How We Write Wednesdays: Mining for Motivation

What does it take to go beyond the basic description of a character’s goal, motivation and conflict and make their deepest desires and fears come to life on the page? Brainstorming and critiquing with someone who knows your writing and is willing to put time into helping you dig down to the heart of your story is a highly recommended approach. And since Jenni and I are talking all things critiquing and brainstorming on How We Write Wednesdays, let’s take a closer look at how we’ve done that a time or two (BTW, check out the list of upcoming topics at the end of this post for the skinny on what we’ll be talking about next).

In each of our HoWW posts, we’ll start with the simple, then dig a little deeper–which, you’ll soon notice, is Jenni’s and my overall paradigm for growing your craft and asking other hard-working writers for their take on your work. You can always dig just a little deeper.

Pretty much anyone can understand the basic terms and techniques that fiction writers work with. There are countless experts to remind you what motivation is. There are great books to read. You can even take a class or two. But until you try to weave the concept of motivation into your characters and their stories, you can’t really understand how complicated and convoluted it can become, moving a character through a range of actions and emotions and the challenges of a tightly plotted story. Turns out…this writing thing isn’t so simple after all.


So, basic motivation is the following: I teach in my Plotting Through Character workshops that in each scene, chapter, act of a novel, a character must have a defined motive that drives her to achieve a certain goal, and there must be tangible, on-page, escalating conflict that prevents her from achieving the ever-evolving series of goals that takes the reader on a journey and dumps everyone into a final, climatic, breathless confrontation where “all hope is lost” just before the resolution of the story.

Sounds pretty simple, right? I mean we all want something, and putting stumbling blocks in a character’s way is easy enough. Why not just write one scene and see where it goes and build motivation and conflict from there?

Let’s dig a little deeper, using a critique experience Jenni and I shared, which she so HILARIOUSLY alluded to in her post last Wednesday. Here’s how we passed the better part of an hour, after I’d read a pretty big chunk of her work-in-progress that she thought was darn close to being in tip-top shape, only there might be something minor amiss with her heroine…

“The writing’s great, and the action, and the banter between the characters,” I say, “and I love your heroine’s dark past and gritty attitude. But what I don’t know while I’m reading these chapters is what she really wants. I mean, she’s doing a lot, and everyone’s reacting to all this great stuff, but–”

“Well, she’s in danger and hates needing to depend on anyone for help,” Jenni says.

“Right. That’s why she’s so cranky with the hero.”

“She’s a bitch with the hero.”

“Right. Great characterization. But why? What does she want that’s driving her to keep putting herself in danger and rejecting everyone’s help?”

“She’s not going to give up. She’s going to keep fighting.”

“That’s plot, Jenn. What does she want?”

“I told you, she’s still messed up about her (insert details about her past here). So she pushes everyone away.”

“Yeah, but that’s backstory. What does she want now? What’s motivating her now. What’s her goal?”

By  now, Jenni’s gritting her teeth at me. I could be a smile. But it’s not. I think she’s channeling her heroine.

“She wants them all out of her way,” she says, ”so she can figure out what’s going on herself.”

“But that makes no sense.” It’s possible I’m not exactly smiling anymore, either, because this meandering conversation has been going on for a while already, and we’re not making any progress. Which is my fault as much as my critique partners. This is good stuff, but it’s not working, and my job is to help my buddy discover what she’s missing. “Your heroine clearly can’t figure it out herself. Scene after scene, she can’t figure it out for herself. So what’s motivating her, in the here and now, to push away the help she needs to get her where she thinks she needs to go? Why is she standing in her own way? Does she really want something else, besides the obvious goal she thinks will make everything better.”

Jenni sighs. She grips her keyboard. Looks tempted to bash me upside the head with it. But she doesn’t. Because HER goal is to get this manuscript right and get it sold, and she knows there’s something off, and she’s asked me to dig into her beautiful work and help her rip it apart until it’s right. She just didn’t think “right” was going to feel this yucky. So she sighs again, then she blinks, and I can almost see light begin to sparkle again in her eyes. She smiles.

“Wait a minute,” she says. “You’re saying the motivation for her bitchiness doesn’t make any sense, that I have to give her another reason for it. But you’re NOT saying that I have to change the way she’s acting.”

“Of course I’m not. I like the way you’ve written her.” I smile back, because it really is good stuff. “It just doesn’t make any sense. Yet. Something else has to be going on to make it worth it for her to torpedo her overall goal. Something that will motivate her short-term behavior, become an obstacle she has to overcome to move forward, and ultimately get her going in a different direction later so she can achieve what she really wants.”

Jenni’s grip loosens on her keyboard–I’m relieved that we haven’t come to blows after all ;o) Then she’s typing. And smiling some more. Because she has a new idea. An idea that we happily brainstorm for another hour, making her story stronger and tighter and her heroine even more believable than before…

So, back to my original point. Tuns out, it’s not so simple, making character motivation (and goals) clear once you’re in the thick of a novel. Even for someone like Jenni who’s finished and published several novels. The rules aren’t enough at this point, because it’s how you apply the basics that make all the difference. What you need once you’re buried in a story is help seeing what you’re doing and what, if anything, isn’t working for the reader. For the characters. And THAT’s where it pays off to critique and brainstorm and work with other hard-working writers who’ve been exactly where you are and found their way out.

Really, we’ve just scratched the surface of motivation, but here’s what we have so far, from the trenches of digging deeper into Jenni’s story:

  • Motivation isn’t plot.
  • It isn’t backstory.
  • It isn’t a character’s static determination to do one thing, one way, throughout the entire book.
  • A character’s motives can (and should) be based on escalating, even conflicting goals, and can (and should) shift as her goals do.
  • A character’s motive can (and should) actually feed the conflict that requires new motivation and goals to be adopted–propelling the plot forward.
  • The kind of story layering we’re talking about doesn’t always (ever?) happen organically while you write the first draft of your book, even when you understand the basics of how to write your characters and their scenes. It takes a lot of rewriting, and often a fresh perspective when you can no longer see the details of what you’re doing. Enter your critique partner. 

I mean, really, who doesn’t need someone else’s take on how well she’s pulling all of the things in the above list (and more) together? I know Jenni and other writing buddies have saved my bacon many times, asking annoying questions like I threw at Jenni, over and over until I could finally understand what I’d been missing all along.

Like I said, Jenni and I will talk more about motivation. As much as you like, if this post turns out to be helpful. And we have other topics we want to be sure to cover while we’re delving deeper into the beautiful thing that a good critique and brainstorming partner can become for your writing.

Here’s some of the other things we have in mind for HoWW Wednesdays. Things we’ve worked with other writers on, in the trenches of our own books–stories that wouldn’t have been nearly as good without another writer’s help.

  • character arc
  • plotting/sub-plotting
  • theme/symbol
  • setting
  • relationship arc
  • backstory/motivation
  • conflict (internal/external)
  • pacing/story flow

Let us know what you think, and ask any questions you have in the comments. Then come back next Wednesday, when Jenni takes the reins again and digs a little deeper over on her blog  ;o)

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22 Responses to “How We Write Wednesdays: Mining for Motivation”

  1. Gripping the keyboard? I think perhaps that is putting it mildly. One must remember that Anna has a very unique ability to remain sunshine and roses while I’m on the other end going “I’m telling you want she wants!”

    Thanks Anna. You knew I wanted to get to the deeper layer, even if I didn’t really understand at the time what was wrong with the manuscript and where I had jumped the track. You pushed and prodded and asked the tough questions. Having been the one to ask the questions before, I know it can be hard to sit on the other side of the conversation.

  2. Albert Berg says:

    Reading this post made me realize how badly I need a critique partner. That conversation was a revelation. Too bad I don’t really know any writers in my area.

    • Anna says:

      Guess what, Albert. While the conversation in the post happened face-to-face because we were speaking at a conference together, Jenni and I don’t live anywhere near each other. Most of the work we do together happens over the Internet. It’s amazing how easy it is these days to network with other authors through social media, and to send chapters back and forth over email. We use tracks changes and Word’s “revision” toolbar to mark up manuscripts so we can discuss key pieces long distance (and when we need to “talk,” we have our free-long-distance-minutes cell phones). It’s pretty much how I work with all the others I critique now. And it’s how I’ve worked with my editors on the two paranormal/fantasy novels I’ve written. Times, they are a changin’.

    • I do wish Anna and I lived closer together, but more for friendship reasons than brainstorming sessions. The internet is a wonderful thing. Email is great. Sometimes I need to write my thoughts down because I’m a writer. After this conversation, I had to take all the stuff we dug up and layer into the manuscript (still doing that) and when I’m unsure I can shoot an email and say hey, does this make sense and Anna doesn’t have to worry that I might shove her off the corner of the bed….

