Monday, March 5, 2012

Meaningless motivations

It occasionally would happen that we would read a synopsis or pitch with sentences like this:

Martha wants a new career because life as a dental technician isn't all she'd hoped it would be.

Goal: new career
Motivation: Current career is unsatisfying.

So far, so good. But then the problem would come in when this entire goal and motivation failed to translate into action. Not once in the course of the story would Martha do anything to get a new job. Not one action would be taken in furtherance of that goal. She might whine a lot about her current job, but other than annoying the other characters (and probably the reader), her career status would have no bearing on the development of the plot.

In romance, this can appear as a phantom romantic conflict.

Martha finds Pete sexy, but his lifestyle is unstable and even wild.

When I see sentences like this in a synopsis, I immediately start checking for events that prove this statement. Events. Things that happen in real story time. If Pete's an accountant who never misses a day of work and turns in at exactly 10:35 p.m. each night, then the reader might be wondering if Martha is talking about a different Pete. But if he rappels naked down her high-rise office building to get her attention, well, now we might be getting a little wild.

Sometimes, these meaningless motivations are explained with backstory.

Martha resists Pete because he served two years in the Navy straight out of high school and she protested the war in 2002.

Okay, but what does that have to do with the plot? If these other things happened ten or more years before the present day, does it matter now? HOW does it matter now? What EVENTS make this long-ago disparity relevant now, in the current plot?

All of which is to say -- the motivations have to become activated somehow in the real-time plot. Otherwise, they're meaningless.


1 comment:

Emma Cunningham said...

I agree - I get really annoyed when the book starts out telling you about something a character did in the past - which seems totally unrelated to the person s/he is during the actual story.