Okay, I don’t have a ton of time this week because I’m trying to get a draft done. Had a great time at WonderCon last weekend (thank you all for coming out), but I probably did a lot more prep than I needed to and lost some time. So this one’s on me.
I’ve been trying to read a lot more this year. Combined with my usual Saturday geekery movies, it means I’ve been digesting a lot of stories. And I’ve noticed a bit of a recurring problem.
In a lot of stories, we’ll see characters do cool things or have bit s of mysterious dialogue… but it’s kinda hollow. There’s nothing behind them. No inspiration or motive or…anything. It’s just action for the sake of action. Being cool or mysterious with no motivation except to try to be a little bit cool or mysterious. The story progresses and we never find out why these things happened.
I mean, I can guess why they happened. The writer or storyteller saw this moment in another story and tried to transplant it. But they only transported the moment itself—not all the other elements in the story that support it.
If I’ve got a completed story—mine or someone else’s—here are three questions I should ask myself.
What is my character trying to do?
Why are they doing it?
How are they trying to do it?
I should be able to give an answer for all three of these, for any character in my story. And I can ask these questions at any time. Right at the start. Top of the second act. Just as we roll into the third act. At any point in the story, it should be clear to me (the writer) what the character wants to achieve, why they’re doing this, and what they’re doing to accomplish that goal.
And I may not always get the same answer. What Dot is trying to do in the first 50 pages of my vampire kaiju novel may not be what she’s trying to do in the last 50 pages. In fact, it probably won’t be. It’s extremely common for goals to shift during the course of a story as my character learns new things.
But there should always be an answer to these questions. There needs to be. If I can’t come up with an answer, it means my character is doing something unmotivated at best. At the worst, they’re not doing anything.
Not only that, once someone’s gone through the whole story as a reader, they should be able to see the evidence of the answers in the story. Once I know that Wakko’s trying to hide the fact that he murdered his brother, his actions in previous scenes should line up with this. Even if I didn’t understand his motives for doing something then, they should be very clear the second time through.
Even before that, though, there should be some sense of why my character is acting this way or that. Most readers aren’t going to sit through 200 pages of “just trust me.” We need to have some sense of what the answers to those questions might be, even if it later turns out we completely misinterpreted them.
Y’see, Timmy, there’s another way to think of these three questions. They’re my plot. If my character has no reason for doing the things they do, or doesn’t do anything… maybe my story doesn’t have a plot.
Flip through your story. Ask those three questions. And hopefully… you’ll have the answers.
Next time… it’s that time again. Yeah, ewe know what I’m talking abut….
Until then… go write.