Character motivation drives plot!

There is a tremendous difference between having a character walk through a set of plot elements, and letting that same character crash cleanly through them because he/she is properly motivated.

I was reading a younger writer's efforts last year, and this extreme example has stayed with me: The main hero was standing in the middle of the room, discussing something urgent with three other people. He turned to rip a closet door open, dragging somebody out of the closet with a casual one-handed grab. He then presented his trophy in a grand (TaDaaaah!) sort of a moment.

Well, okay. Why did he rip the door open though? There was no foreshadowing. Did he hear something? Was there some clue I missed three chapters back? Is it explained in a sequel?  Does he just hate closet doors? Is it one of those nauseating Star Trek time warp thingies? Whut?

Pulling people out of a closet for no apparent reason is on the micro side of the story. The macro parallel is more often just as incoherent, obtuse, or just plain ill advised plot line. If a character is not clearly motivated to do something, then the reader may slowly lose interest. It may make perfect sense to you as the writer, but you must convey what is going on in the inner spaces of the character's mind or show us how he made those choices.

If a character is written so that we understand his/her motivation, the plot is much easier to navigate. When the character meets those decision points the choices are clearer.  My view is that the plot is passive – the result of whatever motivated the character to make a choice.  The plot is not instructions like in a Broadway play that requires the character to be in Vienna by Thursday.  The motivation for getting to Vienna by Thursday may be that if he doesn't go, then his girlfriend is killed. Or he loses the business deal. Or he has to face Darth Vader's evil twin Zippy with just a plastic light saber and harsh language.

So how do we motivate a character? Turn the question around – what motivates YOU?

Greed, lust, love and vengeance seem to have pretty high marks for repeatability. I'll be circling back to this topic when I'm in 'motivation mode' and you will see my views on how to get your characters really moving – organically.  If it makes no sense for your character to do what he/she is doing from an objective standpoint, then you are forcing plot, not letting the character decide what needs to be done.

No, these are not the final words on the subject, but hopefully enough words to get some dialog going!

Creativity Coach

Here are the initial guidelines for how my coaching service (Literary Nudger?) is going to work.

I am not monetizing this effort. I am not selling a service, nor am I pitching a "How to" book (nor do I plan to write one).  Im just trying to pay it forward a little.

I am not trying to steal any body's ideas. I have enough of my own, thanks.  I know how hard writers work on their craft, and if you're here looking for help you're already cranky and frustrated, so I won't add to that.

I am not an agent. I am not a publisher. I can't buy your work. What I'm offering is a virtual look over your shoulder to give you a nudge if you need one.

I'll be blogging about creativity, writing, plot ideas, character motives, setting… all that good stuff. I can't give you a plot – you'll need to come up with that on your own.

I'm still pondering what I need for posted submission guidelines, if any. For now, if you need help, send an email to tjpontz at gmail with your question.  I did not say to send your query. I did not say to attach or paste your manuscript.  I may not really need your manuscript, and I leave help with queries up to the query experts.

I can't guarantee I will fix what ails your manuscript, only that I'll try.

What are my chops as a writer?  My first writing gig was in the broadcast market writing ads and program content. Lately I've been in the business communications field.  My current project is biographical, with some fiction ideas in orbit waiting for a landing pad.

Keep your pencils sharp!

Why do you write?

"Leave the why for psychologists. It's enough to know you want to write. Write.

"I write because I am crazy, schizophrenic, and I know it and accept it and I have to do something with it other than go to the loony bin.

"I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am trying to stand up in my life. I write because to form a word with your lips and tongue or think a thing and then dare to write it down so you can never take it back is the most powerful thing I know. I am trying to come alive, to find the distances in my own recesses and bring them forward and give them color and form."

 - Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

"A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. That is, he does not draw on a reservoir; instead, he engages in an activity that brings to him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays, plays, laws, philosophies, religions…"

 - William Stafford

I write because I can't not write. I am as compelled to put words to paper as salmon are to spawning upstream. I write not because I try to put the djinn back in the bottle, but because I must let him out. The ID must be unleashed and allowed to roam free, else the EGO will bind him forever in some forgotten corner, ignored and undone.

 - TJPontz

Now then. Why do YOU write? Hmmm?

Writing Exercise: just do it

Every writer who has ever lived has, at some point, stared blankly at the paper / parchment / monitor and wondered, "Now what?"

Writer's Block isn't a curse, it's an opportunity.

