Using Motivation To Shape Your Plot by Laurie Schnebly

Posted on Feb 20, 2014 by   69 Comments | Posted in Blog · Uncategorized

You already know that, no matter what kind of plot you’re building, it’s gotta be motivated by your characters in order to feel plausible. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing an emotional plot or an action plot or both — what makes it work is the characters.

So what IS it that makes your characters do what they do? Or another way of asking that is, what makes anybody do what they do?

 FFnP-Laurie S-bluescreenOn the surface, motivation is simple.

There are all kinds of theories of motivation, and they all boil down to the same thing.

We want to be Okay.

Whatever it takes to be okay, that’s what motivates us.

Maslow talked about that, saying that to be Okay we first need Food and Water…yep, fine…Shelter…got it…then Safety…and in most books that don’t involve a zombie apocalypse, those issues are pretty well taken care of.

FFnP-Laurie S-pyramid

So we get into the next level of what people need to be Okay, which is Belonging / Acceptance / Love. Then there’s Respect of Others and Self-Respect, and finally there’s the drive to Be All You Can Be. Everywhere along that continuum, you’ve got some great motivators.

And that matters, because it’s the motivation that makes a character interesting.

Where does it come into the story?

Some writers start with the motivation: “let’s see, a woman who’s motivated by the desire for adventure would be THIS type of person.” Other writers start with the character: “my heroine wants to fly to Saturn, so that must mean she’s motivated by adventure.”

FfnP-Laurie S-rocket_launch

Either way works fine. And either way leaves you totally free to write any kind of story you want.

Say, given this heroine who wants to fly to Saturn in search of adventure, could your story be full of quirky humor? Absolutely. Dizzying suspense? Yep. Soul-deep emotion? Yep. Dazzling fantasy? Yep. Spine-tingling terror? Yep.

It all depends on how you write it. FFnP-Laurie S-typing_keyboard

So in that case, why does the heroine’s motivation even matter?

Because it’s what makes her credible. Same as we can’t have dinosaurs showing up in some medieval cathedral without sacrificing a bit of credibility, neither can we have this woman flying off to Saturn without SOME plausible motivation.

And that’s where it’s easy for us authors to fall down on the job. We love this heroine who’s plotting her coordinates, we love that she’s going to Saturn, and we know that on the way she’ll meet this incredibly witty mechanic, and there’ll be a cyborg attack — oh, and the cyborgs will have a tone-deaf cook named Claude! — it’s all taking shape. We KNOW it’ll work, because we can SEE this story.

But there’s a down-side…

 Thing is, it’s thffnp-Laurie S-moonscapeat wonderful dazzling clarity which can get us into trouble. Because our readers weren’t IN on this first glorious flash of inspiration. They can’t see that wonderful vision. All they see is a heroine charting her coordinates for a trip to Saturn, and they have no idea why she’s doing it.

Unless the readers GET her desire for adventure, they’re gonna feel out of the loop. They might not know why the story isn’t working for them, but they’re missing her motivation. 

And motivation is what makes a book memorable.

For some writers, it comes so naturally that they never even question how their characters’ motivation will feed into the plot. (Which sometimes leaves them at loose ends, wondering what they heck can HAPPEN in this plot.)FFnP-Laurie S-reader_over_book

For others, it’s more of a tack-on because their strength is in plotting. (Which sometimes leaves them wondering how to explain WHY this character did something that seems senseless but is actually integral to the plot.)

FFnP-Laurie S-question

That leads to our prize-drawing question:

Which comes more easily for you, building a character or building a plot? How do you know?

There’s no Right Answer or Wrong Answer. (Although if you say “both come so easily that I write fabulous bestsellers in six days,” I’ll be horribly envious.)

I’d love to hear which you find easier, and somebody who posts will win free registration to my Plotting Via Motivation class coming up at next month. Which quite a few FF&P folks have already taken, so you might run into a friend or two in that group!

Laurie, who’ll start the ball rolling by saying I find character-building easier because I like personality stuff

Author Laurie Schnebly

Author Laurie Schnebly


BIO: Laurie Schnebly Campbell ( uses motivation to write happy endings for her own books — including one that beat out Nora Roberts for “Best Special Edition of the Year.” The only thing she loves more than writing is working with other writers, which is why she now has a dozen novels on her bookshelf with acknowledgments from authors who love her class!

69 Responses to "Using Motivation To Shape Your Plot by Laurie Schnebly"

  1. Comment by Nancy Kay Bowden
    February 20, 2014 5:07 am

    Before Laurie’s class I was more interested in creating a plot, but after PvM I am all about the characters–and what motivates them to do what they do and/or react the way they do. While I have a plot (and ending)in mind before I write a first draft, character motivation now winds up steering the whole show–not always where I thought it would go but always way better.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 10:56 am

      Nancy, I love that you still have room for your characters to surprise you — that’s the fun thing about plotting via motivation. Instead of forcing the characters into a pre-selected plot structure, you can let ’em be more free-ranging. (Except, ulp, that sounds like chicken.)

