Motivated to Show

One of the key rules all writers are taught (or should be taught!) from the beginning is: Show, don’t tell. And it’s definitely one of the keys to solid prose. After beta-reading a friend’s novel, however, I think it needs a small addition to the end: Show, don’t tell… but don’t forget to motivate.

We all do things for a reason. There is always a driving factor to our actions, whether or not we are aware of it. Consciously, I speed because I’m running late, and I feel embarrassed when attending an event that I consider important, or where I’ll miss part of it–I hate the feeling that I’ve missed out on something. I suspect it’s due to the inherently competitive culture of Asian society. In Singapore, there’s even a common word to describe people who are scared to lose. (“Kiasu”, for those who are curious.)

Subconsciously (or not so much, now I’m thinking about it), I talk and move very quickly when I’m stressed, because my internal filter between brain and body turns off. So when my brain leaps ahead, running through reasoning for all possible actions and their consequences, those leaps translate to others as a garble of words and actions. Growing up in what I’d consider a happy family, I’ve never learned to deal with conflict well. So my immediate reaction is to quickly identify the source of conflict and deal with it, brain filtering be damned.

Even the actions of people we consider clinically insane can seem rational and logical. Who wouldn’t spend all day washing themselves off if they believed there was a stubborn, abhorrent stain clinging to them? Who wouldn’t rack up huge credit card bills if they found that shopping was the only thing that let them see a faint ray of light, if only for a short while? Who wouldn’t hide from, or attack, a person they genuinely thought was out to kill them?

Motivation–that raw instinct that determines what we do, or don’t do—is the key to allowing us to connect emotionally with a person.

When writing characters, then, you may have a protagonist who is a bit of a jerk because he bullies his younger brother sometimes. You give us a scene where we see him doing it–and hurrah, you’ve shown us, instead of telling us. But if we don’t know why he does it–if all we see is that he bullies his brother–then we don’t empathise with him. You don’t have anything you can latch on to, and say, “I understand why he’s acting this way.” And that’s a key opportunity to connect with your reader, lost.

Conversely, you might have a protagonist who’s a rather good guy. Helps little old ladies across the street, and all that. And to show this, you have a scene where he puts his life at risk to rescue a runaway pram, then returns it to a weeping and grateful mother. Without giving us his motivation, it feels like a cheap and easy method to win our regard for him. But if you provide the reader with his motivation–he lost a loved one because bystanders did nothing to help them–it provides an element that intersects with our own lives. For who hasn’t feared losing someone they care about? And who doesn’t know the regret of wishing they, or someone else, had acted at a particular point in time?

Don’t just show us the who, the what, and the how. Give us the why.

And then, perhaps, we will start caring about your characters as much as you do.

Leanne Yong is an aspiring author who is working on her second young adult novel. Check out her blog at Clouded Memories for more information and a journal chronicling her latest foray into novel writing.

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