Monday, November 21

Why Am I Doing This Again? Plotting Through “What’s Next?” Part Two

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Last week we talked about how to figure out where to go when you weren’t sure what happened next in your story. Today, let’s talk about plots where you’re not sure why your characters are doing what they’re doing.

If a lack of goals isn’t your problem, try looking at the motivations for those goals. Sometimes you know what you want to have happen in a plot, but the characters have no reason to do it, so you can’t figure out how to move forward. If you’re scratching you head as to the why, try asking yourself:

What does my protagonist personally gain from doing this?
They probably gain something plot wise, but it’s that personal connection that gives a motivation real drive. What’s in it for them? If you can’t name anything, think about things you can tweak so what you need them to do is something they personally need or want.

What will happen to my protagonist if they don’t do this?
If your hero can leave town and all their problems are solved, there’s really no reason for them to act at all. Consequences force movement, so taking a closer look at your stakes is a good way to double check your motivations. Is there a consequence if your protagonist doesn’t (or does) do what they need to do? Will their actions affect things?

Does my protagonist care if this happens?
Surface reasons sound like good motivators until you look deeper and realize the consequence isn’t a big deal or doesn’t really affect your protagonist on a personally level. How will failure personally affect your protagonist? How will success? How will it affect those around them? Plotting relies on action and reaction, so if your protag’s action don’t trigger a response somewhere, you’ll find yourself stuck again one scene later.

Do I care what happens?
If the author knows how the situation is going to turn out and writes it as if the outcome is a given, then odds are the protagonist is going to feel like they’re just going through the motions. Because they are. If you catch yourself “trying to get through the scene so you can get to the good stuff” step back and rethink the scene. It might be a transition scene, or filler you feel you have to have. Try looking at ways to make that scene do something to advance the story, not just mechanically fit the plot. Make sure you care how it turns out.

Are there any unconscious motivators at work?
These can be challenging, because how do you know what drives you if you don’t know it’s doing it? But you can have a character act without knowing the real reason why. Look at the symptoms in these cases. Someone afraid of intimacy might pull away when they start getting close. They don’t know it’s due to that fear, all they know is that they suddenly feel the need to escape or distance themselves. How does that unconscious need affect your protagonist?

How can I make this matter to my protagonist?
Sometimes it’s just a matter of figuring out why the necessary plot point is important. Think outside the story here, and don’t let your outline or ideas stymie you. Try looking at your protag’s backstory, their interior conflicts or goals. The past can be a strong motivator.

No matter what’s happening in a scene, something is motivating the protagonist to act. Find the reason why and it’ll be easier to move forward to the next problem.

Do you know why your characters act before you write a scene or do you figure it out afterward? Do you force them to act or do they demand to act all on their own?


  1. Thank you for this information. I ama widley published creative non-fiction writer. I have tried to write fiction, only to hit a wall midway. I have some strong pieces in a folder but they fizzled. I will apply your tips and techniques.

  2. My characters act all on their own. I think that's the part I enjoy most about writing - I don't know what's going to happen, either!

    That said, I give them a very specific framework in which to act. I set up the major plot points, I do a complete character study for each character, and I'm very clear on each character's motivations, both in the scene itself and in the "big picture".

    Then I can just drop them into a situation and see what they do. Usually they do exactly what I expect, but sometimes they surprise me (and inconvenience me) with their reactions. But their reactions are usually more true to their character than what I had planned, so I've never had to force them to act differently.

  3. I always find my characters doing their own thing. I just try and keep up with what they want to do so I can have an idea where the story's going.

  4. Even though this article seems very familiar, I like the "Are there any unconscious motivators at work?" question. It seems like an interesting way to insert subtext, if the narrator doesn't exactly know why he/she's doing something, but the readers know.

  5. Another thought-provoking and wonderful post, as usual. Thank you. I love the way your posts can really help me zone in on my writing ailments!

  6. Linda, hope they help :) Non-fiction has always been hard for me, so I can imagine how tough it might be to shift gears for fiction. Good luck!

    Diane, you just described my process, too :)

    Imogen, love that! "Try and keep up." So true sometimes.

    CO, there are a lot of similar things in here to my recent "getting stuck" post. Same basic ideas apply. :)

    Lindz, Thanks! I aim to help.

  7. "Do I care what happens?" Sometimes I get stuck with characters just going through the motions, like you said. Sometimes I recognize this when I'm reading books as well...which makes it so much more fun when the character just up and does something completely unexpected. :)