  2. Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
    February 20, 2014 5:24 am

    A friend said the submit button was “wonky” so I’m trying it out — if this goes through, we’ll know it’s okay! (But then I’m heading back to bed for another couple hours because it’s only 3:20am here.)

  3. Comment by Emma Leigh Reed
    February 20, 2014 5:55 am

    Hi Laurie, I have to say when I took this class (years ago) I absolutely loved it and it had me looking at my characters and what makes them tick in a whole new way. This is a class I would highly recommend to writers and even would take it again to work through a new plot. 🙂

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 10:58 am

      Emma, it’s so cool watching your books evolve — I can’t even remember how many years ago you first took that class, but how nice to know the method is still working for you! I’ve heard some writers say they need to change every year or so to stay inspired, and others who say they stick with any tool that stays productive…good to know you’ve got one there. 🙂

  4. Comment by Debra E. Marvin
    February 20, 2014 6:57 am

    I took a ‘motivation’ class online with Laurie and it changed my writing. So, please don’t put me in the drawing, but do try to take one of her classes on the subject. Behind every goal is a motivation that, in the end, might not be so noble – that’s the human psyche. I learned to ask why why why, no really… why?

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 11:01 am

      Debra, I love seeing what people retain from that class — you hit on some of my favorite highlights, there! Over the years I’ve started alternating “less than noble” and “slightly selfish,” because while to me those mean pretty much the same thing, some writers had trouble with LTN implying that their character was downright unsavory. Words…go figure!

  5. Comment by Sharon Arthur Moore
    February 20, 2014 7:07 am

    Laurie, you always manage to crystallize my thinking and focus it so I go, “Oh, yeah! I get it!” This post is no exception. I’ll post about it on Twitter and FB to see if we can drive more folks to the truth, the light, and the way! lol

    I get stuck dealing with character motivation. My life is so pedestrian that coming up with reasons my heroine would go into a house with a killer is a challenge. Plotting is much easier for me. I did character development using interviews and astrological chart traits.

    So what this post did for me was help me realize I was thinking too small. If I start with the big stuff–self-esteem going toward self-actualization fits my heroine well–then I can break out the small segment I need for this book I’m working on and pick up other pieces as the series progresses.

    My take-away: break down self-esteem and self-actualization into component parts and parcel them out over a number of books. Or am I wrong? Thanks for the post!

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 11:09 am

      Sharon, you’re exactly right in thinking of how to break down your heroine’s overarching journey of growth into several books — that can make writing a series tricker than a stand-alone, but also more rewarding for the readers to watch her achieve a bit more self-actualization in every story! My favorite example of that is J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas for evolving very gradually.

  6. Comment by Rowan Worth
    February 20, 2014 7:45 am

    Hm, I was going to say I always find the characters easier than the plot, but sometimes they’re so intertwined, it just happens! I guess I usually have a good idea of the character first–but it’s usually because of the situation they find themselves in. It would be a different book if either were different. But you’re right–getting it clear to the READER is hard. My critique partner recently mentioned my hero in one story had no motivation, and I argued with her…and then realized that he was really motiviated…just not actually ON THE PAGE ANYWHERE. Ooops.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 11:13 am

      Rowan, I’m getting a kick out of your story about how the hero’s motivation was clear — just not on the page. 🙂 That’s the same thing we notice with loved ones…WE understand completely why our husband will never eat toast, or our daughter always cries at one song, and feel surprised when someone else asks “what’s up with that?” It can be hard to remember these characters AREN’T part of the family!

  7. Comment by Charlotte Raby
    February 20, 2014 9:37 am

    Hey Laurie!

    Great post! I believe I write characters best because I also like to get into their heads. I usually do have certain plot points in mind, such as beginning and ending, but understanding my characters well is what helps me get from one point to the next!

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 12:36 pm

      Charlotte, it’s sure handy to understand your characters when figuring out how they’ll react to the events in your plot! And while the two can be twined together so tightly it’s sometimes hard to say which comes first, I think people tend to first address whichever interests them more…when in fact it might make be better to work on the tough part first, because the strong part can adapt to ANYTHING.

  8. Comment by Heidi Hormel
    February 20, 2014 9:54 am

    I am much more comfortable with characters than plot — my rationalization for that is being a long-time amateur actress (in theatre it’s all about the character). I’ve used PVM to help me focus the character’s actions into a plot and rein in all of those lovely side roads of the plot. And while I’m more comfortable with character, I struggle with making both characters three-dimensional — usually one is more “real” than the other. That’s the joy of writing (and the agony), it’s always a work in progress!

