After the First Chapter: Motivation

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.

And here is a bit more from the same author about internal and external goals and motivation.

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.


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