Does Your Story Lack A Heartbeat?

by Sharla Rae

Recently, at one of our WITS critique meetings, we found ourselves asking why one of our partner’s characters was doing something that appeared illogical. The writer explained it wasn’t illogical at all. It fit her character’s motivation. To which we replied, “what motivation? Shouldn’t you clue us in so we’ll understand her actions?” She frowned a little and said, “I really didn’t want to reveal everything up front, for fear of spoiling the story.”

I proposed that she should reveal all the character’s motivations to the reader, but leave the other characters in the story ignorant. Thus, readers know what the other characters don’t. This actually heightens the tension in the story for the reader.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We’ve all made the mistake of holding too much back. In fact it’s a very common mistake when starting a new story. That said, leaving out character motivations can turn a potentially great book into a corpse.

Characters can walk and talk, cry their eyes out and howl with laughter and still be pronounced dead on arrival. Unless readers know why characters are doing all those things, that is, what motivates them, the story lacks a heartbeat.

Motivation is not just the heart of every character; it’s the heart of the story. It breathes life into characters and pumps the action that moves the characters toward their goals.

Don’t roll your eyes yet. I know that all writers understand the importance of motivation. But I also know after judging many contests that some authors hold back on motivations for the wrong reasons.

Two Most Common Reasons for Hiding Character Motivation

  • “I don’t want to give away the character’s secrets too soon; I want to surprise the reader at the end.”Readers are surprised all right! The characters run amuck, acting, reacting and saying things for no apparent reason. Without clear motivations, the book and its characters are as soulless as wooden puppets on strings.

Readers don’t empathize with puppets and won’t read far enough to find the “surprises.”Knowing character motivations allows readers to identify with them, root for or against them and experience the story’s adventure through them.

  • “I’m afraid the suspense or the story tension will be lost.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, knowing character motivations heightens story tension because often the motivations and goals of one character interfere with those of another. Part of the fun of reading a story is discovering how everything knits together  in the end.

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. We’ve all read mysteries where a secondary character turns out to have unknown motivations that upset the apple cart. The author gets away with this technique by never allowing the reader into this character’s point of view. However, through other characters, and discoveries made along the way, the author will drop clues that all is not what it appears on the surface.

Still, the above scenario is not the norm. In most cases, it’s not only okay for readers to know “all” character motivations, it’s necessary to understanding their actions. It’s necessary to keep the story’s heart beating.

So how ’bout it? Has your story’s heart ever skipped a few beats? What was your mistake and how did you fix it?

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34 Responses to Does Your Story Lack A Heartbeat?

  1. Sharla: yes, yes, and yes again!!! When I was writing my book, a writing friend pointed out to me that my No 2 protagonist (Jodie) didn’t appear to have anything that she really wanted. So she had no inner conflicts. No motivation to really do anything much. So I gave her a driving need to “kick goals” to make up for the fact that she had come in the bottom quarter of her FBI class. And she was partnered to work for a year in a foreign country with Cameron, a guy with an obvious alcohol and benzodiazepine dependency problem, who was preoccupied with guilt over his sister’s death. It was going to be hard to kick goals working with Cameron.
    And Cameron’s motivations? He wants to get over the guilt of knowing that he could have prevented his sister’s death, and get back on speaking terms with his family, which is not going to happen. And he wants to find the identity of the bomb maker who killed his sister, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen either. They both need something they apparently can’t have, and that motivates them to do the things they do.
    For me, this was a breakthrough.
    It’s like Romeo and Juliet. They both want something they can’t have, and that’s why you have a story. If we didn’t know that Romeo and Juliet want to get married, but their families hate each other’s guts, how could we understand the story?

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Thanks for commenting Richard. It’s so easy to get caught up in the action of the plot and forget to weave in the why of it or the motivation because we as writer know in our heads “why” it’s happening. And I think it’s okay to that on a first draft as long as we return and weave in the motivations later. When I write I usually end up with three drafts of each chapter esp. at the very beginning when I’m getting the feel of the book — sea legs as it were.🙂

  2. Stacy Green says:

    This is something I’ve had to be very careful with in my current WIP. It’s a loaded plot, and the main character has a lot of background issues. I knew the reader needed to know at least some of them before she revealed to the male protag, but they also needed to know more than him so they were on her side, as she drives the story.

