August 8, 2011

The Choreography of Motivation

At some point in the past, I noticed that one of the trickiest things about writing is the choreography. I was writing a scene that took place during a party, and I needed the main character to talk to first one set of people and then another overlapping set, and later to be alone with somebody. Something like that.

My challenge was figuring out how to get the right characters into the right combinations and places so that the scene read naturally, without anyone saying anything so blatant as, "Well, I'm going to go talk to those other people now." (Okay, I'll admit I may have tried that tactic once or twice at an actual party.) Compared to the work of managing these logistics, writing the dialogue in the scene was downright easy.

I've tackled countless other choreography problems since then. Today, I was struggling with a scene because of another familiar issue, and I realized it's sort of a variation. I started thinking of the problem as "the choreography of motivation".

In this case, I had a character who did not want to have the discussion that his family members were trying to have with him. The character's goal was simply to leave. But as the author, I had a different agenda: I needed a certain amount of discussion to take place so that crucial pieces of information could be revealed at this point in the story.

The author doesn't get to take part in the scene, so I had to carefully choreograph my character's motivations throughout. His overall desire was still to get out of there, but on a moment-by-moment basis, the other characters said things that believably kept him around and talking a little longer. "Believable" is the key issue here. If the character just sat down and agreeably participated in the discussion he'd been avoiding since the beginning of the book, the reader would find his behavior false and inconsistent.

I may not have gotten it right, and there may not be enough justification for the character's actions in this scene. When I eventually seek feedback on this draft, I'll be counting on my readers to point out the places where I've inadequately choreographed my characters' motivations.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Lauren Schmidt at the Effectivism blog looks into how to buy a greener book: "What has a lower carbon footprint — buying a book from a local store or ordering it online? What about buying your books via a Kindle or other e-reader?"

→ Rebecca Joines Schinsky of the Book Lady's Blog offers her Mid-Year Reflections on Book Polygamy: "I was skeptical at first, not certain that reading more than one book at a time would mean that I read more books overall, but it’s shaking out to look that way."


laurenhat said...

Oh, I like that way of looking at it! And that's definitely something I've found difficult in thinking about how to revise both individual scenes and larger arcs of stories: how do I make sure that the character isn't just visiting a sequence of scenes because it's convenient for me as the author, but instead because it's believable?

(Also, yay, Effectivism made the Good Stuff list! :) )

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

Thanks for the shout-out! As a writer of nonfiction and ONLY nonfiction, I'm always in awe of a fiction writer's process. Thanks for the insights you share here.

desireearmfeldt said...

From the playwriting/directing/acting world: A general principle I have absorbed is that "I want to leave the scene" is almost never a good motivation to give a character -- because first of all, then there has to be a really strong obstacle in the way of the character leaving (you're tied to a chair), and second of all, one usually wants character motivations to lead to interaction rather than away from it. (This is more fundamentally necessary on stage than in novels, but I suspect it's a useful principle for novels as well.) In general it's better for character motivations to be positive rather than negative ("I want X," rather than "I don't want X"), high-stakes rather than low-stakes, and to be things they want to get out of other characters.

But as I was typing the bit about obstacles to the goal of leaving the scene, it did occur to me that if you succeed in creating a valid obstacle to the character leaving, other than being physically tied down (which doesn't force him/her to actually engage in the conversation), then you have in fact given the character a new motivation, one strong enough to trump "I want to get out of here"! Maybe that's "I want to please Mom," maybe that's "I want to convince everyone I'm not a weakling," maybe that's "I want to convince you that you've misunderstood the situation, so you'll stop pestering me about this in the future," maybe that's "I want to win this argument but I'm using a passive-aggressive tactic to do it"...

Because really, for there to be conflict and action and all that good stuff, characters usually need more than one motivation -- that is, many of the best obstacles are themselves motivations: I want to get married BUT I also want my parents' approval; therefore I have to engage with my parents to get their approval (sub-goal on the way to my ultimate goal) -- if I didn't care about my parents' approval there would be no obstacle to my ostensible primary goal...

Lisa Eckstein said...

@laurenhat - Creating believable motivations that still lead to an interesting story is a real problem. For instance, if my example was about a real life person, it seems way more likely that he would simply never have the difficult conversation, because that's what tends to happen in real life. But for fiction, that's not going to lead to a satisfying resolution, so the author has to do all these motivational gymnastics to end up with a scenario that makes sense. I guess this problem explains why I see so many movies in which the character motivations are completely unrealistic.

@Rebecca - I'm glad to hear that my rambling insights are insightful! :)

@desireearmfeldt - This idea of positive rather than negative motivations is eye-opening, and I'm wondering if in general the negative ones lead to more complex writing problems. But, as you say, the complexity can lead to interesting character development if it works out. Thanks (as always) for a comment that's giving me a lot to think about.

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