What’s My Motivation (for reading your book)?

children-1822474_1920How do you decide what stays and what goes when you sit down to make revisions? Better yet, how do you decide what to write in the first place? I’d suggest asking yourself what is going to pull readers into and then through your book. While a great cover, a compelling blurb, a recommendation from a friend, or a fascinating first chapter might get someone to start reading—pulling them into your book—there are elements that need to be present in every chapter to give readers the curiosity that will pull them through your book.

Curiosity drives people to turn another page, to stay up late reading, to think about the characters even when they’re not reading. Readers should have enough uncertainty presented to them to ask themselves questions: What happens next? How will they deal with that? Who is this person really? How will they get past this obstacle? Why did she do that? How will he get over this? Keep readers satisfied with small answers along the way (and be sure to always keep the reader up to speed), but keep them plowing forward to find answers to the bigger questions. Let the questions shift and change along the way, but never answer all of them until the last page.

I believe that curiosity = conflict + compassion. Their conflicts, our compassion.

When you think about the Harry Potter series, for example, what are the conflicts that drive us through the books? The overarching conflict is good wizards versus evil wizards. We feel compassion for the good side because of their sacrifices, their nobility, their innocence, their friendships, and the often overpowering odds. We even feel compassion for them because of their weaknesses and inner struggles. The smaller conflicts that drive us through each individual scene also provide us with feelings of compassion for Harry and his friends. He’s seeking answers about his past, for the missed opportunities of family. He’s marked as the “chosen one,” which gives him great potential but also alienates him from others and attracts unwanted attention. Ron and Hermione have their own personal conflicts as well, making us interested in them. Ron’s happy but poor family; Hermione’s amazing magic and logic skills but lack of social skills (at least in the beginning). Small romances and humor sprinkled throughout the story humanize our protagonists even more. The mysteries about the past, the magic, and the enemy become more complex as the story progresses, but each book reveals a little more as well. It’s satisfying to learn a little more (my favorites are book 3 where we learn so much about James and his friends and book 6 where we learn Voldemort’s secrets), but that knowledge always comes with more questions—until the very end of the last book. J.K. Rowling has some serious storytelling skills.

As a reader, I feel the strongest pull to continue reading when I have a healthy dose of compassion for a character in the midst of a compelling conflict. When both elements are present, that curiosity can be manifest in fear, excitement, fascination, hope, and anticipation. Conflict causes dissatisfaction in a reader, a good itch see it through and find out how it resolves. We love conflict in books because we know we’ll be satisfied by its resolution. We don’t like conflict so much in real life because we’re not assured of its eventual conclusion. (This is why unexpected cliffhangers can be so frustrating. It’s too close to real life, not knowing how long you’ll have to wait for the problem to be fixed.) But we love the adrenaline and uncertainty that comes with a good conflict in a book—the mixture of fear and hope we feel when a problem seems impossible but we know it will get taken care of. The more critical the problem feels to the character personally, the better.

To engender compassion, invest the time to make your characters relatable. Ask yourself questions about them. Give them backstories (more on this to come in a later blog post). Most of these backstories don’t need to make it into the book, but they need to exist in your mind. Give your characters strengths and weaknesses. Even the bad guys. Know what motivates them. Make them human. And then make sure your conflict is ever-present. If a scene has no conflict or tension—even underlying tension—it won’t be compelling. While a reader does need a respite at times, some comic relief, it should never go long enough that we start to forget why we were worried in the first place. A litmus test for any scene, conversation, chapter, description, or storyline might be: does it move the conflict or develop the character? If it doesn’t do either, get rid of it or fix it.

Ask yourself what the purpose of each scene is. What changes as a result of the scene?

  • Compassion: A relationship deepens. {She reveals a little more about herself, bringing them closer as a couple.}
  • Compassion: A character’s viewpoint shifts. {He learns the reason his father was such a jerk all those years, shifting his opinion of his father.}
  • Conflict: A clue is presented that will aid in the pursuit of answers. {Even if it’s not yet identified as a clue—maybe the neighbor mentions that his dog went missing last week.}
  • Conflict: The main characters have a disagreement. {This could also cause a shift in our feelings of compassion for one or both characters.}
  • Compassion and Conflict: A character experiences inner turmoil. {Should she marry out of a sense of duty or for love?}
  • Compassion and Conflict: Someone blows up over a minor issue. {Maybe a comment touched a nerve and she overreacted. This causes conflict and opens up an opportunity to share some backstory to deepen her character by explaining what happened when she was little to make her so sensitive to the subject.}

These are the moments that move readers through your book. The overarching story may tie it all together, but it’s these small moments that turn characters into humans and keep readers turning pages to find out what comes next.

Sometimes, even if a scene is only meant to fulfill one of these purposes (compassion or conflict), if it’s too lacking in the other, it still won’t be doing its job. So a fight scene with a ton of action and excitement might feel too long or too detailed if we’re not catching glimpses of the human spark in the midst of it—someone showing concern, loyalty, or weakness, for example. Or if a scene is mainly meant for character development but it’s too full of a backstory info dump or the characters are too content in it, with no hint of the tension that’s driving the story, the feeling of urgency subsides and you’re in danger of making your readers start skimming.

This is where beta readers and editors can be a huge help. Listen to their suggestions and be willing to put the problem spots they point out to the test. Is each scene pulling its weight to drive readers through the story with plenty of compassion and curiosity?  There’s nothing more satisfying for a reader than to finish a book feeling as though they’ve been on an exciting and meaningful journey with someone they connect with and care about.

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