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NARRATION #6: Motivation
Your story most likely consists of many separate parts. But what holds them together? And why should you even care about that?
Posted on 11 November 2021 0 Comments
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Connecting the Dots of Your Story

(Disclaimer: Everything I present here has been influenced by essays, articles and books I read as a student. I don’t want to claim anything as my original thought. Still, going back to find out who said what seems too much to tackle at the moment. Don’t think of this as me teaching my original wisdom. Think of it as sharing what I’ve learned.)

If you pick up a novel in your bookstore and read it, you might not realise how carefully crafted it is. Who of us ever stops and ponders: “I wonder why this author decided to write exactly this number of chapters and put them in exactly this order.”? – We just take it for granted that there is a reason.

Still, there’s more to unpack here: Something stops these stories from falling apart into its pieces. There is some kind of glue holding it all together. Especially books with multiple storylines and achronological storytelling, there needs to be something more than the binding to keep everything in place.

What I’m talking about is motivation. There needs to be a reason to jump from one story part to the next – and that reason can take on many different faces.

Once again drawing from “EinfĂĽhrung in die Erzähltheorie” (Martinez/Scheffel), I’ll try my best to show you what types of motivation there are. And how they might influence your reader.

Causal Motivation

In its most simple form, storytelling follows causal motivation: This is basically just a fancy term for plot progression. One action leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on.

When Should You Use It?

If your story focuses on a single storyline, following this guideline won’t do you any harm. On the contrary. To the reader, it signals that your story is neither random nor arbitrary. You have thought about the logic of your world, and you are here to deliver it.

As long as you’re writing commercially, you should always have this type of motivation in the back of your mind. Especially short story writers that don’t have to much space to go on tangents will find it helpful to check whether each plot point is a result from the previous one.

When Shouldn’t You Use It?

As much as causal motivation implies order and structure, it also carries with it inauthenticity. – The more sense the progression of your story makes, the less real will it feel to the average reader: Viewed from above, real life might be causally motivated; but on an individual level, life is as random as it can be.

That’s why it’s important to either depart from it, when there’s a good opportunity to do so, or to toy with it: Your story might have perfect logic but still surprise your reader. – They should be able to understand your characters’ actions after they have happened. They should never be able to guess them beforehand.

One more thing: The longer your story gets, the less likely it will be to follow this “simple” structure. Causal motivation quickly gets expected and boring. In an 80,000+ word novel, you’ll need to spice it up a bit.

An Example of Causal Motivation

Finding novels that rely solely on this structure is almost impossible – as with any other structure. Experienced author mix up techniques to keep their readers on their feet at any given moment.

From the book I talk about most on this channel, I’d think The Hunger Games come closest to it: There might be unforeseen instances, especially in the later books, whose motivation comes from outside the story events. But in its heart, we follow Katniss Everdeen’s actions – which all happen in a very logical progression.

Finale Motivation

If causal motivation wants to get from the beginning to the end in a consequential way, then finale motivation wants to get to the end. It is goal-oriented storytelling in its purest form: You may have several actions or even storylines, but they all point towards the same common end-point and therefore feel connected.

When Should You Use It?

Basically, whenever you have more than one storyline – e.g. sub-plots or parallel storylines – you will want to change up your motivation game a bit. Your romantic B-plot will feel more natural and more relevant if it ties into the story, by coalescing with your A-Plot towards the end of your story.

Most of the time, you won’t use finale motivation as an overarching structure. Instead, you could use it as a micro-pattern several times throughout your novel: Separate plot strands will intersect, reaching the same goal points, and then progress in different directions again. – This way, you can have the fun and drive of it, without losing authenticity.

When Shouldn’t You Use It?

As you may have learned by now, I’m not really into giving clear rules for writing. But let’s say this: Novels that rely heavily on finale motivation can create an air of distance to the reader.

Think of it this way: If your storylines are only held together by their end goal, and that end goal isn’t coming up soon, then your reader won’t be able to see that there is any motivation at all. – They cannot predict whether you’ve done a good job or whether they’ll waste their time. And you wouldn’t want to bore them.

I’d say that the same thing applies to finale motivation as does to flashbacks: The longer the stretches between shared results are, and the more distanced your storylines are from each other, the more distance you will create. – That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But you wouldn’t want to do it on accident.

