Periodically I get so far off track that I have to completely scrap the mess I am working on. It’s as if I began writing one book, but somewhere along the line it becomes another.
One of the worst, most divergent messes I have created as a writer occurred early on in my current work-in-progress. I was apparently channeling Robert Jordan. (The Path of Daggers) (Sorry, Wheel of Time fans–I had to say it. I loved the series overall, but he lost us there. It’s okay to admit it.)
I became so completely sidetracked by the stories of my random squirrels…er…side characters…that I completely lost track of the character whose story I had begun writing. I wrote well over 200,000 words that did not advance that story.
I got so lost that I had to rein it in somehow. I’m not Robert Jordan, so there’s no way folks are going to stick with me while I meander through 15 books in the trilogy.
I shelved that MS, re-titled it Junk for my next book, and started all over again, this time with an outline. But all is not lost–I have 3 books worth of material for later, and it was a good exercise in how NOT to write a novel.
What originally got me going off in so many directions was the search for one particular character’s motivation. WHY does he behave the way he does? I wasn’t sure how to go about it, and I began by writing a backstory that I knew would never make it into the book. It was intended to show me who this person is, and what motivates him, but it got out of hand rather quickly.
In a workshop I attended at a recent convention,indie author Lindsay Schopfer boiled character motivation down to one simple thing: Need. Every action by a character must be motivated by some need.
Well, it sounds simple, enough, but it really can be complicated. After Lindsay’s talk, it occurred to me that I had gone about it the hard way. The simplest way would be to graph it out, and the internet is rife with all sorts of inspirational thingys of this nature, but I’m a rebel. I gotta do it my own way.
SO–I was a bookkeeper for years–I fired up Excel, and made me a handy-dandy Motivational Chart, where I identified the characters, what their action was, and what motivated that action.
What does a character need? Well, what do real people need? The basics are food, shelter, and garments. Once they have those items, they may need transportation, they may need entertainment. They need companionship. They need spirituality, or love, or sex. Once we identify what a character needs, we need to know how far they are willing to go to acquire it.
The lengths they will go to achieve their goal is the real story
This is one section of the long chart:
Now, you don’t have to be able to use MS Excel to make your own motivational chart. Get your ruler out, and block off sections on a standard sheet of paper. If you don’t have a ruler, use the straight side of something long, like a foil-box or a plastic-wrap box. The point is, you want to tame the chaos on one horizontal tier of a grid:
character –>his actions –> and why he did it (his motivations.)
In the process of doing that you may find yourself ironing out some plot wrinkles, as I did. I am a linear thinker–so I need to have my characters as clear to me as if they were my dearest friends. For me, that means I will make a chart from now on, rather than wasting time writing words to nowhere.
After I did this, I wrote 25,000 words that launched the real story. Charting my character’s motivations works well for me. I will be story-boarding my work in this fashion in the future.