Reversing Motives

I’m studying Donald Maass’ book Writing The Breakout Novel  for the umpteenth time. Every time I look at it, I see something I need to work on. Today I want to share an exercise he gives on reversing motives. 

(this photo of Luke Skywalker’s motive is brought to you by
Your protagonist has a reason for doing what he does–even if it’s just the “I wanted to” excuse. Every scene should have a scene objective, or what your protagonist hopes to accomplish, and the protagonist’s attempt to get what he wanted. No self-respecting protagonist would do something for no reason whatsoever–reader’s won’t believe it. So what happens if your protagonist’s motives aren’t powerful enough to sustain the scene? What if they’re boring? What if your middle is sagging and you can’t figure out how to fix it? Maass suggests an interesting exercise in reversing motives. Maybe that will fix your dilemma.

1.  Your first step is to choose a scene from your WIP and figure out what your protagonist is trying to accomplish, obtain, or avoid. Write down your protag’s objective. 
Using the above example, Luke’s objective is to rescue the princess and fight for the good guys. When the bad guys kill his family, he has no excuses for NOT going, so he does.
2. Write a complete list of the reasons why your protagonist is doing what he’s doing. Find as many motives as you can. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you write them down. 
Luke had many motives: avenge his father’s death (or so he thought), avenge his aunt and uncle’s death, use his skills as a pilot, see the beautiful princess face-to-face, get out of the backwater and into the world, and learn about the Jedi ways so he can follow in his father’s footsteps.
3. Circle the last reason on your list. (I’ll drop the example now, since we couldn’t/shouldn’t rewrite this story.)
4. Re-write the scene using only that motive for reaching the objective.
Maass follows this exercise with another bit of wisdom:
In my workshops, nearly three-quarters of participants find that they prefer the approach to the scene that this exercise yields. Why is that? First choices in writing a scene often are the easiest: the ones that make sense and feel safest. But safe choices make a scene predictable. Reversing motives shake up a scene. It makes its course less expected, yet no less logical since the action still comes from your character’s true, deep motives. 
Step outside the safe boundaries and see if this exercise helps your scene. Maybe the last motive on the list doesn’t work, and you’ll need to choose a different one from the list. Maybe your original was the strongest and shouldn’t be changed. Examine six more scenes and re-do the exercise. If you’re feeling dedicated, do every scene.
See if all that unpredictability makes your story a better read. Share your successes in the comments section, please.
This is completely off-topic, but Kristen Lamb’s blog post from yesterday was hysterical. Go read it and see if you agree that she’s a funny lady. I’ll admit that I, too, am of Viking ancestry, and the idea of being laid to rest in a wooden Viking ship (shaped like a dragon, of course) then set adrift and set on fire sounds like an excellent way to leave this mortal plane. Since hubby has to deal with the permits, I’m in the clear.


2 thoughts on “Reversing Motives

    • I’m from WA, so we sometimes have left-over fireworks. Not often, but if we saved them up every year, maybe there’ll be enough for my dragon boat.

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