The Plot’s Intact, But Where’s the Motivation?

Time's a great motivator in a novel--for instance setting a deadline to solve a crime or stop a wedding. But what about internal motivations? I shot this photo of the iconic Musee d'Orsay clock during my 2009 trip to Paris.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m new to writing plot-first. One of the biggest risks, apparently, is feeling disconnected from my characters. I know how my protagonist Henri reacts to the world around him, but not why. He thinks he’s living on borrowed time, outrunning his own death–or at least trying to experience a bit of the world before keeling over. But that’s only one part of who he is.

My writer friend Julia Stoops did me the kindness of reviewing my synopsis last week. She offered some great comments, insights and questions. This is the one that has gotten me spinning:

“So the biggest question I have is, why take the reader on a journey following the main character through this amazing world, only to have him consistently fail in love and life?”

Apparently my work-in-progress, LOST NOTES, is a comic historical novel with tragic undertones. While that’s technically workable, it’s not really my intention to write a tragedy. If Henri accomplishes everything he wants in life, despite his failures, or fails while enriching the lives of the people around him, that might still allow for a happy romp of a story. If he doesn’t accomplish those things, I need to make some plot changes to keep his development more in line with my intentions.

Either way, the plot is in place, and the story world is rich with color and historical detail, but I don’t fully understand Henri’s psychology as he moves through this space I’ve created for him. So, six months into my first draft, I’m going to return to the beginning to sharpen my premise and answer a few important questions. Why am I writing this story? Why should we care about Henri? How, specifically, will he triumph over his own weak constitution? What does he want? When he fails, and loses people he cares about, why does he keep going? It’s not a rewrite, but a rediscovery. I may even use some of the freewrite exercises that launched my previous two character-driven novels.

Has anyone else experienced a watershed moment like this in the midst of a first draft? What did you do? Turn back to rethink or plunge ahead?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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12 Responses to The Plot’s Intact, But Where’s the Motivation?

  1. Emerald Barnes says:

    This happened to me when editing the first draft of my first novel. I had this girl stuck in a town she hates where she’s constantly reminded of her mother’s death and the town’s huge secret. She’s unhappy but can’t leave her father’s side during all of this. When I introduced a new and different character into her world, she changed. She still hated her small town but not to the magnitude she had before this mysterious character came around. I felt like I really didn’t know my character anymore, so I started a rewrite. It still needs a lot of work, so I put it on the back-burner for now and moved on to the other novel I had written. I will come back to it though when I can focus on exactly what needs to be done to make it the best it can be.

    • I’m sure you’ll get some great perspective from stepping away from it, Emerald! I’ll be curious to hear what you learn when you return to the manuscript.

  2. “…I put it on the back-burner for now and moved on to the other novel I had written. I will come back to it though when I can focus on exactly what needs to be done to make it the best it can be.”

    This happened to me, too (the snag, not specifically the motivation issue — I’ve never written plot-first, so I have different problems 🙂 ).

    I had to shelve a book for a couple of years because the plot hit a snag I couldn’t fix. Also, I had to relax about the fact that it was not going to be a “real,” “serious,” “literary” novel and that it was going to have genre and magical realist elements. Once I calmed down about that, it was easier to straighten out the other problem.

    That being said, I don’t think there’s one answer between “Turn back to rethink” and “plunge ahead.” I’ve done each, in different situations.

    • Your “snag” is similar to my missing motivation–a hole that needs to be filled. Categorizing a novel is an important part of the process, definitely. I am not sure I’ll accept that I’m writing a tragedy, mostly because it’s too funny and rollicking for that form.

      Turning back is going well at the moment, by the way. I’ve made Henri the instigator of an accident rather than a participant. Now he has anxiety, guilt and motivation to make things right. It’s a start. Or shall I say a stronger start.

      • I find the problem I get into is that, since what I do is mostly character-driven my characters definitely have motivations for what they do, but I sometimes forget that the readers don’t necessarily want to or need to hear about those motivations in detail.

        I just wrote a scene (handwritten), and then when I started typing into the computer I realized there was a whole long paragraph explaining all the complex motivations that went into the situation. I deleted the whole thing. Show, don’t tell, of course, and plus all that detail might have been interesting to people who have read the whole series of stories, but for somebody who started with this story and never read any of the others, it made the whole thing sound like a soap opera.

        • Good point about cutting some of the motivation details out of the text! We want the reader to understand our characters–but we don’t have to tell the reader how to go about doing that. Those scaffolding paragraphs appear in everyone’s drafts, I’d imagine, but thankfully they’re pretty easy to spot and edit out.

  3. I’ve had this happen once. I realized by the end that I hadn’t written the story that I wanted, so I had to back up to almost the middle and find out where I’d begun to go wrong. I was still able to use a lot of what I’d written, but most of it had to go. That was hard, but I was much happier with the finished product.

  4. I think every writer has had similar moments. Mine usually come after a draft is done and I’ve passed the manuscript over to a trusted critique partner. To be honest, I find these rediscovery opportunities frightening at first but extremely beneficial in the long run. Asking those tough questions can be…well…tough, but they help me dismiss my own motivations and get back to the motivations of my characters.

    Great post. Good luck with the rediscovery!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Hack! Good point about how a manuscript critique can spur a similar awakening and subsequent revision. You make a great distinction between our motivations as novelists and the characters’ internal workings. I’ve been thinking about both the past few days–and it’s exciting, terrifying and definitely useful to take a step back and rethink what’s happening on the page.

  5. Bryna says:

    I often experience these moments–mostly because of my own doing since the story takes place in a world I created instead of one that already existed. But c’est la vie. When I do find myself in these sorts of quandaries, though, I typically stop and contemplate the situation before continuing onward. Recently, I found my antagonist struggling to find motivation, and giving it to him ended up rearranging parts of the story–introducing a very valuable and very secret item at the beginning instead of the end…. which threw everything for a loop–but being willing to do that gave him the chutzpah he needed so desperately and ended up working out once the dust settled. Rediscovery is difficult–especially depending on the complexity of the plot–but it could add another layer of complexity to the character and maybe even the plot in the end. Best of luck! : )

    • Thanks for commenting, Bryna. Your giving motivation to you antagonist sounds rather epic! (I imagine the writerly hand moving over the page bringing a talisman to a weak character so he/she can gain strength and be worthy of the story.) What a cool change–and it’s good to know your decision to go back and re-examine paid off in a great new object and finding your antagonist’s chutzpah. That’s exactly the kind of thing I hope to do with my story.

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