I’m so excited to announce that my next book is going to be a picture book! It will be published in Fall of 2020 by Magination Press. It’s a book about grief and “pre-grief” and saying goodbye and feeling close to those who are gone. I love it and can’t wait to share more about it with you!
I’m reflecting on what I read this year and what I’m excited about for next year over at Thinking Through our Fingers. You can read it here.
I had the privilege of guest posting over at The MG Book Village about how the three rules from my debut novel, THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC, are the same rules that make the holidays magical. You can read it here!
The decision period of Pitch Wars may be over, but that doesn’t mean the revisions are! If you’re hopping back into your WIP, I’ll be continuing on with my blog series about problems I see in books after the first chapter. You can read my other posts about direction, active characters, and show vs. tell.
Today I’m going to talk to you about something I’m working with my mentees on. Motivation. In previous posts we talked about how in every scene, your MC needs a goal, an obstacle, and a reaction. And those are all the “What’s” of writing and plot. But today we’re going to talk about the “Why.”
Motivation is the “why” behind the goal. If there isn’t a good enough reason for your character to pursue the plot or scene goal, then there isn’t any tension because the reader doesn’t care whether or not they achieve their goal. Characters can’t just do things for the heck of it. They have to have a reason. We have to understand why they are the way they are. Even if you are having a character act on impulse, even if the character doesn’t know why they did something, the reader has to be able to see why…eventually at least.
There needs to be a why for everything. Having your character do something and simply say, “I don’t know why I did it. I just did.” Isn’t very satisfying for the reader (unless you’ve actually shown us why the character did that and the character just doesn’t see it in themselves.) And it isn’t just the MC that needs motivation for everything. All you characters need motivation. Every character in your story thinks they are the main character. They all need to have reasons (good reasons) for what they do. Without good motivations, you get cliché, stereotypical characters.
The bully can’t be a bully just because they like to be mean. Go deeper. Mom can’t say no just because you need an obstacle and mom’s say no. Go deeper. The villain can’t just want to take over the world because they think it would be fun. Go deeper. There’s more there for all of your characters. And until you plumb and then show those deeper motivations, your story is going to feel shallow.
But motivation is a little bit trickier than people realize. Because your story actually needs two layers of motivation. See, in every story there is an external goal and an internal goal.
In Harry Potter the EXTERNAL GOAL is to defeat Voldemort. But the INTERNAL GOAL is to gain a family and love Harry’s always been missing.
Likewise, your MC needs an external motivation and an internal motivation.
In Harry Potter the EXTERNAL MOTIVATION is essentially that Voldemort is evil and Harry is good. But the INTERNAL MOTIVATION is that Voldemort is a threat to the people Harry has gained as family. He’s already killed Harry’s original family, he’ll get rid of mudbloods like Hermione and muggle sympathizers like the Weasleys.
And this is what makes for a powerful book. The external goal and the internal, over the course of the story, become tightly woven together. The MC can not achieve their external goal without also achieving their internal goal and vice versa. (Unless you are writing a bittersweet ending, in which case by the end the MC lays aside the external goal because they’ve achieved the internal goal and realize the external goal isn’t necessary.)
In your story, the internal goal and internal motivation are there all along. They inform the way your character acts and reacts in the story. But they aren’t always revealed right away. If you are waiting to reveal the true internal motivation for your character until later in the story for dramatic effect (which I’m totally a sucker for) then you need to make the external motivation strong enough to make the reader care AND you need to give us hints that there is more to the story. Perhaps your character is motivated by guilt because of something in the past. If you want to save the reveal about what exactly happened for the climax or midpoint, that’s fine. But you need to make sure we know that your character is feeling guilty about something and pull us along. Make us want to find out why they are feeling guilty.
So let’s go through a few examples and talk about external and internal motivation and when the internal motivation is revealed in the story.
In Harry Potter, it’s pretty easy to guess what Harry’s internal motivation is from the very start. His parents are murdered, the Dursleys are terrible. Of course he wants a family! But when do we know that’s what he wants for sure? When he looks in the mirror of Erised, right? Isn’t that when we truly feel his longing? When he does there every night and watches for hours?
