Motivating your
Author Toolbox,  Writing Craft

Using Character Motivations in Plot Chains-authortoolbox

Why do your characters do what they do?

People may not always behave in a logical manner, but when you are planning out your stories, your characters should. No matter how outrageous your characters behave, there must be some internal logic for their decisions. Even if your readers don’t agree with that logic, they should know what it is. Creating characters without any internal logic will produce an inconsistent, illogical mess. Fortunately, there is a simple trick for fixing this problem.

Plot Chaining

Plot chaining is the linking of cause and effect that will take your character through her journey. The reader should be able to follow this chain unbroken through the entire novel. Every action a character takes will produce an effect and that effect will cause the next action in the character. Without plot chaining, your character’s actions will seem random.Motivating your

Creating a plot chain

First identify the type of story you are telling: Action-driven, character-driven, or a mix of the two.

  • Action-driven stories rely on the main character doing something to overcome a problem. These utilize an external antagonistic force, i.e. a villain, the environment, etc., to force the main character into action. In these stories, the main character must fight against the antagonistic forces and overcome them physically. In this
  • Character-driven stories are those that relate an internal transformation in a character. In these stories, a character is dealing with a personal lie that is interfering with his personal happiness, and he must overcome this lie.
  • Blended stories use both internal and external forces in their stories. The contemporary plotting style (Save the Cat) that ties overcoming an internal lie to defeating an external enemy is an example of a blended story.

Now that you have identified your story’s style, this will tell you what type of causes will be powering your plot chain.

Action stories will focus on external cause and effect. This means a character’s cause and effect will be restricted to external, or physical, actions. Character driven stories will use internal, emotional, causes for character actions. Blended stories will use both physical and emotional causes.

  • Physical causes– external forces that act upon a character. The villain sets the building on fire causing the hero to run to the rescue.
  • Emotional causes– internal forces that cause the character to act. Othello’s jealousy causes him to strangle Desdemona

Now, examine your story and map out your plot chain.

Study your outline

Take a look through your outline and see if you can trace a line of cause and effect through your story. If you don’t have an outline, make a scene list with a single line description. You should be able to answer these questions about every scene in your book.

  1. What does the point-of-view character want? Dorothy wants to go back to Kansas
  2. What does he/she do to achieve that goal? Asks the Wizard for help
  3. What are the results? The Wizard gives her a job
  4. How does that change the goal? Dorothy now wants to kill the wicked witch.

In character-driven stories, the causes can be veiled because the character is working through a lie. For example, your main character may think she is diving into her work to make her life meaningful, but she is really doing it to avoid dealing with difficult emotions. In either case, the character has a reason for her actions. Keep these reasons as the driving component of your character’s plot chains

What about scenes that fall outside this chain?

Too often writers will put in scenes for the sake of character building or world building. They accomplish little except dump information on the reader. Scenes that have no purpose in moving the story forward will leave your readers confused and, more often, bored since these scenes often have little to nothing at stake. If you are having trouble filling out your world-building look back through your scenes and find ways for the setting to affect your character. If you are having trouble with a thin character, look for places in existing scenes for your character to show more of her personality.

Introducing subplots

Having a subplot interrupt the flow is acceptable as long as the subplot merges with, i.e. become a cause for change in, the main plot. This is common in blended stories where the character transformation arc and the defeat the villain arc exist simultaneously. Strive to have your subplot fully integrate with the main plot, otherwise, the subplot will be superfluous. And if you plan to alternate scenes from the main plot and the subplot be aware of the amount of space you allow to lapse between scenes. You readers may feel too disjointed if too much time passes between developments in a subplot.

Once you have established the cause and effect sequence through your story, finding extra scenes or useless subplots will be simple. This will leave you with a cleaner, more effective story. Plot chaining is a great tool for keeping your characters on track. By understanding their motivations, you will produce characters your readers can understand. This is the first step to creating a connection. So give your characters a reason for their actions and create a plot line your readers will love.

This article was inspired by The Plot Whisperer Workbook pp. 179-188 by Martha Alderson (Affiliate link)


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M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


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