    Great explanation of this important bit of craft.

  3. Sharla Rae says:

    Thanks Stacy. I think we all are afraid of info dumps too. And that”s where writing craft comes in – learning to weave in the motivation so the reader doesn’t even realize you’re doing it. Our hearts pump away almost silently, doing their jobs but we’re still very aware of it and it’s purpose.

  4. Great post, Sharla. This week I began Margie Lawson’s Deep Editing class and it was through all of you here at WITS that I met her, and because of posts like these that I knew I needed her. I am not all that fond of Maass, but one of his comments sticks with me (I have read both books twice and watched pod-cast of him teaching) … He mentions that one of the biggest mistakes writers make is not getting to the “point.” A young woman in one of his classes was upset that he said her first fifty pages were boring and she responded, “but wait until you get to page 51. That’s when things really start to happen.” so of course, he said, “Then start the story on page 51.” We can delay letting the reader know, or spend way too much time “building up” to the moment … but the moment for the reader is lost if they close the book on page 20 and you really got going on page 51🙂

  5. Sharla Rae says:

    So true. I’m so glad our blogs have inspired you and as you know we are huge fans of Margie Lawson. Laura gives her a lot of credit for her story crafting.🙂

  6. I struggle with this. I think writers have to find a balance between telling the reader enough that the character’s actions make sense and not telling so much they can predict everything. (That’s where good crit partners come in.)

    In my current HR WIP, there’s an exchange between the heroine and hero who had (earlier) called out the name ‘Rachel’ during a nightmare:
    . “Who’s Rachel?”
    . Guilt grabbed his heart and squeezed until a wave of icy detachment pried it loose and shut it down. “No one important.” He frowned and walked away, hoping The Almighty wouldn’t strike him dead for uttering the lie of the century.

    We still don’t know who Rachel is (and we won’t until about half way through the story), but we know she’s definitely someone important.

    As a reader, I don’t want to feel lost, but I like some surprises sprinkled in. I like it when there is a good, metered revealing of character and history and a believable progression of feelings and attraction between the leads. That requires *not* telling everything upfront.

    • Sharla Rae says:

      You’ve shown enough here to make the reader curious and as long as we know he harbors guilt this can play into the why or motivations for his actions. I’m guessing that later he performs an action that the reader will condone because they know about his guilt. This is what I meant in an earlier comment when I mentioned crafting the motivation in such a way that it’s no an info dump. Good job!🙂

  7. I’m so glad I read through all of this because the story I’m working is a sequel and I was affraid I had spoiled the new story by introducing “the forbidden love” too soon. Now I know I haven’t made that mistake either….Great advise and help from everyone. Cherri Miller

  8. Sharla Rae says:

    Thanks Cherri. I belong to a wonderful crit group and we discuss this kind of stuff all the time so I have to give them their share of credit.😉

  9. Thanks Sharla – good timing as trying to revise first novel/WIP before sending it out to agents. I know my main characters’ motivation but now need to check that readers will – even if it is a mystery.

  10. Sharla Rae says:

    Thanks for reading Roland. Your mystery will still be mystery because the protagonist won’t know the minds of all the other characters. And you don’t have to give away the mystery. The reader just needs to know motivations.

  11. I completely agree! I’ve had a similar experience with a friend of mine who asked me to critique her writing. If the plot is strong then you should be able to give up information in the first chapter that won’t take away from the tension. Sometimes it’s just about clearly raising questions. Make the character conflicted. Maybe he/she is torn between following one mindset or another. But make it clear what these mindsets are.

  12. You have straightforward tips and good insight in this post. I enjoy the guidance you offer with your blog. Thanks!

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Thanks Robin. I love the discussions generated by the comments. It’s almost like our discussions in my crit group. I always get an deeper insight from them.

