Friday, October 14, 2011

How To Plot Like a Four-Year-Old with Guest Blogger Jason Black

Hello Seekerville, and special thanks to Tina for inviting me today. My name is Jason Black, and I'm a book doctor. A what? Yes, I get that question a lot. You can read all about it on my website, but in short I write book reports for a living--really long and intensely technical book reports. And if you'd have asked me when I was twelve if I'd ever enjoy writing book reports so much that I'd do that for a career, I'd have looked at you like you were nuts. Funny how life works sometimes.

When Tina first approached me about guest blogging here, she said she was looking for people who can teach the community something useful. I'm going to talk about plot motivation versus character motivation, not only because I see problems with this in my clients' manuscripts all the time, but also because the result of this particular mistake usually sabotages the whole story.

Plot motivation is when a writer has a character make a particular choice or take a particular action because it's necessary for the direction the writer wants the plot to go. Character motivation is when a writer has a character make a particular choice or take a particular action because it's what makes the most sense given the situation the character is in and that character's state of mind.

Phrased like that, I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that readers prefer the latter.

Yet, I constantly see writers mess this up. I'm constantly encountering places in manuscripts where I can see a character doing something that just doesn't feel right, and when I stop to think about why, I can see that it's because of what the writer want to have happen next, or in a few pages, or at the climax.

Sometimes I'll see a character make some choice that would make sense if the character had perfect knowledge of what everyone else in the story was up to, except of course they don't. The writer does, but the character doesn't. The character ends up seeming like some kind of Forrest Gump-ish savant, always doing the smart thing by luck or happenstance more than by design. Usually this is not what an author wants.

More often, I'll see characters do things that aren't consistent with the character's stated knowledge, beliefs, and goals. For example: suppose the author has made it clear that the Most Important Thing this character needs to do is get to the crashed satellite in the desert to recover the surveillance photos/secret technology/phlebonium before the Russians/Chinese/Al Qaeda does. Good stakes plus time pressure. Nice. Character motivation means showing this protagonist race to Langley Air Force Base, commandeer a military fighter-jet, and race at Mach 2 to Nellis AFB in Nevada. Plot motivation is showing the character, as he passes through Las Vegas on the way to the crash site, stopping at a casino for a casual dinner and some casual slot-machine action, then taking up with an attractive casino hostess and hanging out with her for a couple of days because the author wants the story to have a romance sub-plot. And possibly also because the author knows he messed up the story's timeline and needs to give the antagonists an extra couple of days to get to Nevada so there can be a climactic show-down at the crash site.

But most often of all, I see plot motivation when characters make choices and take actions that aren't consistent with normal human emotional reactions to earlier events. The classic example (and you'll see this in action movies all the flippin' time) is when a supposedly important character dies, but the remaining characters show no particular emotional reaction to that death. The surviving character's childhood best friend/love interest/beloved professor has just been eliminated--usually by the antagonists, because of course that heightens the underlying conflict--but the character continues on through the plot as though nothing has happened.
Death is an extreme and illustrative example, but the plot-motivation problem I see in emotional response is actually a failure to recognize that the Kubler-Ross "five stages of grief" model (which I've written about extensively on my blog) applies to virtually any kind of surprise a character experiences in a novel. It doesn't matter if the surprise is big or small, the five stage model still applies, although the scale of the response should be proportional to the gravity of the surprise. By not understanding this, writers naturally don't think to show the characters going through those stages. But the result from the reader's perspective is that the character has jumped straight from the surprising incident directly to the final acceptance stage, entirely bypassing denial, bargaining, anger, and depression.

Writing a novel is, fundamentally, a deeply empathetic act. You as writer must fully empathize with all of your characters, all of the time. At each moment in your novel, whether it's an intimate love scene or a high-drama action sequence, you need to find the most natural choices and actions for each character to take. You must be able to turn a dial in your mind and become that character, subsuming for the moment that character's full set of beliefs, their mood, and everything that makes up the character's personality, in order to determine what that character would do in that moment.

This is not easy.

The best advice I can give you for how to do it is to take a cue from your kids. My daughter is four, and she is smack in the middle of the "why" phase. She must obsessively ask why and how everything is the way it is. I can't do anything, or tell her anything--no matter how simple it might seem--without her questioning it. Why, Daddy? Why?

I keep reminding me that it's a healthy skepticism that will serve her well later in life, no matter how much it drives me up the wall sometimes.

The lesson for writers is to be that four-year-old. If you're about to have a character make a meaningful choice or take a significant action, ask yourself "why is she doing this?" If your answer has anything at all to do with the plot, it's the wrong answer. After all, the characters are ostensibly unaware of plot; real people don't go around thinking about the plots of our lives, we just live the events as we come to them. If your answer is anything like "because if she goes to this Starbucks instead of her normal one, she'll meet the cute boy barista and then the story's love triangle can start," try again. Your answer should always be something that boils down to "because this is the most natural, most sensible thing for her to do in this situation."

It may sound like I'm advocating letting the characters take the story wherever they want to. Not so. Sure, that works for some writers, but there's nothing at all wrong with wanting the plot to go in a certain way. The trick is to align the answers. The trick is to arrange things so that "the thing I want the character to do right now" is identical to "the most natural, sensible thing for her to do right now."

That's how you establish and maintain character motivation. And if you're having trouble training yourself to do it, just let yourself be four years old again. Make yourself justify all those choices and actions in character-motivated terms. Don't let yourself get away with anything. Always ask "why would this character do this now? What circumstances would lead this character to make that choice?"

Your job is to pre-emptively ask and answer that question, because it's the one question readers are always asking. In this, readers are exactly like my daughter. Why did she do that, Daddy? Why? When a writer has properly supported the character's choice--that is, when you've aligned your plot desires with the character's internal motivations--readers answer this question for themselves without even thinking about it. The character's choice just feels right. It's natural, and all is well.

But the instant you force a character to something solely for your preconceived notions about the plot, the reader won't be able to answer that question. The ever-present but usually invisible "why did she do that?" will jump straight to the forefront of the reader's mind. It'll stick there, nagging like a raspberry seed jammed between two molars, stubbornly refusing to be dislodged. At that moment, you've broken the reality of your story because your character's behavior doesn't match what we already believe to be true about that character. You've pulled the reader out of the story and have made them remember, in a sudden and jarring fashion, that this character is not a real person after all. You've let slip the curtain, revealing the character as a marionette jumping to the puppeteer's inexperienced commands.

Plot motivation. It's the surest and quickest way I know to spoil the believability of your characters, and with it, the whole book.

Thanks again to Tina and everyone at Seekerville for inviting me to guest-post. I always enjoy the chance to interact with a new community of writers, and will be following comments throughout the day. I love to brainstorm answers to those four year old questions, so by all means post your scenarios down in the comments and we'll work through them.

Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who reads, analyzes, critiques, and edits an average of two million words of his clients’ fiction every year. Jason is the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s “Book Doctor in Residence”, in which capacity he presents writing workshops to PNWA members and consults with members on their projects. He appears as a regular presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference and at monthly PNWA member meetings. Jason writes a monthly column on techniques for character development in fiction for Author Magazine (, and writes the Storycrafting column for the literary journal Line Zero ( as well. He is an occasional guest-lecturer to fiction writing students in the University of Washington’s continuing education program. You can read more about Jason on his website Plot to Punctuation.