An Example of Finale Motivation

The first thing that comes to my mind when talking about finale motivation is the (fantastic) series Dirk Gentley’s Holistic Detective Agency. Here, we are presented several separate plot strands and several unexplained actions and events, that slowly come together as the show progresses.

Be warned, however: Dirk Gentley really stretches out the amount of storytime it can use before viewers feel alienated: Had they merged plots and explained connections only ten minutes later, people would have grown frustrated and they wouldn’t have been able to reap the seeds they had so carefully sown.

Aesthetic Motivation

In contrast to the two previous categories, aesthetic motivation isn’t rooted in plot. On the contrary: It’s sort of everything that doesn’t come from plot. – I’ll explain more in a second.

According to our old friend Roman Jakobson, it can be split into two groups: Two elements in your story can have either a metaphoric relationship or a metonymic relationship. Sounds complicated, but it really isn’t.

Metaphoric Relationship

You all know what a metaphor is: It’s referring to one thing by another, thereby highlighting the similarities between them. – A metaphorical relationship does basically the same thing: Two or more elements in your story are connected by the thing they have in common.

This is a great way to put together a collection of short stories – e.g. stories about a certain theme, stories that follow the same structure, stories that revolve around the same core conflict, etc.

You might find it hard to squeeze out an entire novel that is only connected by metaphoric relationships. It’s more like a magnet than like superglue: It holds together short and light passages, but if you put all of your story weight on it, it’ll fall apart.

One of my favourite examples comes from Off-Broadway: Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George is about the painter George Seurat in the first act, and his great-grandson in the second.

However, that wouldn’t have been enough to make these two parts coherent. So Sondheim and Lapine gave them more connective tissue: an ongoing theme. Both Georges struggle with the burden of being artists, of the fear of running dry, of the ostracization from their own private life. This metaphorical relationship runs so deep that by the end, the two characters seem to merge into one.

Don’t think about metaphorical relationships as a way to put together a story. Think of it more as a way to smooth out the transitions between story parts. – Or, if you prefer those edges just a little rugged, don’t think about it at all.

Metonymical Relationships

Unlike in metaphorical relationships, elements of metonymical relationships don’t share the same inside, but the same outside: This could be the same character, location, time frame, etc. – Like metaphorical relationships, it isn’t as effective on its own.

Once again, this is a nice way to put together a collection of short stories. For example, Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted is a short story collection held together by the location all of its narrators share. Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, which I honestly recommend to anyone, is connected by the recurring character of a torturer who escaped Haiti to begin a new, innocent life. – Both these books feel more put together because their parts share something with each other.

In “regular” novel writing, you might find yourself writing metonymically all the time: You might begin a chapter in the same location the previous ended, or with the same POV figure. Again, it isn’t enough to hold together an entire novel – but it makes transitions so much more digestible.

Reality Effects

As we’ve discussed earlier, all types of motivation are great for creating a feeling of drive, structure and well-thought-out story. However, too much of it will lose you authenticity points.

Therefore, it’s not only important to vary between motivation, but also to allow coincidence, accidents and happenstance into your storytelling. This is what we call reality effects.

It doesn’t mean you should deus-ex-machina yourself out of every corner you’ve written yourself into. Your story should never depend on contrivances. – But for the smaller stuff, coincidence is a great way to make things feel just a little bit more real.

What Can We Learn from this?

I don’t think this week’s post has strayed into too complicated a territory. Still, I like this TL;DR section at the end. So, here it is.

  1. The individual parts of your story are held together by motivation. Make sure that they somehow belong together – or your book will fall apart at its seams.
  2. At any story’s core, there should be causal motivation: Each action should motivate the next. But make sure to spice it up a bit, so you don’t bore your reader.
  3. To keep separate plot strands together, let them converge every now and then. This will strengthen your overall story, and you’ll have mini-goals towards to write, as well.
  4. Smaller passages of your story or a collection of short stories should be connected by either inner elements (theme, conflict, structure, etc.) or their outer elements (characters, locations, time, etc.). Otherwise, they’ll have no reason to exist together.
  5. Don’t put too much strain on these inner and outer elements. They can’t hold together an entire novel’s worth of plot.
  6. While motivation is important, don’t overdo it. Give reality and coincidence a chance.
  7. Don’t overthink it. If it feels natural to you, it’s probably right.

Happy writing,

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