A quick heads up--my first post is up over at Pub(lishing) Crawl, where I'm talking about what to do when writing is no longer fun. Come on over and say hello when you're done here.
The sheer number of plotting questions I get both here and in person is a good indicator that plotting is something a lot of writers struggle with. It's not a craft issue really, because you can write some beautiful prose and still have trouble creating a good plot.
I've had many a brainstorming session with many a stuck or struggling writer, and over the years I've noticed a few questions keep coming up.
What does the protagonist hope to gain?
Why is the protagonist doing it?
Basically, what's the character's goal and what's the motivation for trying to achieve that goal.
More times than not I get blank stares when I ask these questions. Then the writer answers with a general reason, like the character has to stop at the store because that's where he gets kidnapped. But this isn't why the character is stopping at the store, it's just what has to happen for the plot.
I keep pushing until the writer can tell me what and why, or until they smack me in the head (just kidding, though a lot of them probably want to).
Characters need to want things for plausible reasons to create a good plot. If all they're doing is acting out the steps from inciting event to climax, there's a good chance the novel will feel meh. Lifeless, soulless, not very compelling even if the plot itself is technically a solid plot.
(More on making readers care here)
Pick a scene from your current novel and ask:
1. What does the protagonist hope to gain? What's the goal?
Even if the protagonist is tied to a chair, dangling helplessly over a pit of poisonous snakes, there's a goal. Not being able to do anything is different from not wanting to do anything. "Escape a horrible death" is a goal, because the protagonist hopes to gain her life. "Talk the killer into letting me go" is also a goal because the protagonist hopes to gain her freedom.
Even not doing something can be a goal in the right circumstances. "Stay quiet so the killer doesn't hear me" is a goal, because the hope is to escape detection and not get caught.
However, "Not wanting to die" is not a goal, because that basically describes the normal state of human existence. It might be what's motivating the protagonist to act, but in and of itself, it's not something to be gained.
This is what I think trips up a lot of struggling writers. They confuse the protagonist's motivations with the goal, so there's nothing for the protagonist to do to move the plot forward. On the surface, it looks like there's a goal, but it's not actually helping the scene.
(More on creating character goals here)
2. Why is the protagonist doing it? What's the motivation?
The protagonist is going to have a reason for doing whatever she's doing or wanting whatever she hopes to gain. Sometimes that reason is obvious--like she doesn't want to die--but most times it's more subtle. Maybe the protagonist wants her crush to notice her so she wears a skimpy outfit to a party, or another protagonist might stay late at the office because he wants a promotion so he's able to take his kids to Disney World and prove to his ex-wife he's not a dead-beat and a bad father.
Let's take a closer look at those examples, though.
Say you've written a scene about a man working late to get a promotion. This is critical to the plot, because he has to be at the office late at night to witness a crime and get sucked into it, eventually stopping the crime and saving the day. On the surface this scene should work, right? His goal is clear--he wants to get a promotion, and he'll act in ways to achieve that goal, which puts him directly in the path of the trouble and move the plot forward.
Now ask why he wants that promotion. What's his motivation?
Um, because he wants more money?
Not a terrible motivation, but it's a little impersonal and generic. It also sets him up as a greedy dude who might be bought off by the criminals. If so, then anything he does to stop them will feel contrived. Why would this guy stick his neck out? Why not just hide under the desk until the criminals leave?
How about, he wants to take his kids to Disney World.
Better, as it's personal and specific, but is this really going to motivate him to do what the plot needs him to do? Yes, it puts him in the right place at the right time, but nothing more. So again, it risks feeling a little contrived. The motivation for being there is only about working late, not anything remotely related to the actual plot of the novel.
Now let's look at the last part of the example: to prove to his ex-wife he's not a dead-beat and a bad father.
Now we have a guy with something to prove. This motivates him to work late, and take a risk with the criminals, because it's an opportunity to do more than his original goal. What if he stops these men? Saves the day? He'll be a hero to his kids, his company, maybe even get some approval from his ex-wife. He can accomplish the immediate goal (get the promotion) and the larger goal (prove he's a good dad) all in one fell swoop.
These are also goals and motivations readers can relate to and even empathize with. They'll care because he's risking a lot for solid, understandable reasons.
(More tips on developing motivations here)
If you're struggling with a scene or even an entire novel, and you feel like it ought to work, try asking what the character has to gain and why the character is trying to gain it. And don't stop with superficial answers, dig deep and find answers that apply to both the individual scene goal and the larger character arc goal. The more motivated your characters are, the better the story will be.
What's motivating your characters? Do they have something to gain or are they just acting out plot?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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