In honor of Jason's visit today, and his four year daughter old AND to further celebrate our fourth birthday, Seekerville is giving away a $10 Amazon gift card to one reader, and for one writer-their book of choice from any of the six books listed on Jason's Writing Resources page. Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.

Remember any comment today puts your name in the randomizer for the monthly birthday present and the weekly birthday present. Check those out here.


Carol Moncado said...

I have a 4yo. He's not the one in the 'why' phase. It's my will-be-10-on-Saturday girl. But it's more about why she can't spend as much time on the computer as she wants etc.


Either way, no fun.

I like to think that if I've got a plot reason for making a character do something that I can also make it in character based on what that person knows etc.

Whether I succeed or not is up for debate :p.

I've got early birthday cupcakes. It's one of those Walmart cupcake cakes. It's shaped like a giant candy corn.

carolmoncado at gmail dot com

KC Frantzen and May the K9 Spy said...

Wow Jason! How'd you know??? Thanks Tina for asking the doctor to make house calls!

Hey Carol! Hugs to those kiddos and special greetings and sniffs from May too!

MMMM - Candy corn cupcake cake. YUMMO! I've got the tea service out in case somebody wants a little different something. AND - a big cold pitcher of whole milk. Just right with cupcakes...

Renee (SteelerGirl83) said...

Hi Jason! I'm no means a writer but as I was reading through this it really resonated with me. I just finished reading a book a few days ago and someone close to a main character died. That said main character basically said, "Meh" and moved on. The person who died was a reason why her life was so terrible and yet she basically brushed aside his death. Other than that the story was great but the characters grieving or lack thereof bugged me.

Nice post.

XOXO~ Renee C.

Aly Logan said...

Jason, this is EXACTLY what I need to keep in mind as I do the current (and hopefully last until it sells) rewrite of my novel. I finished working on Chapter 1 today, so I caught you at the best possible time to improve my opus.

Thanks so much!


Helen Gray said...

Wow! I feel like I've just spent a week back in school.

Thanks, Jason.

Oh, the coffee pot is all set.


gatorade635 said...

As a reader I wholeheartedly agree! There are few things worse in a story than an out-of-character, character.

Pamela J said...

I have a grandson who is 4 years old but too far away to hear all his "Why" questions. But, I babysit a 4 year old girl, Faith, who is full of questions. I've actually turned her questions back onto her to get her thinking too.

I'm a reader, not a writer. But my Step Mom is wanting to write to publish so I am gathering information for her to help her out. Your books, Jason, would be helpful for her; just going by what you've said here. I'll keep in mind to watch for an opportunity to get at least one to help her out. I'm thrilled with just this piece of advice/help you've shared. As a reader, it has opened my eyes to why some books just don't click or seem as real as others.
Pam Williams
cepjwms (at) wb4me (dot) com

Jan Drexler said...

Like others have mentioned, your timing for this blog is perfect. Thank you!

I'm having a hard time deciding why my character would do anything. I don't want to just ditch her and start over (although sometimes I'm tempted!), so I'll apply the questions to her.

The sticky note with "why?" on it is going on my computer as we speak!

And I will definitely be visiting your blog -

Thanks again!

Valerie Comer said...

Thanks, Jason! I had a lot of trouble with this in the first few books I wrote. I love how you said having plot motivation isn't wrong, so long as it comes from character motivation also. That'll stick with me.

Tina Radcliffe said...


An editor told me that character motivation had to be organic. I so did not understand that at the time. But this is exactly what you're saying.

Excellent. Thank you.

Virginia said...

*** Waving from the Pacific Northwest! *** I bet you know Laura Whitcomb or have met. I have all her books, including the 'Your First Novel' one. She made me want to write!
I loved this post and I'm heading to your blog in a second. I remember entering a chapter in a contest this year and the judge came back with a note in a pivotal part of the action: "BUT WHY?" I'll never forget that. Why, indeed!! It made sense to me, but I know the whole story. If it didn't make sense to her or him, then there's a big hole there.
I don't have a four year old, but I have a six year old and a two year old. Six year old says, 'Just a minute' for everything and the two year old says 'NO' to everything. I'll trade you for a day!!

Mary Cline said...

I am printing this one out to put it where I can read it every day. Thank you.

Angela Breidenbach said...

I liked the concept of the plot being about the character's choices. My mind went off into a whole new plotting plan for my latest book.
Angie Breidenbach

Melissa Jagears said...

I'm now following your blog, not that I need another one to follow with my time constraints :) but I am. Thanks for sharing, and I'll have to make sure I don't play puppeteer!

Helen W said...

Thanks Jason, this is a great post. I'm thankful to be learning things like this so early in my writing attempts!

Annie Rains said...

Why? Why? Why? I love your advice. Thanks so much for sharing. I heard a similiar talk over the weekend at a mini writer's conference. This must be something that I need to hear.

Ausjenny said...

Carol does the cupcake taste like candy corn? had a friend send some to us Aussies a few years ago but most of us found it way to sweet to each much of it. I am a candy lover but it made me feel sick cos it was so sweet.

Jason I enjoyed the post. your example with the pilot stopping of in vegas for a meal etc made sense to me. I was like why would he do that. I appreciate learning what goes into writing books people like me will enjoy reading.
I have read a few books where there seems to be a holding pattern waiting for the climax to happen in the last 20 pages or so. One books I read a year or so back could have cut out about half the book as it seemed like they were going for a word count. I was actually getting frustrated with the book cos it was like it was going nowhere then the last 20 pages or so the climax happened. I felt the book dragged cos the first part lead to the ending and those 100 odd pages were just put there to annoy the reader.
Its been a long week (considering I kept thinking today was Thursday) so this little vegemite is off to bed.

leaving yet another packet of timtams to share.

Christy LaShea said...

Dr. Black ;)
Thanks for your insight. I had to read the difference between Plot motivation and Character motivation a couple of times to absorb it completely (I'm only fueled on half the caffeine my body requires at this point). But, I think I've got it.

Let me ask you a question for a male perspective. It's 1903 and my main character has moved from NYC to small town in GA to take over a retiring doctor's practice. For a guy in 1903 do you think the purpose of setting out on his own, rather than follow in his father's footsteps to one day take over his dad's practice in NYC is enough/reasonable motivation to make such a drastic move like this?

Open to anyone's thoughts on this as well, especially those of you comfortable with the time period. Thanks!

Debby Giusti said...

Why! Why! WHY!?!

Love it, Jason. Thanks for being with us today. Great stuff in your blog. I clicked back to your Stages of Grief. All good, and what I needed to read. Decided I would tweek my character's reaction to a significant piece of info just dropped in her lap. Why? 'Cause denial--as you mentioned--will make the scene more authentic and moves the motivation from being plot driven to character driven.

So write time, write place for me today! :)

Thank you so much!!!

Heading to the coffee pot for a second cup...

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Jason, this parallels perfectly with the Moral Premise. Between these two ideas, which meld perfectly, beautiful books can be woven time and again.

This just makes perfect sense. I think you've nailed the definition of what an editor means when they say "action evolving organically from the plot"...

