This time of year is contest judging time. Many contests for unpublished writers come out in the fall, and Iâ€™ve been reading and judging lots of contest entries. Iâ€™ve noticed some particular problems that have to do with the connective tissue of a story. So, I thought Iâ€™d take a moment to talk about connections as they have to do with telling a good story.
We all know about creating nice, complex characters. We all try for an engaging plot line that pulls our reader through a story. But itâ€™s good to understand that those issues come together at the nexus of character motivation.
Motivation is what engages your character with the incidents of the plot and moves your story along. If you are writing a book about the discovery of a cure for vampirism (just as a random example, since thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m doing right now), how might your various vampire characters feel about that? Does everybody think itâ€™s a good idea? If not, why not? And what would they do about it? Voila! Motivation drives the action. Your characters can change what they want. They can want more than one thing at once, though not all things in the same degree. But you have to make what the characters want very clear to the reader at all times, and not let the motivation â€œdrift.â€ Drifting just confuses a reader. They lose interest.
So how can you keep your characterâ€™s motivation from drifting? When Iâ€™m beginning a tale, I start with a statement: â€œAll character X wants isâ€¦..â€ and I try filling in the blank. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz wants to go home again. Neo wants to know what The Matrix is. When you do this for your hero and heroine, itâ€™s always nice if they want something wildly conflicting. In The Companion, all Beth wants to do is get back to the life she knows in North Africa and avoid England. All Ian wants to do is get back to the life he knows in England and avoid North Africa. Thatâ€™s what drives the story, and what I had to keep in mind every time they reacted to something that happened, or when they talked together. Their motivations change during the story, but it required showing that change very clearly, and why they change as well.
Thatâ€™s okay for the big arc of the story, of course, but these connective motivations occur in each scene as well. Every character comes into a scene carrying an invisible suitcase. That baggage includes who they are, what they believe, what they want to happen in this scene and what just happened to them in the last scene. I see many contest entries where the writer seems to lose the thread of what is in the characterâ€™s suitcase. What happens in that case is that the scene lacks direction, or the characterâ€™s motivation doesnâ€™t seem real. The dialogue feels â€œoff.â€ Weâ€™ve all read stories (published and unpublished!) where this happens. The heroineâ€™s father has just died and she seems to forget that. Or someone goes into an explanatory discourse in the middle of imminent danger. So take a moment to ask yourself before writing a scene, not â€œWhat has to happen in this scene?â€, but â€œWhat does the character want to happen right now?â€ â€œWhy?â€ â€œHow will they feel about what just happened to them in the last scene?â€ Do this for all the characters, even the minor ones, in your scene. Then write with that in mind. It will help your scene â€œring trueâ€ both in dialogue and action. By the way, what happened in your scene now gets loaded into the characterâ€™s baggage!
When you keep the larger motivational arc in mind, and you pull those characters and their suitcases through each scene, asking what they want and whatâ€™s going on in their mind, you are connecting the tissues of your story, and connecting to your reader as well.