Today's writing exercise is simply a series of timed exercises.  (These are all ten minute segments)

How to begin? Start with the words, "I remember" and let it roll from there. It doesn't matter if it was five minutes ago, five years ago, or five lifetimes ago. Dump some stuff out in whatever non-grammatical, nonsensical form it arrives. This is NOT an exercise about editing. This is NOT an exercise in writing 'good stuff'. This is an exercise in getting the blockage out of your head so you can reconnect with your inner self.

So, "I remember" and what comes after for 10 minutes. Use a timer, wait for a commercial break on the TV or radio, or whatever means you need of timing yourself. Just KEEP WRITING. It might be your father's neckties, your sibling's constant (whatever it was), or breaking your arm last week in a car accident. Go with whatever flow is there. You DO remember something, don't you?

Now then, take a break and walk around the table. Change the flavor of your chewing gum. Maybe toss out that bit of newspaper lying on the edge of the table.

Ready to continue? Start with "I don't remember", and continue writing for 10 minutes. The same rules apply. What did you eat on that trip to Vegas? Where were you when you got mooned by those kids? Well, you have forgotten a few things by now, haven't you? Who was your third grade math teacher? Hrm?? Did you turn out the lights before you left the house? What does your dog look like in the night?

This stresses the brain in both positive and negative ways, and gets things rolling.

Take another break. No, seriously. Take a break because we're about to change channels again.

Start again with, "I'm thinking of…" and go for 10 minutes.  Well, you were thinking of something, even if it was pretty absurd.  Pixies in your computer? How your spouse would look with blue hair?

Take a break and start over again with, "I'm not thinking of…"

You get the idea.  To continue the rest of the exercise, do the following pairs of thoughts with breaks in between:

I know / I don't know
I am / I am not
I want / I don't want
I feel / I don't feel
The first time I / The last time I

Now looking over what you've scribbled, since you've made it this far, might there be some nugget that you can write about now?

While this is an exercise for creative writers, these kinds of exercises can help writers of any level or background. Or at least that's my 2 bits for today.

Dragon in a Jaguar

I needed to change my karma a little bit today, so I went out for a haircut, lunch and a couple of errands.

The haircut was uneventful, and I won't bore you with the grocery shopping. Lunch was more interesting.

I went to Panera, and got the tortilla chicken soup (yummay!) and the bacon turkey sandwich (feh).  I was about half way through my soup when I started thinking I ought to do a character study on somebody around me. It's a hobby of sorts when I'm surrounded by strangers. Nobody in the restaurant really presented a good opportunity though, and I was not really able to focus on anybody.

Then a Jaguar swung into the parking space just the other side of the window from me. It seemed as if the driver were taking up two parking spaces, and so I muttered to myself into my soup something about Jaguar drivers blah blah blah. But that's when I noticed a dragon hanging behind the rear view mirror.

A dragon? I noticed it before I noticed the driver. Yeah, it looked like a dragon that was draped around the back of the rear view mirror. What?! This is a non sequitur, you know? The driver is a 50-something female who spent more on her hair than I just did on mine, more on her nails than I ever have, and was wearing both a turtleneck and a cable sweater in the identical shade of pink.

The back of my mind spun for a bit and I could not correlate the dragon with this driver. Not for anything. I noticed her as she gave her order, and as she waited for it. She was skinny, tanned, and her face was lined at the corners. Well, at least she hadn't fattened any plastic surgeons… But why a dragon hanging from her rear view mirror?

Was the dragon there as a memento of some occasion? Maybe. Was she declaring that she is the 'dragon lady' and we were all to steer clear?  Maybe. Or was it an ex's car that she had scored in a divorce battle and it was still draped there as a trophy?  You never really know.

So was she a trophy wife? No, this didn't seem to fit. Maybe a real estate professional or a sales manager or some sort.

And why did I pay attention?  Well look, I can use the dragon wrapped around the rear view mirror angle as a hook for any character I want to describe.  There's a juxtaposition between her careful appearance and lack of cosmetic surgery. She might not be successful herself, but she wanted to give that appearance and is probably close (or was) to somebody who was.

And that's why I call it a character study. She could fit in a spy/mystery/thriller as easily as something like On Golden Pond. The fact that she noticed me staring at her and she moved to the far side of the restaurant might have something to do with it too. (ooops!)

And was that really a dragon or was it something else? Well, that could be a plot turning point right there if it is something like a CSI episode or something from Agatha Christie-ville.