Because if the reason for the action doesn't exist, most likely the action shouldn't either. And Mary Connealy did a blog here about this (although, frankly Jason, she was mainly SHOOTING PEOPLE, but Mary does that. All the time. Taxing, really!!!) and it hit home with me too.

This is just wonderful, wonderful stuff, definitely a PRINT OFF NOW kind of blog. If you were here I'd hug you and spoil your four-year-old because kids rock.


Question: Writer egos are incredibly delicate and sometimes inflated things. Do all of your clients take your direction?

I may not believe you if you say yes. ;)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Years ago AnnE Goldsmith advised me to go to the WHY of the questions.

Why would he do this? Why would she say that? Why would they move here?

And in doing that she taught me this lesson, to look at the "WHYS" of each book and make it reflect the character. Because it's an irritant to readers when it doesn't.

And kind of lazy on our part.

Dianna Shuford said...

Thanks for the information, Jason. This post has come at a very timely moment for me.

Would love to be entered in the drawings for today!

Whitney said...

Welcome, Jason, and great post! This is something every writer needs to read. It seems like 9 out of 10 books have at least one scene that feels "out of character", when I think the protagonist is being completely stupid, and it's because the author is making them make plot-driven decisions. I never could put my finger on exactly what was wrong, but that's a big part of it.

Thanks for sharing!


Tina Radcliffe said...

I mean seriously is his blog just like mental overload? I can only handle so much. It is an amazing amount of information and it ought to be in a book.

You're also part of PNWA.Most folks here don't know what that is. Can you share please and thank you.

sherrindaketch said...

I agree with should compile it all in a book! Great stuff here. Those little 4 years are wise beyond their years!

Tina Radcliffe said...

Tell us a little about your relationship with an author during editing. Is it a hard copy edit? Do they send manuscripts via email? Consulting via phone?

Janet said...

Thank you for this great advice! I see this a lot on TV and it drives me crazy. I think, "That character wouldn't do that! Why did they change the character?" Now I know.

Rose said...

Good Morning, Jason,

I'll be printing this blog post out and bopping over to your blog later today.

Thanks for sharing all of this information with us!


Anonymous said...

Oh Goodness this is some deep stuff so early in the morning, I have never heard of a book dr before, you have given us much to think about this morn Jason.
I think I need some coffee and to think about this for awhile.
Paula O(

*lizzie starr said...

Thanks for a great blog. I'll definitely go read your thoughts on the stages of grief--that hit a chord both professionally and personally.

WHY? A perfect writing question--one that comes directly after What if! :)

Tina Radcliffe said...

Yes. Lizzie you nailed it.

In the beginning there was....


Jackie said...

WOW! A BOOK DOCTOR. Maybe I need to make an appointment. Thanks so much for sharing. You've given me a lot to think about as I write and edit.
Thanks so much! I'll be sure to check out your site Jason.

Tina Radcliffe said...

Jackie, does make you wonder what exactly is in his medical pen? White out? Lots of Kleenex.

Pam Hillman said...

Happy birthday to Jason's 4-year-old daughter no matter when it is...just because! lol

And, show of hands... Who had to look up subsuming???? Come on now, don't be shy!!!

This was great! Thanks Jason! I've gotten tangled up with this very thing when plotting/writing. Trying to figure out whether the next step stems from plot motivation or character motivation. And it's so easy for those lines to become blurred, at least from MY pov. Readers don't have that problem! lol

So, taking Jason's hero who stopped off in Vegas. If Hotshot Hero had to stop off in Vegas to purchase a blackmarket X3-rocket-launcher-Uzi-doozie-thing-a-bob to help him when he got to Nevada and his contact just so happened to be the cute blackjack dealer, AND the bad guys just happened to get wind of it, and chase them all over Vegas, then we have motivation and conflict (flimsy, maybe, but Helen's coffee hasn't kicked in this morning). And, oh, we have goal too: Get outta Vegas! lol

Jason, like I said, I have a hard time separating plot motivation from character motivation. To me, even what I've outlined above is still plot motivation. Isn't it? Because the reason he stopped in Vegas was plot driven, not character driven.

Oh, my aching head.

Walk me through this one, please!

I promise to subsume it!

(Ruthy will pop in here and say:

Hillman, DUDETTE!

You THINK too much.

MY STARS, girl, just write the heroine's scene, and have the hero react to it. Have I taught you NOTHING all these years?

She'll will use those EXACT words. Just watch!)

Carol Moncado said...

Jenny - no just regular cupcakes iwth orange, yellow or white frosting.

Gotta go get 'em.

More later.

Patsy said...

That was great advice Jason. I'm not a writer but I've seen what you're talking about in some books I've read. I wonder if your 4 yr old daughter will grow up to be a book doctor too! Out of the mouth of babes comes great questions and advice sometimes. (I don't know why the title of book doctor sounds so funny to me!)

Helen, no time for coffee this morning. ugh! Off to elementary school to teach 1st grader about fire saftey. (Did I mention my husband and I are volunteer firefighters. Yep. I took the training too!)

Jeanne T said...

Dr. Jason, thanks so much for posting here today! As a fairly new writer, I appreciate how you explain plot motivation and character motivation. I understand it much better.

In discovering who my characters are, I've interviewed them and asked, "Why" a lot to get to the bottom of why they do certain things or why they are the way they are. That's helped me learn about my characters. Asking WHY for each decision is a new thought to me. Thanks so much!

I'll probably be back later with a question. It's still formulating in my tired brain.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Thanks for the great advice! This is a really great reminder not to let your characters do things that don't make sense! I tell writers I'm mentoring, "Yes, you can do that, but you have to have a good reason for it. Otherwise, it's not believable." Same for contest entries. Often I see things, right from the very beginning of the story, that make me think, I don't believe that would happen. I don't believe she would really do that. And it seems contrived--The author NEEDS her to do that, that's the only reason she is doing that.

I have to watch myself too. I know where I want the plot to go, but I shouldn't make my characters do things that are out of character. Thanks for the reminder! And happy birthday to your 4-yr-old, Jason!

Erica Vetsch said...

Wonderful! I'm plotting a novel right now, and I'm constantly asking "Why?" because when I tell the plot to my college-aged daughter, she will be the one asking "why did your heroine do that?"

Ruth Logan Herne said...


See? I have to say NOTHING. You said it all!


His actions might be plot-driven.

But WHY did HE go to Vegas? Is he untrusting of any help? Is he egocentric? Is he a power Type A guy who WON'T LET ANYONE IN? Is he a Jason Bourne who can trust no one because of his past? Is he a manipulator and plans to thwart things early in the game, Ocean's 11 style?

So to me the GOING is simple. The "whys" of how he behaves/reacts/takes action once there reflect HIM/His inner self or motivation.

So then the two blend.

Umm... Jason said it better. ;)

Tina Radcliffe said...

Dr. Jason!@! Love the title.


Janet Dean said...

Welcome to Seekerville, Jason. Thanks for your excellent post! Wonderful advice for making our characters feel real!

Happy 4th birthday to your daughter and to Seekerville!!!

Love a party! Where's the cake? Why isn't there cake? Why?


Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi Jason, Welcome to Seekerville.

