakes up with a headache. Or he learns that his cousin died in an auto accident. He more or less copes. That's all the useful realism to be had from random events in a story. We don't need to know about the cousin. All we want to see is the hero's response. (And he better get over it fast enough to survive, or we don't have a story).

Precisely, Frank! I'm all for random headaches, news about second cousins, and the like. That is the oddness that helps establish a writer's particular world. But to just interrupt your story for no reason and claim it's "artistically valid"… that's just not cricket.

I critiqued a book for a friend a while back, and it had a similar out-of-nowhere conclusion. I told him it was a bit like having Doctor Who show up in the last twenty pages of To Kill A Mockingbird to fight the alien android who’s replaced Boo Radley…


Another important thing to add to the misguided opinion that making things happen randomly without reason makes better stories because it is closer to reality, doing so amounts to willfully and blatantly ignoring the reasons why stories exist in the first place. -The reason why stories have existed in every culture since the beginning of time no matter how primitive. A story's #1 social function is to give the ILLUSION of order and meaning to the world we live in.
Yes, the universe is chaotic. Yes things can seem to happen randomly without reason or meaning. This is reality. But deep inside every human heart is the desperate cloying need for the illusion that the universe does have order and meaning. This is why every culture in history has invention religion. This why educated minds feel the need to pursue science. They have the desperate need to feel that there is some sort of order in the universe. There are rules and everything happens for a reason. If we were confronted with the empty meaningless of life on a daily basis we would either end up killing ourselves or all go stark raving mad.

Stories exist because they fill this void and give the illusion of an ordered universe. We love stories on such a deep down subconscious level because they fulfill a psychological need. They give you a world where everything is connected, things happen for good reasons, problems are overcome, and things are resolved in the end.

Any of those "art films" -I'm especially referencing anything late Godard, just always leave a person feeling cold and pissed off. Meanwhile Little Red Riding Hood makes you feel good every time.

Read your Camus.

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