Every story has to start somewhere, and every writer has to start somewhere. But what kicks you in the pants isn’t going to be the same thing as what kicks your characters in the pants. Today, we’re going to talk about motivation and inciting incidents. One of them is for you, the other is for your characters.
You can’t call yourself an author until you sit your butt in the chair and start writing (or get on the treadmill and start writing, as the case may be–yay, treadmill desk!). And since we are all Captains of Our Own Ships and Masters of Our Own Destinies, all that takes is a simple decision from you to follow through. It comes from you, ultimately. Even if you’ve got a house full of cheering squad, none of your very supportive family or friends (or the reverse, if the people around you insist you could never do it and thus negatively motivate you) can put your fingers on the keyboard and make you type. The decision is an internal one.
Not quite so with your characters. You can start stories where a character wakes up one day and decides to do something, but it’s very likely your readers will wander away. Why? Because we all understand our own internal motivations. Other people’s, not so much. We have no reason to care that today, Bob decides he’s going to take the bus to work instead of the car. We’re not invested in Bob yet. We don’t care. We’re not sure why Bob’s never yet availed himself of public transportation, and we don’t care about that, either.
Now, if we know Bob wakes up every morning, pulse pounding and drenched in sweat from nightmares about the germs on buses, and goes to start his car the day of his big presentation only to find it out of commission, with his only option being the bus…then, we have a reason to start caring about Bob’s decision to ride the bus. Bob’s decision comes at great personal risk versus his germophobia. Bob has something to fight against that we can, if not see, then at least sympathize with. And with that struggle, that conflict, comes empathy. Suddenly, we care, because we’ve all had to make a choice to do something we fear or find distasteful in order to get to something we need or want. We’ve all had to make that choice between fear and payoff. And from that point on, Bob’s life is about to change because of that initial decision. Whether he stays home, germ-free, and loses his job, or braves the bus and gets the promotion and a case of pneumonia, Bob’s life will change from this point on, and we’ll keep reading to find out how.
As writers, the lure of payoff motivates us to a point, but if we wait around for the electric company to threaten shutoff, we won’t become very successful or effective writers. In real life, you motivate yourself. And yes, 99% of the time, real life is boring. It’s also way too random for fiction. Your characters, however, respond to cause-and-effect in the narrative (and even if they don’t, we still have to make it look like they do) because our minds know the beats of story and we want to see reasons for what happens in stories (because we get that so little in life).
Whatever you’re doing in life, it comes down to you being able to kick yourself in the pants. Your characters, however, need that kick from somewhere else.
My short contemporary romantic comedy, Forever Material, is out now! Please check it out!
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She’s absolutely sure he’s not the marrying kind…
He’s absolutely sure she’s right…
But he’s still going to prove her wrong.