Wow, we all need this post. Great insight into those character motivations. I'm afraid I've been guilty of plopping my poor characters into situations that are not in character for them (Hush Ruthy, I admitted it. You don't need to remind me how many times you caught me at it. LOL)

Thanks Jason. I'm sure this post will help many of us.

And Janet you're right. Where is the cake?

I'm putting out a table of fresh fruit, assorted bagels and cream cheeses, some yummy coffee cakes and all to go with several urns of STARBUCK;s coffee in honor of the fact Jason is from Seattle.

Have a great day Jason.

Jeanne T said...

Breakfast and coffee have helped my brain wake up a little bit. :)

I've kind of put the question percolating in my brain into words. How can I know if I have nailed the Noble Quest my character will embark on to take her through the story?

Stephanie Queen Ludwig said...

Very thought provoking post, Jason. Thank you!

I'll have to say proper motivation is something that drives me bonkers in books when it doesn't fit. It totally takes you out of the story.

On the other hand, I've had the problem when I've created a fictional town, that I keep thinking 'why would the diner be located there? Or the park?' I don't know why I suddenly become a city planner but I hate it because it takes me out of my story.


Tina Radcliffe said...

Things apparently get a little tense around here and I don't mean past, present or future..if we don't have cake.

Cake is now being served for guests and the good doctor.

Chocolate Birthday Cake

Missy Tippens said...

Jason, welcome to Seekerville! We're so glad you joined us. This is a fantastic post! And something that I really needed right now.

Thank you!!

Sandra Ardoin said...

Thanks so much, Jason! This is great.

I've written a scene I keep feeling isn't right, so I'm off to ask my heroine WHY she did what she did. I suspect she'll say the Devil (me) made her do it!

Connie Queen said...

One of my pet peeves...

In movies, I hate when the movie's going along with action, and then right in the middle of it there's a scene where a couple of the guys meet in a strip bar w/half-naked women dancing in the background. I'll turn to me husband and say, "They just threw that in so they can rate it R." Has nothing to do with anything.

This isn't exactly what you're talking about, but the principle's the same.

Great article Jason.

Jackie S. said...

Great post! Tina, thanks for having Jason....I plan to visit his blogs! Count me in for the drawings! Thanks!!


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Teeeena, thanks for the cake. Perfect for mid-morning...

and poor Jason.

He's west coast.

Probably feeding that precious girl Trix right about now.

Well, we've got cake and coffee for him. And lots of questions and comments. Now that's a great wake-up call!

Hey, I wonder if Jason would be interested in doing an Early Bird type thing at ACFW next year?

Jason, has anyone ever approached you about that? Coming to the big ACFW conference and teaching an exclusive class????

Tina Radcliffe said...

I actually talked to Jason about RWA but he is such a good daddy he doesn't leave the doctor's daughter for that long.

Missy Tippens said...

My hand is raised! Yes, I had to look up subsume. :)

Tina Radcliffe said...

sub·sume   /səbˈsum/ Show Spelled[suhb-soom] Show IPA
verb (used with object), -sumed, -sum·ing.
1. to consider or include (an idea, term, proposition, etc.) as part of a more comprehensive one.
2. to bring (a case, instance, etc.) under a rule.
3. to take up into a more inclusive classification.

"I didn't have to look it up," she fibbed.

Eva Maria Hamilton said...

Thanks Tina for having Jason guest post! That was great to read! Please visit again Jason!

Eva Maria Hamilton at gmail dot com

karenk said...

I never heard of a 'book doctor' before...very interesting.

enjoyed this posting.

kmkuka at yahoo dot com

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Tell Jason he can bring the kid, I'll watch her because I'm already WAY SMART and she'll have a ball with me and he can teach a room full of authors.


Amanda said...

Wow! Learned a lot from this post. Am already thinking of places in my ms where this is true.

Thank you so much for the informative post Jason!


Janet Kerr said...

Hello Jason,
This is an interesting spin. Thanks for the thoughtfull information.


Donna said...

Welcome Jason! In my WIP my character has lost a wife and child to an act of violence. When the story begins he has already gone through the phases of grief and has began to seek revenge. After reading your post, I realize I sometimes have let the plot lead the character and sometimes let the character lead the plot. Thank you for showing me I need to go back and rectify those plot motivated choices!

Linnette R Mullin said...

Jason, I'm totally with you! What a much needed reminder! Thank you for coming to Seekerville today. This is one of those things that should be intuitive to a writer, but it's only human of us to want to control every little thing our characters do, too.

So, here's my wip:
Loving Tiffany
A woman recovering from a lifetime of abuse... A friend dealing with his own heartache... A wealthy man promising security... A God who demands she give him all...

I have the tendency to make the character respond how I would. I have to watch this extremely carefully with Tiffany because she's not yet a Christian, she hates most men, and she's very cynical. She's a tough little gal with a bleeding heart and her reserves are about used up. If it were just her, it would be one thing, but she has two young sons to raise. I can get into her character, but I find myself trying to take the easy way out and Tiffany, though at a crossroads in her life, doesn't give in so easily.

It's hot tea time! :D

Linnette R Mullin said...

Today is Garrison's birthday!!! :D He's feeling much better, but still a little sluggish. Thanks for all the prayers!

Pam Hillman said...

Ruthy sez: But WHY did HE go to Vegas? Is he untrusting of any help? Is he egocentric? Is he a power Type A guy who WON'T LET ANYONE IN? Is he a Jason Bourne who can trust no one because of his past? Is he a manipulator and plans to thwart things early in the game, Ocean's 11 style?

Ah...I'm getting it now. I might plot out the EXTERNAL...he went to Vegas to get the big gun (or whatever), but... WHY did he feel he HAD to go there? Why didn't he just go straight to Nevada and fly into the face of the danger?

Hmmmm...because these guys he's after killed part of his team 5 years ago, and the rest of his special ops unit was retired and put out to pasture. Maybe he's gathering forces (his old team) instead of a hot-shot gun. (Nah, we'll take the gun too. Mary, you're in charge of the gun.)

And the blackjack dealer can be part of the former team, but she wants no part of it all because of her 4 yo son...

Carol Moncado said...

/watches for lightning strike to the west/

Asking characters why today. Hopefully it'll break the block since Tuesday's Panera Day.

The more I thought about it, the more I think my 4yo is past his why phase. He asks other questions. Constantly. You'd think he was a girl he talks so much.

But they're... well beyond what any of my girls asked at this age. He grasps concepts they didn't until they were older [like the power plant is where they make electricity so he can turn on lights and it goes through the wires - he asked what the power plant was when he saw it, but he came up with the rest on his own - and more besides].

Uh... there was something else I was going to say. Relevant even. But I got sidetracked and wrote a blog post of my own. I do have cake. And Andy's Frozen Custard for everyone.

Christina said...

Whoohoo, maybe I'm actually doing something right in this writing thing as I'm always asking myself what my characters would do and why would they do it. If plot gets in the way I'm pretty quick to figure it out mostly because I get stuck.

I'm also a brainstorming addict. ;)

Thank you, Jason, for a excellent post!


Mia Ross said...

Why, why why? Is anybody besides me hearing Billy Currington? :D

Great post, Jason. Thanks for boiling it down to that one very simple--and sometimes vexing--question.

Jamie Adams said...