In Hunger Games, both the external and internal motivation is presented pretty early in the story. But the midpoint shift kind of changes the goal and motivation, (which it’s supposed to do.) The external goal is to stay alive. At the midpoint that shifts to keeping herself AND Peeta alive. The internal motivation before that point is to protect her sister, but we are also given backstory that informs the external goal that will come later. When we are shown the story of how Peeta saved her family from starvation, we get the internal motivation for the rest of the story.
IN WE WERE LIARS, which is a story with a huge twist. We don’t get the true internal motivation until almost the very end of the story. That’s part of the twist. But there are soooo many hints about the true motivation. We know something happened. We know there is guilt and sadness around it. It draws the reader in and makes us want to read more and find out what the heck happened. And the character acts and reacts throughout the entire story according to this internal motivation. But we don’t know what it is until the end.
Now as far as external motivation goes, you should have that by the 25% mark. And before the 25% mark, there should be smaller external motivators at the very least that inform your MC’s actions. Remember, your MC needs to be active and have a goal, but they also need a good reason for that goal. Both an external and internal reason. Or the reader won’t care about the goal. Around the 50% mark, you need to raise the stakes and another way to think about raising the stakes is to think of it as deepening the motivation. If the MC needs it MORE than it’s going to hurt MORE if they don’t accomplish the goal. When people talk about stakes, they are talking about motivation. The “why” of your story.
The best way to nail down motivation in your story is to nail down your characters. Really get to know them and their backstory. Go through those character questionnaires but do more than just answer the questions. With every question, make your character tell you “why” that’s their answer. If you keep doing that, you’re going to really start understanding your character’s motivation for everything, but especially your story.
Here is a really good post about pre-writing to discover your characters’ secrets and backstory. http://writerunboxed.com/2014/10/10/pre-writing-discovering-your-characters-secrets/
And here is a bit more from the same author about internal and external goals and motivation. http://www.robinlafevers.com/2012/10/28/growing-plot-from-character/
I also highly recommend K.M. Weiland’s entire series on character arc which really lays out how to set up external and internal motivation for your characters.
Show don’t tell is probably the most common advice of the writing world. But it’s really hard to get it just right. That’s because showing vs. telling is more like a balancing act than a rule. More a spectrum than a dichotomy. So I’m going to try and lay out spots on that spectrum and tell you a bit about when they work and when they don’t and the risks involved. Okay? Okay.
1. Flat out telling. This is the easiest to spot. It’s when you just flat out name an emotion. I felt sad. She was happy. Except, as writers, we always try to disguise it, right? So we say, “his eyes were sad.” (Sorry, still telling.) Or, “Her hands twitched nervously.” (That’s telling too. Basically, almost all adverbs are flat out telling.) When you name the emotion, even when you try to hide it in physical reactions (My blood pulsed with anger.) It’s STILL telling.
Doing this OCCASIONALLY is okay. It’s not a deal breaker. Especially if you can do it lyrically. For example, something like, “She felt as if all the happiness in the world could shine out of her hair and her fingertips at theat very moment.” (Okay, that’s nor super lyrical, I’m flying by the seat of my pants here. But you get the picture.) It can work, very occasionally, in small doses, with the right voice. Also, a third person narrator who is almost their own character in the story can get away with a lot more telling than any other kind of narrator. You still have to watch it, of course, but they can bend the show don’t tell rule a bit more than others.
2. Info-Dump Dialogue. This is when characters spill all the beans about exactly what they are feeling and thinking just because another character asks. Unless this is the climax of your story and your MC is getting their secret shame off their chests, DON’T DO THIS EVER! How often do people ever say exactly what they mean and exactly what they are thinking and everything they are thinking. We will learn a lot more about your character by what they choose to divulge and what they choose to hold on to and not tell anyone, than by you simply having them tell everything and then follow it up with, “It was embarrassing.” Or, “I’m so pissed.”
