Wednesday, March 4

Day Four: Clarify the Goals and Motivations

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Four of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. This first stage is all about getting the story and plot worked out, and identifying any holes or problems to guide us in our revisions and let us know where we need to focus our time. We’ll be analyzing plot and narrative structure, and making sure the novel is working as a whole.  

At this point in the process, we should have a solid understanding of the story, plot, and character arcs. All the big plot holes have been filled, and even if some areas are a little shaky, we know what needs to be done to tighten them up—or at the very least, we know which scenes need strengthening. For the rest of the week, we’ll focus on fixing those trouble spots.

Today, let’s tackle any weak (or missing) goals discovered in our analysis, and make sure the character motivations are clear, logical, and moving the plot forward.

If you want to continue making notes and planning before diving into the revisions, feel free to do so. If you’re ready to start editing, pick a scene and begin. If you’re not sure where to start, I suggest working chronologically. That way, any changes to the novel will be fresh in your mind.

Take a look at your editorial map, revision notes, and scene analysis and pick out the scenes you marked as having weak or missing goals and motivations.

Since characters and goals go hand in hand, you might have a scene or two that doesn’t want to work even after this exercise due to a weak or underdeveloped character. The scene might need the exercises from next week’s character development sessions to get it knocked into shape. Just mark any scene that needs more character work move on.

1. Add or Strengthen the Goals

I recommend adding any missing goals first, as they’ll directly affect how the plot unfolds, then move on to strengthening the weak or unclear goals. Weak goals are often caused by a lack of motivation—the protagonist feels like she's just following a script—so you might need to focus on the motivation first in some cases.

It’s also common for characters to have too many goals, and the best way to tighten the scene is to trim out the smaller, less important goals. Try moving those extra goals to scenes that need more action or forward movement.

(Here’s more on ways to strengthen your goals)

2. Add or Strengthen the Motivations

Add any missing motivators first, then move on to the weak ones. Pick your first scene and ask:

Is it clear why the protagonist wants to do what she’s doing? The more subtle the character's motives, the more clues you might have to add to ensure readers understand them. While you usually don’t need (or want) to bash them over the head with it, you also don’t want readers wondering why in the world the protagonist is doing something. Often, all a scene needs is a line or two of dialog or internalization to make that motivation clear. There’s a reason for it in the author’s head, it just didn’t make it to the page on the first draft.

Pay particular attention to any motivation that is what the author wants, not what the character wants. For example, if the protagonist is going into the abandoned house so “she can stumble across the serial killer’s lair,” odds are the scene is going to feel forced. There’s no reason for the character to act, and in fact, she’s acting contrary to what any normal person would do. If you need her to go inside that house for the plot to work, create a plausible reason why she’d walk through that door.

Are there leaps in logic or is the decision-making process plausible? Another common place where information doesn’t make it to the page is in leaps of logic. This usually happens when something specific needs to be realized or discovered at that point in the plot, and even if the protagonist hasn’t actually done or learned enough to plausibly figure it out, she does anyway. (Common feedback for this problem are comments like, “this seemed like a stretch” or “I’m not sure how she got to this conclusion.”)

If you have a scene with this issue, look back at previous scenes and identify where the protagonist encountered the reasons/clues/steps that got her to that realization point. Are they clear? Can readers logically make the same connections the protagonist did to reach the same conclusion? A common issue here is a clue that has meaning to the author, but not the readers, so they’re not seeing it the same way.

Do the motivations and choices lead the plot where it needs to go? Characters who drive the plot are wonderful things, but sometimes they take over and send the story where we didn’t want it to go. When this happens it’s not unusual for us to force the plot back on track in a way that goes against what the protagonist has been doing. For example, the wife of a cheating husband has been going to great lengths to eradicate him from her life, but then suddenly the plot demands that she give him a second chance—and the rest of the novel depends on it. So she does.

When the protagonist suddenly acts out of character, the motives no longer make sense, because the protagonist’s decisions and motives haven’t led up to this big moment. To fix, you can:
  • Change the big plot moment so it reflects the choices the protagonist has made up to this point
  • Adjust the choices the protagonist has made so they lead to the plot moment
  • Add another layer to the protagonist’s choices and goals so the big plot moment is a possible outcome of this path

Depending on how critical that plot moment is, your initial reaction to this situation might be to fix the scenes so they lead up to this event. But take a few minutes and consider what might happen if you let the protagonist have her way here instead:
  • Does this make the story more interesting?
  • Is this a better character arc for the intended growth?
  • Does this make the story more unpredictable?
  • Does this add to the conflict or raise the stakes better?
  • Is there something that can happen here that will lead to the moment you want to have?

If this moment does need to happen and the prior motivations need to change, try going back to your editorial map and adding in the new story arc (I like to add them in another color to make it easy to see what I want to revise). Work out the new arc until you’re happy with how the story unfolds, then make those changes to the actual scenes.

(Here’s more on keeping goals and motivations fresh)

After today’s session, we should have fixed all the scenes with weak goals or motivations, and are ready to move on to the conflicts.

Tomorrow: Tighten the Conflicts and Tension

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Definitely found some scenes that needed tightening up. But came across something else interesting. By sketching out the goals/conflict/stakes in each scene I made the discovery that each of the two protagonists was carrying a different sub plot in their scenes. Hadn't intended it that way and couldn't really see it until I dissected the scenes. The two happen more or less in parallel until the final Act, when they merge together and both the protagonists carry them. All in all, I think it works, so I'll leave that as it is. But cool to discover nonetheless.

    1. That's great! The subconscious works in mysterious ways :) Now that you've found it you'll really be able to take advantage of it.

  2. I am thrilled to be a part of this workshop. I've read so many things on self-editing I thought my head would explode! I didn't know where to start and thought I had to look at a thousand things at once. You have calmed me down and shown that I don't have to do everything at once. I am so happy I am sharing my journey with my friends and writers group on my blog ( Big hug!

    1. I'm so glad, since that's exactly what I hoped this workshop would do.

  3. I am lagging way behind, but I will catch up. The information and steps are great!

    1. No worries, it's work at your own pace :) Some steps are going to take longer depending on the book. I'll be playing a little catchup this weekend as well.