Thank you, that was very helpful. I've heard plot driven vs character driven for years but this is the first time it really sunk in. I'm so glad you shared with us today!

Sharazade said...

Oh, nicely put. I think sometimes the tug to do that--have a character advance your plot--is subtle (to the writer) and you miss it. But not so subtle to the reader...

Sharazade said...

Oh, whoops, forgot my email address. But would like to be entered in the drawing! sharazade1001 at gmail dot com.

Renee (SteelerGirl83) said...

Oh yum I'm loving all the cake this week but seriously guys you're clogging my virtual arteries! ;-)

XOXO~ Renee C.

Myra Johnson said...

This is fascinatingly good stuff, Jason! THANK YOU!!!

And really, as if I didn't need another reason for sticking with my SOTP style of writing.

See, that's why being a pantser works so well for me. As each scene unfolds, I'm thinking, okay, what would this character REALLY do in a situation like this, and what would it naturally and believably lead to?

So even though I usually start out a new project with a GENERAL idea of where I want the plot to go, it's the moment-by-moment actions and reactions of the characters that dictate exactly HOW the plot will develop.

OOOOOH, I just LOVE the joy of "discovering" my story this way!

Which reminds me, I have an appointment with Scrivener. Later, y'all!

Tina Pinson said...

Thanks for making a housecal, Jason.

I suppose there are sick books to bring back to health.

I'm sure some of mine could well need life support.

Or maybe I should pull the IV and pronounce them dead.


Have you ever told anyone to scrap their story and start again? Or go back to the bare bones?

I think I have it figured out I need to write with the untethered imagination of a for year old.

Maybe it would do me good to make a POP up book of my stories so I can view my characters on a different plane. But if you follow a kid's logic of their character, going to Vegas even Venus Isn't so far fetched. And my four year old mind is certainly going to think about my characters differently than Ruthy or Ms Radcliffe's 4 yr old minds.

So ask the whys. and maybe simplify and then you can go deep into the mind of my character.


The why they do the things they do? Sounds like a song.and now I have in my head.

Aww man now i'm thinking too much

I think I'll go eat cake.

Pepper said...

Okay- I need to go and rewrite 3 novels now.
Thank you, Doctor Black.

This is AWESOME info - and it feels like 'common' knowledge I SHOULD know and deeply consider, but don't.
Until now :-)

Thanks so much

Jeanne T said...

Carol, I soooo agree! Girls get a bad rap! Boys at that age talk waaaaaay more than girls do! Sometimes I have to ask for two minutes of no talking just to have a coherent thought. Then, the chatter is back. And I look them in the eye. And I cherish the words, cuz I know that this too shall pass.... Just saying. :)

Joanne Sher said...

Oh, do I EVER love it when someone can boil a tough concept down to something THIS simple (if only it were as easy to WRITE as it is to understand.).

Jason - this is WONderful - and wonderfully helpful!

Please enter me. joanne(at)joannesher(dot)com

Donna said...

Oh how I miss the chatter box days! Out son will be 17 in two weeks and we just bought him a car. The hardest thing I think I'll ever do is let him pull out of the driveway for the first time alone, yikes! I'm trying to keep this verse in my heart.

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
John 14:27

Tina Radcliffe said...

Hard to believe our four-year-old kids grow up to drive cars. Praying!!

Jason Black said...

Hello! Jason here. Thanks for the welcome, and wow I'm amazed at how many comments there are already. Give me a little while to catch up, and I'll answer questions as I can throughout the day. Fun!

Tina Radcliffe said...

We don't mess around in Seekerville. We have your throne ready -for today only of course. Your coffee and your cake.

Donna said...

I should have said "the hardest thing I've done so far." I'm sure all the military Mom's out there would say letting them learn to drive is a 'piece of cake.'

Pamela J said...

When Donna said, "the military Mom's out there would say letting them learn to drive is a 'piece of cake.", I had to agree. I'm a 'military Mom' and some of the stories I've heard.... all I can say is "I didn't need to hear that".
Our younger son was wild when he was learning to drive: but then, the military happened. No wonder my head is more salt than pepper! Hmmm...
cepjwms (at) wb4me (dot) com

Jason Black said...

Ok. Here's batch one. This is getting long, so I'll post it now and continue from there.

@Carol Moncado:
"I like to think that if I've got a plot reason for making a character do something that I can also make it in character based on what that person knows etc."

Yes, exactly! You know what you want to have happen, you just have to find a way to make it natural for that character to do that thing at that time. Spot on!

I have no advice for what to do about your daughter, though. :)

@Jan Drexler
"I'm having a hard time deciding why my character would do anything."

To me, that speaks of a lack of clarity in your own mind as to who she is (what her goals in life are, what motivates her, what she fears, et cetera), and/or what's going on in the specific situations you find her in. In my experience, if you take the time to know in your gut _who_ a character is, it starts to become self-evident what they would do in a given situation.

@Tina Radcliffe, who asks me many questions:
"An editor told me that character motivation had to be organic. I so did not understand that at the time. But this is exactly what you're saying."

That kind of touchy-feely, "sounds good but doesn't actually help you" feedback drives me crazy, which is largely why I spend so much time delving into the _why_ of narrative techniques. For me, I never feel like I understand a thing unless I also understand why it works.

"You're also part of PNWA.Most folks here don't know what that is. Can you share please and thank you."

PNWA is the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, online at PNWA has several hundred active members in the Puget Sound region, runs a wonderful annual writers conference (next year's is in mid-july), a literary contest to go with the conference, member meetings with great speakers (authors and agents and industry people and sometimes even me), weekend workshops (one of which I'm teaching tomorrow!), book signing events, you name it! For anyone in this neck of the woods, it's a terrific organization that really does do yeoman work in supporting writers along the path towards realizing their dreams.

"Tell us a little about your relationship with an author during editing."

It's pretty straightforward. About 95% of what I do is developmental editing, and about 99% of what I do is electronic. Authors e-mail me their manuscript. I read, critique, write up my developmental editing feedback into a report, and e-mail that back.

For the occasional line editing or copy editing job, I do the edits in MS-Word with "Track Changes" turned on, and again e-mail the result back to the client. That way, the client can see exactly what I did, can decide on a case-by-case basis whether to accept or reject any particular edits, and gets the learning benefit of seeing every instance of the problems in that writing. My hope is that by the time a client goes through that process, he or she has gained some skill in spotting those problems on their own, simply by having been shown so many examples from their own writing.

Thanks again for inviting me!

Jason Black said...

Batch two. And what's up with Blogger's 4096 character comment limit? Jimminy crickets!

@Melissa Jagears
"I'm now following your blog, not that I need another one to follow with my time constraints."

Don't worry. :) I don't blog nearly as much as I ought to. But when I do, I try to make it quality material. That said, there's TONS of older articles on my blog that are all about various aspects of character development, so you can certainly fritter away many hours reading through those...

@Christy LaShea
"For a guy in 1903 do you think the purpose of setting out on his own, rather than follow in his father's footsteps to one day take over his dad's practice in NYC is enough/reasonable motivation to make such a drastic move like this?"

I don't have a problem with it, particularly, but I do think you need to do some amount of work to make it really click for readers. Because you're right, a century ago, the idea of following in the father's footsteps and carrying on the family business was much more normal/expected than it is today.