3. Cliché physical reactions. There are good physical reactions that are showing and then there are cliché ones that are so obvious or overused that they feel almost like flat out telling. The racing heart, the sick stomach, the crossed arms, the tapping foot, the bully smashing his fist into his other hand. You get the picture. Always try to avoid the cliché physical response, if possible. If you can’t, try to find a new way to say it. In my debut, I have a scene where the MC is feeling upset and she says that her stomach feels like a whole swarm of fruitflies are buzzing in it waiting to come up and swarm on the big watermelon-colored bow her ex-best friend is wearing. Am I still talking about an upset stomach? Yes. But is it different enough that it doesn’t feel totally cliché? I hope so…
4. Internalization. You have to let the reader into your MC’s thoughts. You have to. But not every single one. If we hear every single thought, then that is another form of telling. Your MC can tell us just as much (if not more) about how she’s feeling about things by what she doesn’t say or doesn’t comment on. You can show that something hurts her by having her REFUSE to comment on it. You can show us she’s hiding something without having her think, “I can’t tell her that.” Perhaps instead you can show her purposely redirect the conversation.
This is where show v. tell becomes a balancing act. I am really good at telling you things by what my MC doesn’t say. My agent loves it and compliments it every time. Several editors…not so much. They felt like they couldn’t connect to the character because they didn’t know what she was feeling. And so you have to be careful with this. Like I said before, internal thoughts are VITAL. But too many, or too direct of internal thoughts, can kill tension and just feel like blah,blah, blah, and not allow the reader to put pieces together themselves. And readers love putting pieces together themselves!!! Look at all the Harry POtter discussion groups and fan theories. Readers eat that stuff up!
If you’re like me and have a hard time knowing when you need to let readers into the MC’s head more, have somebody do a special beta read for you and mark every single instance they don’t know what your character is feeling. This is now standard procedure for me. It changed my writing and took it to a whole new level.
5. Similes and the word ‘felt.’ I’ll be honest. I love using similes and comparisons in my writing. Instead of saying, “I felt happy.” I love saying, “I felt like a thousand balloons were lifting me up into the air.” Oh, you get so much more of an actual feeling out of that. Oh, she’s feeling THAT way. But it still is a form of a telling and if you do it too much, it starts getting telly and long winded. So save them for real emotional punch and don’t have too many too close together. And if possible, drop the word felt. Similies and comparisons are a TOOL that can be abused. So try to find the right balance. There’s no set rule for this. Different voices have different allowances for when it becomes too much. Just feel it out and get a really good CP to tell you when you’ve gone overboard.
6. Non-Cliché physical reaction – We’ve now come firmly over to the showing side of the spectrum. I highly recommend the emotion thesaurus for ideas on how to do this well. A physical reaction isn’t just things like upset stomachs or tingly toes or glancing eyes. It can be breaking the eraser off your pencil, biting the inside of your cheek, kicking a rock on the ground, stomping too hard on the gas pedal, leaning back against a chair, etc. I’ve found that when I’m having a hard time writing non-cliché physical reactions, it’s because I haven’t filled out the setting enough. I haven’t given my characters enough props in their surroundings to work with. Once my characters are interacting with the environment, this gets a lot easier.
But it CAN be overdone. I actually got so good at this in my first book that people read and were like, “All these physical reactions are really slowing down your dialogue and story. We don’t need a physical reaction for EVERYTHING.” So once again, we have that terrible word BALANCE. A physical reaction can only go so far. Sometimes, you have to throw in a simile or an internal thought to really fill it out and bring it home. That beta read for knowing how your MC is feeling will help with this.
7. Objective Correlative. This is like pro-level showing. It’s all about communicating how your MC feels by the way they view the world around them. So, if your MC is feeling happy, how might they describe the rain? “Rain drops tinkled on my window pane like a thousand fairy bells whispering their promises of secrets, play, and magic still alive in the world.” But what if your MC is feeling hopeless? “The rain dragged down my window pane, covering the world outside in mud and slush.” Totally different vibes, right? But do you feel what the MC is feeling? Totally!
Can you simply use Objective Correlative through out your entire story and nothing else? Heck no! We still need internal thoughts and physical reactions and some similes and dialogue. OC is a tool. But it can’t be your only tool. If it’s the only thing you use, we might always be left wondering exactly what your MC is feeling and there will be some definite disconnect.
So basically, show vs tell is hard because it is a balance. Sometimes, telling is called for. Sometimes showing can go too far and actually disconnect the reader. Good CP’s will help!
As promised, here is the second part of my blog series about what I’m seeing in the manuscripts we requested. You can find part one here.
