Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Bible, a Church, and a Lesson in Motivation

Once upon a time, a friend and I wrote a one-act play for a small theater group here in town. After a number of people read various drafts and we revised and polished, the play went into production. I won't go into the details, but the story involved four elderly sisters, their search for a priceless antique Bible, and their efforts to save a small church their grandfather had founded. At the last performance, a gentleman approached me after the show and said "I have a question for you. Why didn't the sisters just give the Bible to the church? They could have sold it to an antiques dealer and had plenty of money to fix the church building."

I stared at him. Why indeed? It was the logical thing for our characters to do and would have solved everything.

And the play would have ended after about five minutes. This man had discovered a major flaw in our plot. A flaw that I and my co-playwright had missed.

A sick feeling grew in my stomach as I mumbled something to my astute questioner and wandered off. I worried for weeks about this flaw -- long after the show ended. I wondered how many people in the audience had looked at each other and said "Huh?" I racked my brains for ways to restructure the plot to eliminate the fatal flaw. I came up empty. Nothing worked; everything was forced.

But then one day it hit me. I did not have to completely rewrite the play! I simply had to give my characters believable motivation. And with two lines of dialog, the whole thing was fixed.

Ever since that experience, I've worked really hard to give my characters credible reasons for their actions. I don't always succeed, but it's always the first thing I look for. I continually ask myself "Why?" Why is my heroine acting so angry? Why won't my hero get off his lazy butt and actively look for a job? It's not that what they are doing is wrong, but I have to give them a reason for doing these things.

Motivation fuels our stories. Make it believable, and your story will engage your readers and carry them into the world you have created. But if it's not believable, someone may tap your shoulder and ask why they didn't just give the Bible to the church.


14 comments:

Christine said...

Oh, excellent post. I love this point of view. I think I forget to ask why... and now that I am in revisions, good question to remember. There are dozens of books about the process, but really you make it simple for me and I like it!

Jeanie said...

Yes, you make an excellent point! You don't have to AGREE with your characters, that they made the right choice or the ONLY choice, just that their motivation is genuine. This is a really good lesson for all of us, because we all come from different places and seldom start at the same 'beginning." What drives us and what is important to us and our characters may differ. I think this may be one of those things I type and put on my computer so I can remember it!

Callie James said...

Excellent post. I think you can say this about most stories. (I do hate those heart-stinking moments when someone points out a plot hole like that. Ugh!)

Kate Diamond said...

Good point! I have a character I need to put on a plane cross-country for her friend, and I have no idea why she does it... your post reminded me that I really need to figure that out, and that other people will notice if I don't!

JoAnn said...

Christine--I've read lots of books on motivation, but it seems like I have to learn the hard way! Haha!

JoAnn said...

Jeanie -- Yes! Genuine! I love that word--much better than "believable." Thank you! :-)

JoAnn said...

Callie -- When I see this problem in contests I judge, I always emphasize that the story does not have to be rewritten or the incident removed from the story. The writer just needs to make sure the reader understands why it's happening. It was a huge relief when I realized that about the play.

JoAnn said...

Kate -- Glad this was a timely post. Sounds like you you've got it under control! I know you'll figure out the perfect motivation. :-)

M.V.Freeman said...

This is outstanding!!! Very well said Joann!

I try very hard to keep on asking that question, because my current hero is a very, very difficult person.

Thank goodness for revisions!!!

Louisa Cornell said...

Great post !! And something I really need to remember. I may know why my hero or heroine does something and it may make perfect sense to me, but in order for it to be a seamless part of the story I have to make sure the reader can make sense of it, not that the reader has to agree or think they would do it that way. I just have to create such a completely multi-dimensional and realistic character that the reader can see that person making just that decision at that point. Not always easy to do!

JoAnn said...

Mary -- Ooh! A complicated hero. Those are my favorites. And you're right: Where would we be without revisions!

JoAnn said...

Louisa -- Thank you for pointing this out! It's not enough for us to know our characters' motivations; our readers have to know too. I struggle with that all the time.

Gwen Hernandez said...

Great post, Joann. I think this is one of the hardest parts of writing.

Carla Swafford said...

You know, JoAnn, I come across questions like that in books, movies and TV shows all the time.

My favorite one I come across is where one person is chewing out the other. Why doesn't the person who's getting their butt handed to them not walk away? To me it's so simple.

Maybe I'm a little off the subject, but some of the simpliest things irk me.

So how to fix it? By having the two people be husband and wife, parent and child, or best friends. They all have sometime invested in the relationship and may need to talk it out, but never when it's the bad guy/gal and the good gal/guy.

And like you said, usually so simple to fix.

Love your post.