Two thoughts jump to mind. One, what kind of relationship does your guy have with his father? If it is a strained relationship, then him setting off on his own makes much more sense. He is leaving perhaps as much to strike a blow at his father as he is to seek his own fortunes. Backstory can give him a dual-purpose in leaving, which strengthens our understanding of why he'd do it.

Two, I remember once my grandfather (who was born in the 1908) explaining to me that when he grew up the general expectations around career were that men would grow up and own their own businesses; that the whole pattern of growing up and spending your career working for someone else's business wasn't the way things worked. Back then, before the industrialization of everything and the attendant broad spread of factory and office jobs, everybody pretty much ran their own small business doing whatever it was they were good at. Your protagonist lives in that world, but notice the a dichotomy in it: On the one hand, that society encourages the self-made man, but on the other hand, a great many such small businessmen did in fact get their businesses by inheriting them from Daddy. You can work with that. If you can convey to us that your protagonist wishes to be truly self-made, that it's important to him to have and build something that is fully his own, then you give him both a reason for leaving and a rationale he can give to his father as he goes.

Hope that helps!

Jason Black said...

@Ruth Logan Herne
"Writer egos are incredibly delicate and sometimes inflated things. Do all of your clients take your direction?"

What a good question! There is definitely an art to giving critical feedback. The goal, the whole reason someone pays me to critique their manuscript, is that they want helps to improve. Even if they're the worst writer ever (and yes, I've seen a few of those), they're not paying me to say "Jeez, you're the worst writer ever! Burn your keyboard and do the world a favor!"

It's not my place to ever tell someone to stop writing, and I have to keep that fully in mind when I give feedback. It's only my place to say "well, you're doing such-and-such in your writing, which is a problem because of XYZ, and here's how you fix it." I have a maxim I live by as a book doctor (a book doctor's hippocratic oath?), which is that I won't say there's a problem with something unless I can also explain the problem and say how to fix it. More than once, this has pushed me to develop my own new insights into how fiction works, which is a wonderful side effect indeed.

Generally, I've been very impressed by and proud of my clients for how well they take what often amounts to a very large pile of very critical feedback. I have to say, I'm always just a little nervous every time I click "send" on the e-mail with my final report in it. I always wonder "is this the client who's going to freak out at me?" But in as long as I've been doing this, I can only recall two clients who reacted negatively to my feedback. What was interesting is that the tenor of their reactions told me that they weren't actually looking for constructive criticism; they were looking for someone to love their (frankly awful) writing and tell them how brilliant they were. But still, only two. I think that's pretty good.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Great post, Jason. It reminds me of the Apple app Pocket God where all you see of God is this giant hand. Although I don't have it myself, I recall it being described this way: You are a god and you have control over everything. You can pick up a person between your thumb and forefinger and then carry him over the ocean and drop him. You can save him by plucking him out of the water or you can let him drown. Or, you can drop him in the middle of traffic and turn away.

Why? Because you can.

And that's where it breaks away from writing because in order for the book to make sense, we can't. We need reasons for our characters to act the way they do or it's not believable.

I'm printing off this post and heading over to check out your blog, too. I missed your original appearance here, so thanks for coming back.

Anita Mae.

Jason Black said...

@Pam Hillman
"To me, even what I've outlined above is still plot motivation. Isn't it?"

Depends. It's certainly a step in the right direction compared to my Vegas example. The goal is to make the character's actions the _most sensible_ course of action. If he has to stop in Vegas to obtain weaponry, ok, but that only pushes the question one level out: now readers are wondering why he didn't load up before leaving for the mission in the first place. We're asking ourselves "wouldn't that have made more sense?" So now you need to answer that question. Maybe at the start of the mission, the hero says "Yes, Sir! I'll leave immediately. I'll just go pack some gear from the weapons locker, and be on my way," but his commanding officer says "Negative on that. There's no time. Get going, and use your sidearm." So fine, he doesn't leave with any weapons, but decides en route that he'd better have something more powerful than his Glock, just in case, so he figures he can find something on the black market in Vegas. Now it's starting to make sense.

Just remember, the solution to a plot motivation problem does not usually lie in the same scene as the one where the character is taking the plot motivated action. I should have written about this in the post, but it was already getting long. The solution usually lies _earlier_, in the form of establishing something ahead of time that will cause the character's decision to make sense at the moment when it happens.

@Aly Logan, @Helen Gray, @Mary Cline, @Helen W, and everyone else whose kind words of thanks have made me smile this morning:

You're most welcome! I'm glad to have helped, and yes, polishing up the stuff on my blog into a book is definitely on my (ridiculously long) to-do list. :)

Holly said...

I'm a reader at the moment, but this will definitely be something to keep in mind when I eventually get back into writing.

All this talk about birthdays and cake makes me think a batch of the pumpkin cupcakes with cream cheese frosting I tried out this week is needed.


Jason Black said...

@Ruth Logan Herne
"Jason, has anyone ever approached you about that? Coming to the big ACFW conference and teaching an exclusive class?"

Nope, you're the first. So, who do I talk to about that? :)

@Tina Pinson
"Have you ever told anyone to scrap their story and start again? Or go back to the bare bones?"

Yes, but I phrase it a little more gently. :) Look, I commonly see manuscripts where there are significant flaws in the deep structure of the book. Stuff that, to fix it, would be harder than simply re-writing the whole thing. My other maxim in book doctoring is to be honest, so when that's the case, that's what I tell people.

The most common reasons for manuscripts to end up in this state are

1) Because the author didn't fully think through the premise (cheezy example: author posits that scientists have created useful all-purpose household robots, a'la Rosie the robot on The Jetsons, and yet the plot involves a worker uprising against inhuman conditions at a sweat-shop garment factory. Doesn't work. If robotics has come that far, the sweat-shop wouldn't even exist. It would be fully automated.)

2) Plot motivation causes characters to take unbelievable choices early in the story, and if those choices were edited to something more belivable, would totally alter the whole rest of the plot.

There are others, but those two rank pretty highly on the list of causes for teardown manuscripts.

Julie Lessman said...


WOW, you said a mouthful and ALL good!!! I gotta tell ya that certain lines and points in this excellent piece were jumping out at me so much, I felt like I had a shock collar on!!

The first jolt: "More often, I'll see characters do things that aren't consistent with the character's stated knowledge, beliefs, and goals."

Oh, man, THANK YOU for addressing this because one of my TOP pet peeves when I'm reading novels is when a character's dialogue or actions don't ring true. It is not unusual for me to skid to a burning stop with the words, "Nooooooooo!" or "Are you kidding me???" Instantly the story loses a hair of credibility with me, which I hate, and of course, the author would hate it too if he or she knew.

Which is why your blog today is SO very important for all of us to understand and implement. Here are a few of the shock-collar lines for me in your piece:

"But most often of all, I see plot motivation when characters make choices and take actions that aren't consistent with normal human emotional reactions to earlier events."


And then this: "Writing a novel is, fundamentally, a deeply empathetic act ... you must be able to turn a dial in your mind and become that character ... in order to determine what that character would do in that moment."

As a "deeply empathetic" author (read: WCDQ ... Weepy, Caffeinated Drama Queen), I have no problem empathizing with my heroines to figure out what their particular personality needs to do, but the guys, my heroes?? Ouch ... that's where I call in reinforcements.

