Reverse the Motivation


If a scene is not quite working for you, if it seems weak or poorly motivated, or it has a weak climax, the technique of “reverse motivation” may be what you need.  I learned about the technique from a writer’s on-line workshop, but it’s a technique which Donald Maas advocates in WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

Here’s how it’s done.  Pick a scene, preferably one where your character is about to do something or is experiencing something.. Why is the character doing this? List her motivations.  Come up with at least five, even if you have to stretch a bit.  Then really push hard and come up with a sixth motivation.  According toMaas, this is the most deeply buried and the strongest motivation.

Here’s an example from my writing to show you how it works:

My heroine and hero are being chased through the woods by a couple of killers.  Obviously their main motivation is to stay alive.  In addition, my heroine is a sheltered society girl, who has been relying on the hero for protection.  This is how I originally wrote the scene.

“Let’s go,” Harris grabbed her arm and pulled her into the underbrush.

The evergreen branches scratched her hands and cheeks.  She tried to crouch like Harris.  He blocked some of the slapping branches from reaching her.

Harris paused.  “Let me see your shoes,” he demanded.

Puzzled, she complied, holding up first one foot and then the other to show her running shoes.

“No lights, no reflective strips.  Good.  Here put this on.”  He stripped off his jacket and handed it to her.  She had been shivering in her short sleeved T-shirt, but she instinctively protested the gesture.

“No, Harris, I don’t want–”

“Listen.”  His tone was almost savage, his face right up against hers.  She could feel his ragged breathing on her skin and see the glitter of his eyes.  Her knight had reverted to warrior mode, for sure.

“This is the deal from here on out.  We’re going to get out of this but from now on, you do exactly what I tell you the instant I tell you.  No questions, no back talk.  You got that?”

She nodded.  He was right.  This was a matter of life and death and she had to trust him absolutely. She put on the jacket.  With a gesture, he led her away again.

Here’s the list of motivations I came up with for my heroine when I tried this exercise.

  1. she wants to escape the killers
  2. she trusts Harris
  3. she wants the killers captured and punished.
  4. Wants to be with Harris

The next one was a struggle and somewhat surprised me:

5. wants to keep Harris safe

Then really pushing.

6.     She wants to escape in order to get revenge.

.When I came up with the sixth motivation, it added a whole layer that I hadn’t even realized was missing.  It makes my heroine stronger and gives the scene a little more of a kick.

The next step is to rewrite the scene with the motivations IN REVERSE ORDER.   (Be sure to show those motivations through  dialouge, action or inner reflection).

Here’s my scene revised to focus on the sixth motivation.

“Let’s go,” Harris grabbed her arm and pulled her into the underbrush.

The evergreen branches scratched her hands and cheeks.  She tried to crouch like Harris.  He blocked some of the slapping branches from reaching her.

Harris paused.  “Let me see your shoes,” he demanded.

Puzzled, she complied, holding up first one foot and then the other to show her running shoes.

“No lights, no reflective strips.  Good.  Here put this on.”  He stripped off his jacket and handed it to her.  She had been shivering in her short sleeved T-shirt, but she instinctively protested the gesture.

“No, Harris, I don’t want–”

“Listen.”  His tone was almost savage, his face right up against hers.  She could feel his ragged breathing on her skin and see the glitter of his eyes.  Her knight had reverted to warrior mode, for sure.

“This is the deal from here on out.  We’re going to get out of this but from now on, you do exactly what I tell you the instant I tell you.  No questions, no back talk.  You got that?”

A primitive urge welled up in her breast, an instinct to pay back the stalkers who had made her life so miserable all these weeks.  She would see them in hell.  But in order to do that, she had to stay alive.

She nodded shakily.  Harris was right.  This was a matter of life and death and she had to trust him absolutely.  She put on the jacket.

It may be a struggle to come up with that sixth motivation, but finding it will reveal new insights into your characters as well as perhaps giving you new and stronger focus for your plot.  I’ve found it works with all kinds of scenes, whether action, romantic or in between.  Any time you need to beef up a scene, tryMaas’s “reverse motivation” technique.

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