Action and motivation are the keys to great storytelling

goals motivation scenes Mar 15, 2023

“What’s my motivation?” It’s the classic actor’s question, but writers depend on it too. Let’s talk about all the reasons your characters do the things they do.

You probably know that I spent my formative years working in the theatre. What a valuable experience! Among the storytelling lessons I learned was this:

Every action has a motive. 

It’s the classic actor’s question: What’s my motivation? Story doesn't happen without it. But just in case you missed that day in drama class, let me define some terms:

Action is what a character does. 

There's a reason they call it acting. Characters act. They do stuff. They walk. They talk. They pour another glass of booze (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), hide behind the curtains and eavesdrop (Hamlet), and run their enemies through with a sword (also Hamlet). 

Our characters explore spooky attics and travel through dangerous terrain. They trade riddles with dragons and write passionate love letters while pretending to be someone they’re not. Characters do, do, and do some more. 

That’s what we mean by action. 

Motivation is why they do it. 

Example: A fictional character goes for a walk, but why?

  • Maybe they’re housetraining a puppy who’s about to make a puddle on the carpet.
  • Maybe they’re hoping to run into the cute neighbor next door and ask them to the prom.
  • Maybe they’re planning to rob the bank on the corner and want to scope out the neighborhood. 

These are three very different walks, right? The difference is motivation

When writers scribble page after page without considering action and motivation—what their characters do and why they’re doing it—they may be writing words, but they're not writing story. 

In this week’s livestream I talk about all the ways that motivation animates our storytelling. Our characters need goals! They need little goals that might be resolved within a scene, and big goals that take the whole novel to accomplish. 

Of course, we writers have goals and motivations as well. Big ones and little ones. Maybe we can learn something from our characters, too! 

Good writing is my jam! Put me on the mailing list, please.


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