Like in one of my books, the father was so angry at his wife for over a month, that he slept on the couch at his workplace. I started worrying that perhaps the incident that the father was angry over was not strong enough or convincing enough for his actions. So I turned to the pro -- my husband -- and asked him if that happened to him, how would he respond and did he think my hero was justified in responding so strongly? Fortunately for me, my husband said something along these lines in his usual wise and wonderful way, "Are you freakin' kidding me?? I'd check in to a Holiday Inn!" Soooo ... I figured I was safe! :) Because it's got to be convincing, and if it doesn't convince a guy, I suspect it won't convince the reader either.

Thanks for the great teaching blog today, Jason!

Happy weekend, all!


Casey said...

That post title is just dying to be clicked on. :)

Very interesting way at looking at chacterization and plotting...and makes oh so sense.

Thanks for the post.:)

Happy birthday Seekerville!

Patty Wysong said...

This makes so much sense to me! Thank you, Jason. And thanks, Tina, for inviting him!

Now I don't feel so weird for knowing my characters long before I know what they're going to do. LoL, I can handle being weird, that's just part of life with voices in your head, but it's nice to know there's a benefit to having characters before plot. ;-)

Myra Johnson said...

Oh, Jason, I second Ruthy's suggestion! I think ACFW would be blessed to have you do a workshop on this subject at the next conference. (And one of our Seekers has some ACFW connections that could be very influential!)

Pam, are you paying attention???

Jason Black said...

@Patty Wysong

There's a lot of value in knowing your characters before the plot. But for those who think more in terms of plot, rest assured that it works just fine the other way around too. You can reverse engineer your character's personalities from the plot choices you need them to make. Take a look at @Christy LaShea's question, and my answer to it, for an example.

term paper writing services said...

very cool post!

Andrea Strong said...

As the mother of a four year old girl, let me empathize for a moment. My daughter not only asks "Why?" (which she started doing at an alarmingly early age), when I answer, she'll say, "No. I think it's this way."

I had a major why moment in the early days of my wip.

My hero, a widower named Calvin, cares for a dying man in his final ours. When the man says, "Give my love to Rose." (Rose is the dying man's wife, and my heroine) I have my hero drop everything to travel across the country (from Colorado to Louisana) to deliver the dead man's belongings to his widow, Rose. The story is set in 1879, so he couldn't just catch a flight and be home in a couple of days.

This is a huge thing. My whole story cannot happen if Calvin does not make this monumental trip. But is feeling sorry for a stranger's loss really enough to motivate a man to take such drastic action? Even if he, as a widower can truly empathize with her loss? I didn't think so.

So I created a friendship between Rose and Cal's late wife. They met and became fast friends and exchanged letters for years before Cal's wife died. The two women were best friends who shared everything through their letters. This bond provides additional motivation for Cal's decision. It's what his wife would have wanted. If she'd been alive, they certainly would have made the trip together.

I couple this with the fact that Cal has stagnated in his grief because he's angry at God. This man's death jars him somehow, and he's suddenly desperate for change.

Does any of that make sense?

Is it believable?

I definitely want in on the giveaways.

andeemarie95 at gmail dot com

Pepper said...

Seriously, HAVE to get Jason to teach a class. This guy has all sorts of awesome info to share and a sense of humor!
Even his responses are packed with great stuff. I am copy/pasting all over the place

runner10 said...

Thanks, Jason. Good info.


Mindy Obenhaus said...

Jason, you've passed along some valuable information. And yes, I have one of those stories where I tried to let the plot dictate what the character did. Yeah, that one will probably never see the light of day.
Thanks bunches, Doc.

Tina Radcliffe said...

Well obviously it OUR pleasure to have you. And you answer our WHY WHY WHY so nicely.

Thank you!!!

Jason Black said...

@Andrea Strong
"Is it believable?"

It's a pretty good emotional motivation, and that counts for an awful lot. Good job there. What I wonder is if you need something on the rational side to help spur him along too.

Basically, what is he leaving behind? If he's leaving behind a well established life--a business, a social circle, et cetera--then even the emotional motivation may not cut it. It might still be a pretty tough sell for the reader.

But you say his own wife has died, too. So what if he's leaving behind the _shambles_ of a well established life? What if he used to have it all, but then it all fell apart after she died? What if his situation has become intolerable in its own right?

If he has nothing left in Colorado but bad memories and frozen winters, then sure. Why _not_ leave for Louisiana? Under that context, it's more like he probably should have left all along, but "Give my love to Rose" becomes a _catalyst_ that makes him realize there's nothing left for him in Colorado. Essentially, the dying man's last wish becomes the trigger that completes the protagonist's Five Stages journey concerning his own life circumstances. Hearing that is how he finally gets to the acceptance stage, and thus he can move on, and chooses to move on by going to Louisiana.

Which would make sense, because being essentially adrift, that journey represents a concrete task and goal he can make his own, and is coupled with a sense of hope that in a new place he might build a new life.

Faye said...

Oh I can see why character motivation is so important, because sometimes I get mad at books when the character doesn't something that doesn't make sense. Great post.

Edwina said...


Excellent article - very helpful!

If my name is drawn, I would like to receive "Manuscript Makeover."


Lady DragonKeeper said...

Great post --I've seen stories driven by "plot" a lot in fanfiction. Something a tv or book character says or does would never happen on that tv show or in actual author's book, but the fanfic writer wanted to have a particular storyline ...

CatMom said...

Welcome Jason! Great post filled with lots of great wisdom--thanks. ~ And enjoy that precious 4-year-old....before you know it, she'll be TWENTY-four *sigh*.
Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo

Cara Lynn James said...

Jason, thanks so much for coming to Seekerville! Great information. I checked out your blog--I can see I have a lot of reading ahead of me.

Ashley Roberts said...

Happy birthday seeker ville !

Walt Mussell said...

I've been modifying my villain's POV for one of my WIPs. In one of my scenes where the hero thwarts one of the villain's henchman, I'd always thought the scene a bit contrived. However, when working in the villain's POV, I realized the villain also thought the incident odd and so the villain had the henchman explain his motivation. The villain then killed the henchman for his stupidity. This tied the situation together more nicely than I had it before.


Anne Barton said...

Thanks, Jason--perfect timing!

I was plotting out the turning points of my story last night. Now I need to see if they hold up under the rigor of the four-year-old "why?" test.

Tina Radcliffe said...

More why and why. Jason it's early yet in California but some of the east coast party animals have left us for the day.

Thank you so much for being with us and for sharing your four-year-old!!!

Jason Black said...

My pleasure! It has been a hoot. I'll check in one more time before I close up shop for the day, so if anybody still has questions, fire away!

MaryC said...

And some of the east coast hard working gals are just joining in for a Friday Night Gala!

Thanks so much, Jason, for sharing your insights. Reading your responses to the various scenes posted has been a fascinating lesson.

I remember a teacher once telling me that I didn't need to know why about something; I just needed to memorize how. She should have met you!

Jason Black said...


Oh, I'd have given her a talking to! How utterly short-sighted. If you know _why_, you don't have to memorize _how_. If you understand _why_, you can deduce the _how_ any time you need to, with the confidence to correctly apply any situational factors to your thinking.

