I’m revising this week, and as I’m working through my pages, I’m reflecting on something I read this summer as part of my Write Mentor homework: Story Trumps Structure, by Steven James.
I guess, first I should say, reading Story Trumps Structure was not “exactly” part of my Write Mentor homework. I picked it up as an antidote to structure books that are the antithesis of how I write. There are any number of books out there that will tell you how to write a story via plotting, character profiles, and exhaustive questions covering everything from your character’s opinions of their kindergarten teacher to what they like most for breakfast on Saturdays. None of these things are bad. They can be kind of fun, and occasionally even enlightening (particularly if they hated kindergarten and that’s where they first had peanut butter crackers which is why they only eat cream cheese on their bagels now). However, when those same books attack pantsers for figuring this out as they go (they write a scene in which a character is offered peanut butter on toast and it triggers this awful memory of kindergarten which results in backstory and an intense emotional response to such a small thing), it’s hard not to want to hurl those same books across the room.
Enter Story Trumps Structure, a solid structure book by a pantser, which pretty much saved my brain from imploding. I could go on for hours about how amazing this particular craft book was for me, but today I want to focus on one thing that blew my mind and turned my scene composition around. Intention vs. Motivation.
Intentions is what the character is trying to accomplish. Motivation is why he’s trying to accomplish it.
As an author, it might be helpful for you to understand a character’s motive, but it’s far more important for you to clarify, in the minds of your readers, her intention. Often motive doesn’t make one iota of difference to the forward movement of the story—only the way in which your character pursues the object of her desire matters.
A character’s motives might be multidimensional and open for debate, but his intent in each scene needs to be crystal clear. And remember, he might think he knows why he wants certain things, but just as in real life, he might be wrong.
These quotes are all from Chapter 22: Attitude
That bolded statement hit me like a thunderbolt. Why? Because my characters are extremely complex people. They come into my head fully formed, and with them comes the weight of their emotional backstory, their belief systems, their way of looking at the world, even if I don’t know all that until I start writing. I don’t tend to write all that down in a pre-story planning session, but if you do, hey, that’s fine with me! I won’t dump on a plotter’s joy. But the point is that yes, these are people, they have many wrong beliefs, mistaken assumptions, and downright bias that make their motivations completely impossible to state for everything they do.
But, you can and should state intention in every scene.
I’m going to say that again. You can and should state intention in every scene.
So why was this so groundbreaking for me? Simply put, I’m not dumbing down my characters anymore. They can be just as complex as real people, act in ways that defy logic (because emotions are not very logical things), they can change their minds, have epiphanies about their beliefs, change, be altered by the scene, alter the scene, and in every way, be active protagonists in every scene in the book. Why? Because now they have intention.
Every scene now has a stated goal. On the page, goal! There are no more wasted scenes, every scene now has a simple sentence on page where I can see exactly what the MC wanted to do going into that scene, and wouldn’t you know it, that means that when the antagonist comes in, I know exactly what they will be doing too, because they have their own purpose in the scene, and generally, it’s to make the MC’s intentions go to hell. Enter conflict. Enter tension. And those things are like waves slapping up against the iceberg, exposing just the right amount of motivation to make things deeper and more interesting.
If, like me, you struggle with scene goals because you realize that your character has about fourteen to fifty reasons why they want to do something, and it’s overwhelming you, try going back to basics. What do they intend to do in the scene? State it as the first sentence of the scene, and watch everything flow from there like magic.