Sunday, April 28, 2013

How to Re-Write, Addendum: Motivation Too Weak? Don’t Multiply It—Simplify It!

Two of my very first Rulebook posts were on the topic of over-motivation (1,2), which has always been a big pet peeve for me.  Unfortunately, as a result, I’ve always been afraid to maximize the motivation for my heroes and they often wind up under-motivated, which is far worse.  In fact, in a later post, I talked about the need to have a huge motivation, and I never really resolved the contradiction.

So how on earth do you provide a huge motivation without over-motivating?  The answer lies in a comment on one of those original posts: “Infallible rule: Whenever someone gives you a lot of reasons, none of them is the real reason.”

In retrospect, in all of those over-motivated movies (Batman, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, Training Day, etc), the problem isn’t the quality of motivation, it’s the quantity. In each movie, the original motivation fell short halfway through, so the second half piled on a new motivation to see the hero through.

I now realize that I shouldn’t be afraid to strengthen my motivation all the way to the stratosphere.  If my hero gets to page 70 and says “Ugh, I’m done, this problem isn’t worth dealing with anymore”, I should definitely listen to that…but I shouldn’t have a new motivation walk in the door at that late date, as all of the above movies do…I should go back and strengthen the original motivation. 

Those movies did it exactly wrong: they multiplied the motivation when they should have simplified it.  As that commenter pointed out, giving too many reasons invalidates them all.  It feels desperate and unfocussed, and it makes the hero seem weak and vacillating, jerked this way and that by outside events.

Give your hero a strong simple reason that he or she has to solve the problem right now.

There’s nothing I hate more than those movies where a cop takes a special interest in a disappearance case because the victim reminds him of another kid he failed to save years ago.  Ugh.  No.  Don’t do that. That’s not how the human mind works. 

And whatever you do, don’t say, “You see, John Carter’s fighting to protect the princess of Mars because he wants redemption for failing to protect his own family on Earth ten years ago!”  We will punch you in the face if you tell us that.

But it’s tricky.  It’s tempting to simply advise: “We’re animals.  We only want what we want.  We act out of self-interest.  Start with a simple, profound motivation: self-preservation, love, sex, family, revenge, etc... or if it’s merely justice, make it a quest to make right a specific injustice of which the hero (and the audience) has felt the pain, either through personal experience or through intense empathy.”  And that’s certainly the simplest safest recommendation for selling a screenplay to Hollywood... but as a viewer I get really sick of the results: these days, every movie is a revenge movie.

So it looks like I’ve backed myself into another corner: how do you simplify the motivation without lowering everything to the level of revenge?  Looks like this is going to spill over to tomorrow...


Anonymous said...

“You see, John Carter’s fighting the protect to princess of Mars because he wants redemption for failing to protect his own family on Earth ten years ago!”

I think he's fighting to protect the princess of Mars.

Matt Bird said...

Thanks, fixed!

Paul Clarke said...

I think it all boils down to the main characters ideal world. They all begin with an idea of how the world should be. The inciting incident usually shows them that it is not. They go about changing the world, usually to discover their ideal world is wrong and that they must change.

In a revenge movie, the ideal world would be one where there is justice. They are dealing out that justice themselves. In a love story, their ideal world is where they're with the other person.

It's a bit abstract, but allows you to simplify the motivation down to one thing.

JD Paradise said...

@Paul Clark -

This feels true to me, but not quite the whole story. Most of us experience incidents every day that remind us that the world is not the world we imagine it to be. It doesn't necessarily motivate us to change.

In a personal example, I'm going through a real estate transaction right now that are ultimate-high-stakes (security of my family, kids' education, considerable money, etc.). The agent on the sellers' end seems to be very dirty; the agent on the buyers' end seems to be incompetent. Each challenges my ideal of what a professional should be, and each presents risks to me and mine.

At the end of the day, though, if this falls through and costs me thousands of dollars I don't have, even if it ends up in the worst possible case, where I end up selling my house later this week and having nowhere to move my family, when I go to whatever transaction is next, it's not going to make me avoid agents. Even though it feels personal, it's not going to make me get a shotgun and go agent-hunting.

True, it may change a few of the peripherals (I'll investigate the other party's agent with the real estate commission; I'll file grievances against these folks so others can be forewarned)...but at the same time, five years from now if we move again, maybe it *won't*; maybe I'll go back to exactly where I am now.