Andrea Strong said...


Thanks for your input. I'll definitely take it to heart. And it just occurred to me that I need to read up on the five stages of grief.

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

Excellent post, Jason.I see now where I've made some choices for my protag that were simple convenient ones. In order to make the story ring true and the actions believable, I need to get fully into the head of my character. Thank you for this teaching post.

Laury said...

Oh man! I can't control people in real life and now you're telling me I can't control my make-believe people? :) rats! Thanks for this post. Great info!

Helen W said...

Jason, you've opened my eyes. I may never watch TV the same again. Just this morning I was watching a show and one of the characters did something and I was like, "Hey, why did he do that? Wouldn't it make more sense for the other guy to do that?" Then I realised it was due to plot motivation.

Natalie Monk said...

Love the info. Never had it explained outright like that. I think "why" all the time when I'm reading. But when I write, I've got all the plot beats down and sometimes I overlook the obvious motivation or lack thereof.

Thanks for posting!

Loves 2 Read Romance - Laura said...

Thanks for sharing with us Jason. I don't have kids but I am the oldest child and grandchild so I have seen the "why" phase with my younger brother and cousins. I also totally agree that having a character do something out of character is the fast way for me to remember that this is fiction not real life. Now I remember getting stuck in a book. I was reading Gone with the Wind at work during my break. Scarlett is racing around getting everything ready because the Yankees were coming. I got off of my break and started racing around work. I had to stop myself and give my head a little shake to remember where I was. LOL I was glad no one asked me why I was racing around the store because there would have been a good chance of me answering with " The Yankees are coming!"


Anonymous said...

hello everyone! night shift again...


Virginia said...

Andrea, that books sounds incredible! I would totally pick that one up. Let me know when it gets in print. :)

Jeanne T said...

I don't know if I have to mention this for today, but I'd love to be included in the drawings. ;) G'night (or is it good morning?) all!

Cathy Shouse said...


I haven't read all the posts. Did anyone have and editor say "Don't be episodic?" I have. Do you think these are the same thing, the plott-driven one and the episodic?

Maybe part of the problem comes when someone is too focused on the external conflict. That happens to me.

I'd love to win a book or something else

Joanne said...

Thanks for all the advice.
There's a lot to think about - and apply - that's for sure. Especially as I'm in the rewrite stage.

Jason Black said...

@Cathy Shouse

"Don't be episodic" is something else, I'd guess. Coincidentally, that's something I'll be covering in the "how to plot your novel" workshop I'm teaching tomorrow at the PNWA writers cottage in Issaquah.

Episodic, used pejoratively like that, usually means that the author has presented sub-plots as discrete, self-contained blocks within the story rather than interleaving the events of the subplot with the events of the main plot. This can leave the plot feeling (somewhat ironically) quite unfocused. It's like at first we're traveling along with the main plot, and they screech! Suddenly the brakes slam on the main plot, we turn abruptly left, and go on a little sub-plot for a while, eventually returning to where we stopped. Then we resume the main plot for a chapter or so until screech! We veer right for another sub-plot episode. An "episodic" plot in that sense is one in which the main plot thread never has the chance to develop any real sense of momentum, because it keeps getting interrupted for long stretches by the episodic sub-plots.

Good question, but IMHO a whole different issue than plot motivation. :)

Normandie Ward Fischer said...

I linked to this post and to Jason's site over on the Wayside Press page. Thanks for pointing me toward his excellent thoughts on writing.

Normandie Ward Fischer
Executive Editor
Wayside Press

Tina Radcliffe said...

Thank you for stopping by,Normandie!

Jason does rock!!!

We salute the good doctor.

Peggy Rychwa said...

Thanks, Jason. Most of us have been there. Using a four year old was a great way to get your point to stick.

Jessica Nelson said...

What a great post!!! My 4 yr old likes to ask why too. lol
I'll be keeping this in mind as I write. Thanks!

Linnette R Mullin said...

Jason, what about when a manuscript is full of telling, even if done subtly - making you feel like you're standing outside looking in rather than feeling like you're in the character's shoes?

Sylvia said...

I'm not a writer, but do enjoy reading and reading these very interesting posts on this blog!


Widsith said...

This advice hits the nail on the head.

I recently faced significant disappointment after watching a few episodes of a new TV series that I really wanted to like.

What ruined the show for me was the problem of plot motivation:

When the protagonist's loving parents die, he cries a few tears in the moment, but by the next day he has moved on and is totally overtaken by his crush on a woman he just met.

Furthermore, this woman happens to be engaged to one of his most trusted and loyal supporters, who is also his second in command. This supporter has sworn his life to protect the young protagonist against their enemies who pose a serious threat to their lives.

But none of this matters. The protagonist hunts down his best friend's fiancee, arguing with her vehemently until she gives in and cheats on her betrothed.

I couldn't believe that a guy who just lost his parents in a brutal fight with the enemy would then sleep with his best friend's girl, especially when his best friend is also one of his biggest hopes for defeating the enemy.

The show writers were too eager to introduce a love triangle into the story, much like the barista example in this post.

The issue of plot motivation is a biggie, and I'm really glad Jason wrote about it here. Because as easy as it is for me to see this problem in a TV show, I tend to overlook it in my writing. And chances are, readers will be as tough on on my story as I was on this show.

So thanks for bringing this much-needed lesson to my attention. I especially like the reminder about the five stages of grief. I'll be going over my story with a fine-toothed comb to make sure I've got this covered!

childofprussia (at) gmail (dot) com

Jason Black said...

@Linnette R Mullin

Telling instead of showing is a different problem. Showing and telling are two strategies for presenting the story's information, but they don't change what that information is in the first place.

Plot motivation versus character motivation _do_ affect the underlying information.

For example, if you have a character who just learned he's got diabetes, but decides to go to the donut shop with his friends anyway, that choice is a piece of information the story has to convey to us. The way the character feels about that choice, the consequences of making that choice, et cetera, are all pieces of information readers will care about, and guaranteeing that the choice is a character motivated one is obviously important for the story's believability.

But that's all just the information the author has to work with. Having assembled that information, the author then has to decide whether it's better to show or to tell each piece. The seminal difference between the two is that information which is _shown_ is inherently more belivable than information which is _told_. The two strategies radically affect the way a reader perceives the information.

Note: this is a deep and complex issue that I should probably save for if-and-when Seekerville invites me back. :)

But you are quite right that an abundance of telling does create a wholly different feeling for the reader. It leaves you emotionally unengaged; distanced from the story. All true, but still a different issue than plot- vs. character-motivation.

Sandy Elzie said...

Very interesting and very informative. Thank you for taking time to remind us how to make our manuscripts better. The last thing we want to do is jar our readers out of the story and into "huh?" mode.

Sandy Elzie

Pam K. said...

I really enjoyed the quote from Winnie the Pooh.


PatriciaW said...

Wow. What a great post. So much food for thought. Hate I missed the conversation on Friday, but this really makes me think: " failure to recognize that the Kubler-Ross "five stages of grief" model (which I've written about extensively on my blog) applies to virtually any kind of surprise a character experiences in a novel."

All those secrets uncovered in novels I read. Do the characters experience the phases of grief or jump? I'll be thinking about this as I read, and write.

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