  13. feberamfebe says:

    Great post! I’ve struggled with this in my current WIP. As soon as a writer tells me that they don’t want to “give away the big twist/secret/reveal” I tell them we need those things. or at least give enougn clues so that the big reveal has an emotional impact with the reader. Without that info, it’s as if the reader is lost at sea.

    • Sharla Rae says:

      You hit the nail on the head. Motivations stimulate emotions for the character & the reader. Funny how none of the story elements can stand alone.

  14. marsharwest says:

    Great blog, Shar. I tend to put two much in at the beginning. (I’m not the woman in the Maass class in Florence’s post above, but I could be.) However in book 4 (after heavy cutting from the front and beginning where several writers suggested the story should start), I had another person read the first 25 pages .She had all sorts of questions (all explained in the previously cut out pages.) LOL It’s all up there in my head and used to be on the page. Now I have to figure a way to put some of the info back in. The balancing act is really tough to get right. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • Sharla Rae says:

      I avoid info dumps in the 1st chaper. For me the chapter introduces the main character a goal, and at least a strong hint of the conflict. Then in the next 2 or 3 chapters I dribble in info that supports all of the above. The motivation fuels the quest toward the goal — that is the reason why the goal is important. Motivations often originate before the point where the story begins so it’s background info that can’t be dumped but it can be weaved in using emotion as mentioned by Ferber above.

  15. Barbara DeLong says:

    Well, I’m about to start fixing it right now! I originally had my heroine hold back info from the the hero AND the reader as to why she’s chosen to live in a secluded cabin in the Sierras. I wanted that big SURPRISE to hit them both a little later in the story. Now I can see that the tension will be heightened if I at least reveal it to the reader right away. Thanks for a very timely post!

  16. SD Writer says:

    If you’re holding stuff back to give the reader more at the end, you’re not giving the reader enough at the front (and your story needs more so you have great stuff at front, middle and end). And there is a fine line between a nice “oh wow” moment and a “wtf” moment — not all surprises are good.

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Ha! Very true. If a character appears too stupid to live, readers won’t care what happens at the end.

    • Oh Shannon, you cracked me up! To me, it’s the perfect illustration – the difference between “oh wow”, and “wtf!” When you read it in a book, and it’s done right, it is SO powerful (thinking of South of Broad, by Conroy) but I cannot see this nuance in my own writing – I can think I’ve done it brilliantly, and the Crit Group looks at me, and says, “Well, sorry, but duh.” Thank God for crit groups. Laura

    • Yvette Carol says:

      Ha ha, that made me laugh. Brilliantly put, Shannon!!

  17. Karen Duvall says:

    Several years ago I read the advice from a Harlequin author on eharlequin.com (shame on me for forgetting her name) that you should always ask your characters “why?” on every page. For every action, for every decision, ask “why?” and then give the answer to your readers. It’s a simple concept that’s easier said than done. I miss a lot of “whys” but remember to ask when I go back to revise. It’s helped me a lot.

  18. Sharla Rae says:

    Excellent tip Karen. Thank you.

  19. Jenny Hansen says:

    I think we’ve all done this at some point in the name of the “big surprise.” Except then the big surprise is on us when no one clamors for more of “that great story.”

    The particularly book that started this discussion was intriguing. Since the author got all the motivation on the page, it ROCKS.

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  22. Yvette Carol says:

    Wow, that was so insightful. One of the big surprises I had in my WIP was that the aunty was actually the protag’s mother. I had saved it till the very last page. An assessor read my work and suggested that this information needed to be at the start of the book. I was horrified. My big reveal idea was ruined. However I compromised. I put it in the middle of the book, and dropped hints up until then instead.
    Now reading your post Sharla, I’m realizing that I’ve done more or less the same thing of “holding back” on loads of other things as well. Phew! Back to the drawing board. Thank you🙂

  23. annerallen says:

    This is a great post! So many new writers think that withholding information is the same thing as creating conflict. They usually do it because they don’t have an antagonist. The writer can’t be the antagonist. You’ve got to have one actually in the story.🙂

    • Sharla Rae says:

      That’s a perfect way to say it Anne. I believe the best thing about blogging is all the great stuff “I” learn from readers.🙂

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