So even with significant stakes, this character in particular isn't being motivated by the conflict between ideal world and reality to take the kind of (real-life-analog to) life-risking big actions that story actions can demand. In a movie, I might believe (in the moment) that a movie-me would take big actions... but at some point that does wear down; when libel and slander suits start piling up as a result of real-world me going after these folks in public venues, the real-world version of me would probably back down and issue retractions. The clash between ideal and real simply wouldn't be enough to sustain me through that kind of price. Similarly, I'd have a hard time believing that a movie-me who started predating on realtors would take a gunshot to the chest and, instead of going home to bleed in private, continue the hunt.

So, in short (too late!), while this clash may be part of it, it doesn't feel like the whole story.

Matt Bird said...

Way to create suspense, JD-- Hope that all works out for you!

JD Paradise said...

Heh. Thanks for the well-wishes. If I Real Estate Fiction was a genre category, this'd be a useful series of events as an inspiration...

That said, it wasn't meant to summon (otherwise welcome!) support, but to use as an example. How does a situation like this -- and learning the human limits to exactly how much **** one WILL take -- play into fiction? Or do you think good fiction/movies by definition say "Yeah, I see that reality and raise it one Interesting Reaction", and we don't have to worry about being true to real human limits to provocation?

j.s. said...

I wonder if you aren't kind of positing that film is not very good at representing complex motivations? Which I'm not sure I agree with unless you'd make the formulation something more like "mainstream Hollywood storytelling." And even then, I don't know.

As I've commented recently, clarity and credibility of the characters' motivations is central to my ability to accept any narrative. But I'm not sure that clarity demands simplicity.

Since the Boston bombings, we've been inundated with possible motivations for both of the suspects. And the true-life trajectory of how each one came to be a mass murderer does seem like a fairly messy flowchart, with lots of fits and starts in many facets of each of their lives (family, school/career, religion, personal psychological problems) and without the simple clarity that you seem to be saying a good film requires. There's no single lynchpin motivation but a combination of interrelated factors without which we might never have heard of these guys.

Matt Bird said...

I would say that the problem isn't film, per se, I would simply say that *two hours* isn't enough time to convey a complex web of motivations. If you look at extremely complex TV shows like "Breaking Bad" and "The Sopranos", the first two episodes are vastly simplified, and it's only later that the characters grew and grew.

j.s. said...

Well, I don't know, maybe it's only difficult for a film to convey complex motivations in two hours or less if it's trying to do anything else?

There are plenty of mainstream dramas -- plus a number of thrillers and some other genre films that are more ambitious dramatically -- that do accomplish this feat.

Maybe it's not a matter of retrofitting or simplifying motivation so much as creating the right protagonist to begin with? Like you say, "Anyone can be a hero, but not by doing what just anyone would do."

Paul Clarke said...

@JD Paradise

Great real life example JD. But I think you're comparing a real life dramatic situation (dodgy real estate agent) with the metaphorical genre like reaction (grab a shotgun for revenge). I could see a genre film about scamming real estate agents that resulted in the hero taking up arms.

But the way I see it, what's motivating you is this situation is that your idea of how the world should be is one where your family has a roof over their head. A safe place to live. That is motivation enough to deal with unsavory real estate agents. It is not an incorrect ideal so doesn't need to change. It still provides you motivation.

But if there was a real threat to this situation, (your family was going to be left homeless) I believe it would motivate you to take all sorts of actions. The situation you describe wouldn't make a movie as no-one is really trying to stop this happening. They're just bad at their jobs.

Daniel Smith said...

Speaking of motivation, there is a kickstarter campaign for a Rom-Com that has an...unusual premise.

"With This Ring is a romantic comedy about Jacqueline, a newly-licensed surgeon, who loses her engagement ring inside Brad, the notorious "all-destroyer" malpractice attorney. Panicked by the threat of a career-ending lawsuit, Jacqueline decides it's better to trick Brad back into surgery than tell him the truth. But since Brad has major trust issues when it comes to doctors -- and women -- getting him back on the table seems hopeless. Desperate, Jacqueline turns to seduction but soon finds herself caught between her fiance, her career, and her new love."

It's a single, high-concept motivation IMO. Find out more at With this Ring

It also occurs to me that this notion about simple motivations overlaps with having a high-concept idea. Might be a good thing to explore in a future post.

Parker said...

"There’s nothing I hate more than those movies where a cop takes a special interest in a disappearance case because the victim reminds him of another kid he failed to save years ago. Ugh. No. Don’t do that. That’s not how the human mind works."

I feel like this was the motivation for Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. Which I thought worked.

Or do you think his main motivation was more like, "Go to work=give therapy to this weird kid"? And the other piece of it (the sadness over not being able to help the crazy guy at the beginning of the movie) was more like emotional context?