  3. Liz Arnold says:

    Hey, where’s the ‘print’ button? I really need to hard file this one. Great stuff.
    Message to Love
    The Wild Rose Press

    • Anna says:

      LOL, Liz! I’m glad it’s working for you. Jenn and I will have to talk about maybe putting the HoWW posts into PDFs or something down the road, if they keep working for folks ;o) Until then, the blog posts will always be up, and we both have How We Write categories on our individual blogs that make the series easier to access.

  4. Judy Nickles says:

    Sometimes I have a lot of trouble with motivation on this deeper level. I’ll be following your Wednesday series with interest.

    • Anna says:

      Next week, Jenn’s going to talk more about the brainstorming we did after the conversation above, that helped flesh out her heroine’s motivation and how Jenn would arc it throughout the book. So come back next Wednesday and check it out!

      Glad you’re diggign the series ;o)

  5. K.B. Owen says:

    Great post! It would be wonderful to have a writing buddy – writing is a bit isolating, and it’s easy to get lost in the thick of it, as you say. I wonder, though, about conveying motivation, if the character’s actions are going to stay the same. Would it be other characters speculating about motives? Narrative explication? Give her (the main character) a few Freudian slips of the tongue? (I know, you Romance gals will probably giggle over that one ;D).


    • Anna says:

      Great questions, K.B. Motivation is definitely something you want to show, not tell, in commercial fiction. The challenge of layering in changing emotion is, in my opinion, to put the central character in conflict with her world or secondary characters that force her to face/reveal what she’s going for, challenge her decision, and drive her to change so she’s ready to face the next thing/person you throw in her path.

      Of course you can use a bit of internal voice to move things along, but it’s always better to reveal character and motive and goal through action and reaction within a scene, rather than internal reflection.

      I know that’s a simplistic response to a complicated question. Like I said, Jenn and I will circle back to motivation and other topics down the line. I suspect, if folks stay interested, I’ll be talking revision soon. Because rewriting (and the techniques I teach for it) is a great process to work on with a critique group!

  6. Anne Cameron says:

    Tis is a wonderful article!

  7. Anna, this was very helpful indeed. And I find when there is that little something missing in an otherwise perfectly fine scene, the motivation is usually the answer. Getting that answer is not always a simple thing.

  8. Thanks for this enlightening post. It’s especially valuable for me to have emphasised that it’s not all going to work out in the first draft (I so want it to!).

    • Anna says:

      We all do, Leigh. We all do. But I must confess, and I talk about this in all my workshops, I’m a draft writer. Every book goes through countless rounds of revisions before my editor (or even critique partners) ever see it. In fact, I give a workshop that I’ve used for a half-day seminar, teaching my technique for deconstructing and rewriting scenes and characters and plot and setting, etc…

      In my opinion, the most creative work we do as writers happens when we’ve finished that first draft and go back to rework it!

      • Anna and I don’t agree on everything, but I too think the most creative part is the reworking the draft. The draft I’m fumbling around, not sure about things. The rewriting is where I get to have Anna come mine me….

        Anna — I love your drafts!

  9. Rachel Lynne says:

    As I said to Donald Maas after his workshop at RWA Orlando, “Great. Now I’ve got to go back and rewrite … Again!”
    Thanks ladies, I’m back to the drawing board and thinking very hard about what my poor, put upon heroine wants; so I can make sure she doesn’t get it! Ever noticed the sadistic streak running through authors? :)

  10. Janet G says:

    This has been very helpful. I usually write nonfiction (and yes, there is a lot of rewriting also), but I have a fictional storyline draft I’m working on. It’s still very raw, just basic plotlines. There’s a lot of work in front of me.

  11. Mary Preston says:

    I do like my characters & indeed the plot to be well rounded.

  12. Another awesome blog to follow? Wow. Added three to my favorites in a week! Thanks for some great and much-needed guidance in an area I’d rather dabble away from sometimes, thank you very much :)

    Good luck in this venture and looking forward to next week!

    Joanna Aislinn
    Dream. Believe. Strive. Achieve!
    The Wild Rose Press

  13. Rima Gokani says:

    Loved this post – so true that characters need motivation. Definitely adding to my collection of info.


  14. Another great post! I seriously can’t wait to take your classes at the DFW Conference next month. Thanks so much for sharing

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