In my last post, I talked about making the plot move forward and build to something. Giving it direction. A big way to do this is to make your character active instead of passive. Let’s talk about the difference.
And active character works to control their storyline. They affect the trajectory of the plot. They make choices.
A passive character simply has things happen to them and reacts, reacts, reacts, but doesn’t actively affect change in their surroundings.
It can be very easy to have a passive character in both adventure books and quiet stories. In an adventure book, your character may just be consistently reacting to one monster showing up after another, without ever working toward a goal. In a quiet book, the same thing can happen but without monsters. Here’s an example.
I wrote a verse novel about a girl who finds out she might have the same cancer gene as her father. He has cancer in the book. And had to do several rounds of revision with my agent because, in her words, Cancer felt more like the main character than the main character did. Because Cancer was controlling the story. Which, in real life, cancer does control the story. But I had to find ways for my MC to exert control in a situation where she had so little control. So how do we do this?
1. Reaction You’re going to need to go back to that scene map you made for my last post (you did that right? That’s totally homework.) See, there’s one more thing every scene needs that I didn’t talk about. IN ever scene your MC needs a goal and an obstacle, but after that obstacle? They need a reaction. They need to actively try to overcome that obstacle.
Think of Harry trying to read those letters. Uncle Vernon keeps stopping him by sleeping by the mail slot, then nailing up the mail slot, then taking them to that tiny island. But except for that trip to the island when Harry couldn’t do much but sit back (which was okay because the sheer ridiculousness and tension of that moment was enough to keep the story moving) Harry kept trying to find ways around Uncle Vernon. That’s what your MC needs to do. They can’t give up on their goal until they either achieve it, or get a new goal because of new information.
2. It’s not just your MC who needs a goal. Of course, reacting to an obstacle only makes your MC active if they have a goal. They need a goal! Every scene! Go back to my last post and review story goals and scene goals. You need both to make your character active. Percy Jackson fights a lot of monsters. But he’s fighting them on a quest to do something important and often these monsters hold some information or item he needs or are gatekeepers of some kind and he has to get past them. Basically, your MC needs to have a goal, but if your obstacles are monsters or some kind of antagonist, they need a goal, too! The best kind of conflict is when your MC has a goal and your antagonist has a goal and that goal is an obstacle to your MC’s goal. That way, it’s not just your MC fighting one monster after another because he’s just stumbling onto them. They are attacking because he is moving towards his goal. He is being active and they are reacting to him. Not just the other way around. Does this make sense?
3. Have your MC set their own goals. Not the parents or teachers. It’s very easy in MG to have adults control the story. Find ways around that. Yes, a teach may give the assignment that your story is centered around, but how does your MC exert control over that storyline? Do they decide to make the most epic project ever? Do they decide to put it off until the last minute? Do they think they’ll do one thing and then decide to change it? Perhaps a parent sets a goal for your MC. That can work, but you have to find ways for the MC to do it on their own terms. Maybe they will try to do it as terrible as possible as a form of rebellion. Maybe they will decide to be as good as possible because they are trying really hard to make things as easy for their parent as possible. Whatever it is, you can’t just have the goal or assignment from an adult be the only goal. Have your MC set their own goal within that goal. Have your MC make the plan of how it will be accomplished. Put them squarely in charge.
4. In situations where your MC has little control, have them find ways to exert control over SOMETHING. Often in quiet MG stories, the MC doesn’t have much control over the situation. A parent has died, or is sick, or they’ve moved, etc. You don’t want that big thing to control the story (like Cancer did in mine) so you have to go back to the idea of goals and have your MC set seemingly small and quiet goals where they can exert control. Perhaps they exert control by maintaining some ritual or by trying to dull the pain through actively distracting themselves. Perhaps, you just need to show them doing and pursuing something outside of that big situation they have no control over. This is what I had to do in my verse novel. I had to show my MC actively trying to enjoy her life and do things that had absolutely nothing to do with Cancer and weren’t about her thinking about Cancer. They were about her just trying to be a kid and have fun. It’s a small, quiet goal. But it did the trick. So, if this is something you are struggling with, try to give your MC something totally outside of that big hard thing and really shine the light on that. This sort of feels like babbling, so I’ll stop now.
Basically, making your character active comes down to giving them goals and things they can control.