story craft #2 Filling in the Motivation Gaps

Mike Grist Story Craft 4 Comments

Last week I talked about the DM’s screen, and how I’d written chunks of story with other chunks missing. Now I’m rewriting the first Dawn book with that in mind. I’m about 30 pages in so far, and no section has escaped either strong editing or a complete rewrite. As I read closely what I wrote in 1st draft, I see the biggest DM screen error is probably this- character motivation. Largely it’s missing. And I try to consider the effect this will have on the first-time reader coming cold to my work. They have no reason to ‘help out’ the storyteller by filling in the missing motivations for themself, or to wait for the motivations to become clear later on. They won’t do it. So I have to get into it myself.

– Why does Dawn do any of what he does? Why are his actions so damn abrupt and final?

– Why are the other kids so fond of him, when all he seems to do is beat up on them?

– Why does his mom do what she does? Why does the Abbess do what she does?

All these before were hollow shells. I figured that by leaving them empty now we’d get into the story fast, and I’d come back to them and fill in the holes with flashbacks later on. It would be an accelerated start, followed by a cool kind of sequential storytelling deal.


That’s no good if people won’t read beyond the first few pages, frustrated that they don’t know what is going on or why. So I’m working on the theory that people will want that stuff now. They want to know who these people are now, and why they’re doing what they do now.

This is having a few unintended consequences-

– Everything I rewrite is getting longer.

It just takes up more space, to be inside people’s heads. They not only do, they also think about everything they do. Getting into their emotions easily doubles the length of that narrative section. It also tends to lengthen the whole exchange, whether it’s dialogue or action.

Head hopping may get tiring.

In this way of writing, everything has to be from someone’s point of view. But what if I need to show events from multiple viewpoints at the same time? Then I have to head-hop. This is not such a problem so far, I think, but it’s something I need to watch out for. Hopping from Dawn to Alan and then the Abbess in the space of a few paragraphs is probably hard work for the reader.

– I can’t do abrupt time fades.

If we’re invested in a character’s emotions, and what will happen to them next, then I can’t just say ‘a month later, blah blah blah’, which¬† is something I do several times early in the book. It is totally jarring. Re-reading what I’d already written, followed by a month long break, I immediately felt- well, what happened in that month? That guy is just moping around depressed all that time? Dawn does nothing to help him out?

It didn’t work, so I have to take them out. The narrative has to be smoother, following each thread until it has some kind of resolution. If we reach resolution, then I think time fades are OK. But not before. People (at least interesting people) take action until a situation is resolved, they don’t sit around and mope.

– I care about the characters more.

This must be a good thing. But it’s a hard thing to face up to, especially looking at what I’ll do to these characters later on. First off, if they’re so important in the early stages, then they need to be more important in the latter stages. At the moment most of them, beyond the first 50 pages, don’t appear again until the second book. That won’t work if I make the reader care about them more now. They have to be in the game. Also, I have to be more careful with bad things happening to them- readers won’t accept all the characters they care about getting killed off.

Dawn has to change.

A lot has to change. His motivations have to seem controlled by more than just some feeling that ‘it’s the right thing to do‘. He has to be absolutely driven to do everything he does, or we lose sympathy for him. Especially if he’s putting friends into danger on what seems to be a whim. So I’m making that happen, giving him the deeper drive, and the steady set of obstacles to overcome. It will change things downstream I think, but if it means we’re more invested in him and his friends as a result, that has to be a good thing.

Writing Blog #1 the Dungeon Master`s screen

Comments 4

  1. Your analysis of story structure in these two Writing Blog posts has been very interesting. It occurs to me that what you describe in the first post as the “Dungeon Master” phase of composition is not just a preliminary step on the road to composing a complete story, but an alternative form of composition that is more suited to visual media.

    In a movie or play, you can start with action or dialogue because the audience can easily differentiate the characters visually (through costume, mannerisms, staging). Character background and motivation can be filled-in later with exposition, flashbacks, or revelatory action (usually best: “show don’t tell”).

    The difficulty of this with literary media is that the only way you can reach the audience is through “tell” without “show”. Even though the author may have a specific vision for the scene and characters he is writing about, the readers only get the words he writes and not the vision in his head. Therefore reading an action or dialogue scene without an introduction to the characters and/or situation can be confusing.

    I’m a little surprised that you got so much negative feedback to the visually-oriented composition style. To me it seems that it’s not an either/or question: If well-written, both visually-oriented compositions and literarily-oriented ones can work in either medium. Especially today when our culture is so dominiated by visual communications media, I feel like there are a lot of successful literary works whose composition is strongly influenced by visual styles.

  2. Post

    Hi David, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this- you`ve reminded me what intentions I started out writing this book with. I wanted to write it in a filmic style, and my whole goal was to never enter the heads of any characters at all. It would be observed and external, as if that were the higher goal.

    I guess there`s a few reasons for that. One is that my first book, written some 10 years ago, was a first person perspective adventure where we spent all the time in the protagonist`s head, often rambling off at tangents. I wanted to get away from that.

    Second would be the books on writing I`d been reading, many of which were directed at script-writers, and so the ultimate goal for them was `show not tell`.

    The result in written fiction is something people seemed to find a bit obscure, a bit dry, and probably a bit hard to get involved into. Could this filmic style work well throughout a whole book? I guess so, but it might be a bit of a strain on the reader. The printed word is after all not a lens. Maybe even in a comic or graphic novel it could work- it`s just how you show emotion I suppose. I did find myself saddled with an awful lot of tears, shrugs, nods, and head shakings, because without entering character`s heads, and without closeup on the actor`s faces to show complex emotion, it`s quite hard to render strong or complex feelings in text.

    About feedback- it`s not really true to say I got such a lot of negative opinions, but I`ve been reading into what feedback I did get, along with the straight rejections from agents, and trying to figure out how to make things better. This is most likely the right way to go.

  3. I rather liked it that you were holding so much information in reserve behind the dungeon master’s screen. Maybe you were holding too much back- but I don’t think you should explain everything. As a reader I like to be made to do a bit of work- to spot connections, guess at relationships etc. The more mystery there is, the more immersive it is.

  4. Post

    I`m with you on this dad, it`s a big draw for me too in shows like LOST, and something I wanted in my writing. As I rewrite I`m trying to give more depth and continuity to what is going on immediately, while at the same time still dropping hints to the bigger picture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *