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Exercise: What drives you?

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: June 16, 2002
Reposted on: June 13, 2004

Establishing motivation is a major part of writing. What makes people, or characters, do the things they do?

I'm sure we have all seen stories (written or filmed) where a character's actions came out of nowhere. The plot called for something to happen, so that's what the character did. In real life, of course (and in good writing), people don't do things simply because we want them to.

So, what makes us (and our characters) act or react as we do? No non-trivial action will have a single cause or motivation: our actions are the result of multiple impulses, sometimes contradictory, sometimes in agreement. Some of those motives are internal (greed, ambition, generosity, and so on), some external, creating pressures and opportunities. (Internal motives deal with character; external stimuli drive the plot.)

Sometimes, even a minor event can trigger a major reaction, simply by occurring at the moment of greatest stress or opportunity. Such an event may even provide simply a pretext for action: a violent man, angry over some problem in his life, may take it out on an innocent bystander who gave him the merest cause for offense.

As a simple example, consider the car-buyer who carefully weighs reviews, features, costs, and so on - then buys the red car because it looks good. Did that impulse contradict all the research, or did it simply break the deadlock between the various vehicles that did meet the required standards?

In a more serious example, there are many tales of cowards performing heroic acts in wartime - perhaps simply because the fear grew so great that it led that person heroism. In this case, the inner need for self-preservation reacts with a highly dangerous situation to create an act that doesn't derive from either factor alone, but from the combination of the need and the situation.

In fiction, we have the example of Scarlett O'Hara, the spoiled society belle, performing great deeds and working as hard as any slave to preserve the things she firmly believes to be her own. The hardships did not make her a better person, but illustrated her priorities and her unwillingness to give up on what mattered most to her.

A good article on motivations can be found at: http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/artmotive.htm

The exercise: in 500 words or less, show a character acting, or reacting, based on at least one internal and one external motivation. Try to show rather than tell. The internal and external motives can support or contradict each other (each has different narrative effect.) Think about how the first can make the action more logical; how the second can create more tension, and lead to unexpected (but not arbitrary) action, as in the case of the coward turned hero in the example above.

When critiquing, describe the motivations as you saw them, and how you felt they did (or didn't) contribute to the resulting action.

Send your submissions to the list today through Friday with the subject heading:
   Subject: SUB: What drives you? [your name]

Critique each other's submissions (today through Saturday) with the subject heading:
   Subject: CRIT: What drives you? [writer's name]

Would you like to discuss it? Use the subject header:
   Subject: DISC: What drives you?

Want critiques on this exercise after the exercise ends? Request private critiques with the subject header:
   Subject: OFFER: What drives you? (Respondents must reply off-list).

The current and previous exercises are archived at: http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/pwarchive/index.shtml

Have fun!

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.