The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
This section is one of the reasons why every fiction writer should read this book. It cleaves craft from formula so deftly, so convincingly, that it cannot be refuted. Hills:
Motivation seems to have a key role in creating sequential, causal action, and formulas of fiction and drama speak of it as the “mainspring” of the action. Writers are always being urged to “establish motivation,” to make each character’s motivation as clear as possible, this seeming to be a good way of establishing both characterization and conflict.
Every writer confronts this kind of thinking at some point. It’s impossible to avoid. I was fortunate never to be exposed to formula as craft, but that doesn’t mean the issue of character motivation didn’t come up.
When I was in college I took multiple workshops in short fiction, playwriting and screenwriting. Concerns about character motivation came up most often in playwriting, less so in screenwriting, and least frequently in fiction workshops. While it’s possible my experience was the result of chance I don’t think that’s the case. Rather, I think it was influenced by the degree to which characterization dominates each medium.
Theater is character. Whatever might transpire on the stage, the available distractions and mechanics of storytelling are vastly constrained, ever falling back on the characters for translation and expression. In film or in literature a scene is described by the director or author: in the theater it is primarily described by the characters themselves.
The comic cliche of an actor desperately trying to unearth the motivation for a character’s lines includes a ring of truth. If you don’t know why you’re saying what you’re saying then you’re probably not going to be very convincing. Method acting and other techniques aside, the very act of performance demands introspection. But note: that doesn’t mean the playwright included a clear motivation for the actor to cling to.
Film might at first seem to be the least character-driven medium, and in the abstract an argument could be made to that effect. In practice, however, film is still a dramatic form related to the stage in two ways: it is based on a script and driven by performance. It is differentiated in a hundred ways, but primarily through the close-up, giving proximity to subtle realities of emotion that neither the stage nor the written word can duplicate.
As a practical matter, however, film (and by extension television) produces an unending supply of motive-explicit storytelling, to such an extent at times that the tendency seems a convention. While film is significantly more plastic than the stage, market demographics and the commercial and corporate nature of the medium conspire to favor lowest-common-denominator storytelling.
In contrast, the literary form demands less focus on character precisely because it affords the author so many other opportunities. Long passages of description, authorial asides, history lessons, and of course dazzling style are all arrows in the literary quiver. And as already noted, if you can’t write dialogue you’re dead in the water as a dramatist, but you might be able to get by in prose.
While any medium can be used to make a character’s motives explicit or murky, the literary form provides the least overt concentration on character as a medium. As an author that means you have more latitude to build experiences for your readers that offload questions of motivation onto context, setting, time and circumstance — all of which reflect the complexity of the real world, as against the everything-makes-sense world of fairytale fiction.
Motives cause behavior in life, of course, just as motivation is said to create action in fiction. But it is seldom possible to demonstrate how a motive caused a certain act, in any one to one relationship. Any interesting act is usually the result of “mixed” motives.
We all tend to ascribe clear motives where none exist, or when it’s obvious that more than one motive is at play. Asserting that a criminal acted because they were poor, or on drugs, or of a certain ethnic group necessarily means omitting the obvious point that not all of the people who fit those descriptions commit crimes. We know this, but we ignore it intentionally because having an answer — at times any answer, no matter how simplistic, bigoted or loony — is more important to maintaining our personal narratives than is any real understanding of the contributing factors involved.
And who has the time, anyway? We can’t stop what we’re doing every time something happens and try to get to the root of it. So we grab a handy motive, slap in on the offender and go sanctimoniously on our way.
But that’s not the way the world works. As Hills points out, that’s not even the way we ourselves work. Which means there may be no more important choice you will ever make about any story than the choice you make about how obvious or non-obvious your character’s motives are.
If you’re writing for a market that demands a clear motive and you fail to provide that clear motive, you’re asking for trouble. By the same token, however, if you’re aspiring to art, to depth of effect, and to write literature in the grandest tradition, clear motive is the antithesis of those objectives.
One again, if you know what you’re aiming at, the odds of hitting the target tend to go up.
Next up: The Stress Situation.
— Mark Barrett
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