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 12:41 pm

      Heidi, it makes perfect sense that you go for character first, with acting being all ABOUT knowing your characters! I’m always impressed when, in those wonderful ask-the-cast sessions after a show, people can explain so clearly why their characters did what they did — even when the playwright might’ve left something open to interpretation, the actors are truly inhabiting those roles. Very cool. 🙂

  9. Comment by Margie Hall
    February 20, 2014 10:57 am

    I was a diehard panster prior to taking Laurie’s plotting workshop. I struggled at first, I think I was afraid that if I charted out the entire story I would lose interest in it and never finish, but Laurie showed me that plotting is just a frame and you still have a lot of room to let the story grow. It was then I finally understood that the “frame” actually made my concepts and stories stronger and more complex. I was able to dig deeper because I understood my characters better. I knew how they would react because I understood what was driving them. It was truly a “lightbulb” moment. I highly recommend that everyone take this course (especially if you are a panster), you won’t regret it.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 12:44 pm

      Margie, you could be a poster child for Converted Pantsers. 🙂 The thing I admire about pantsers is how they’re so open to whatever might come up, and it’s easy to see why the idea of Big Structure is so troublesome — you can’t expect a ballerina to dance very well on a two-foot-square stage. But your explanation of how plotting via motivation makes your freedom more manageable is perfect!

  10. Comment by Connie Flynn
    February 20, 2014 12:21 pm

    Wonderful article, Laurie, and full of your usual wisdom. Most of the papers I review fall down for lack of motivation so you can never over-emphasize its important. I highly recommend that everyone take your course and also, to do a plug, attend your workshop at the amazing Desert Dreams Conference April 4-6.

    Hope the rest of your day is also amazing.
    –Connie Flynn

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 2:55 pm

      Oh, Connie, I’m so glad you thought to mention the Desert Dreams conference! You’re right; I’d completely spaced out that one of my workshops THERE will be the same one as discussed HERE…good small-world action, huh? The chapter sure knew what they were doing when they put you in charge of tweeting. 🙂

  11. Comment by Debora Dale
    February 20, 2014 12:46 pm

    Oh, Laurie, you can’t imagine how wonderful it was to read this! It was like a refresher course. 🙂 I’m now working on a story where the heroine has to do something that would normally be the last thing she – or any other woman – would consider. However, given her circumstances, or more specifically her motivation, it makes sense she would choose to act as she is. This post reminded me to drop better hints of her motivation from the beginning so this decision, bad as it is, makes the reader realize things could not happen in any other way. So cool.

    To answer your question, I build my characters first. Somehow they come to me with loads of baggage. I sift through that baggage and then work on a plot that will challenge that character the most. The details are always vague at the beginning, but the feelings are always strong and they guide me.

    Loved this post!

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 2:59 pm

      Debora, it’s fun thinking of this post as a refresher course — that’s so cool! And you’re right on target in thinking about why your heroine would do what seems inexplicable on the surface…no matter how unthinkable it sounds without all her motivation behind it, readers who are up to speed on that will totally GET her decision (even while they’re crying “no, stop, don’t!”)

  12. Comment by Diana Maston
    February 20, 2014 1:06 pm

    Hi Laurie,
    I get an idea for a story then write organically. Your enneagrams class has helped me develop more believable characters. I’m signed up for Plotting Via Motivation, and look forward to taking another writing journey with you.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 3:02 pm

      Diana, it sounds like you’re a natural for Plotting Via Motivation — building organically from an idea is one of the core homework assignments. You’ll get a kick out of seeing a whole ‘nother system for writing, and choosing where you want to use tools from the enneagrams class and where you want ‘em from PVM. For that matter, heck, you can use ‘em all together if you want!

  13. Comment by Carol Opalinski
    February 20, 2014 1:28 pm

    Laurie, great post & I’m looking forward to this class! I am definitely a character person. I have all these full-blown characters wandering around in a barren wasteland looking for a plot so they can finally make an appearance in one of my mss. 🙂

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 3:10 pm

      Carol, how cool that you’re gonna be in the class — have you registered over at Writer Univ dot com? Could be I just missed your name on the roster, but it’s always fun to see people whose stories I’ve enjoyed before bringing in totally new people (or spinoffs of previous supporting characters, which I could easily see you doing!)

  14. Comment by Roz Fox
    February 20, 2014 1:40 pm

    I always start with characters, and I want to know what all happened in their lives to get them to the point where my story starts. I love all the things that makes a person take the avenues they take.
    Great blog as usual.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 3:13 pm

      Roz, your characters always wind up in the most intriguing settings and situations — it’d be so fun to see, sometime, how you make that all happen! Although I suspect if all of us could do what you do, we’d ALL be publishing our 50+th book with Harlequin, and diehard readers might FINALLY feel like they’re getting to satisfy their cravings often enough. 🙂

  15. Comment by Kathleen Rice Adams
    February 20, 2014 1:50 pm

    Laurie, I cannot adequately express how valuable your Plotting via Motivation workshops have been to me. I can create characters and I can create plots. Getting the two of them to play nicely together ? That was always my downfall. Thanks to your workshops, I finally managed to wrestle several stories into submission and now am multi-published with more stories under contract. I’ll be grateful to you forever for the insight you provided — and for your unfailing ability to teach through laughter.

    HUGE HUGS!!!!

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 3:16 pm

      Kathleen, I’ll never forget your first salt-flat story and how intriguing it was! Now it’s a kick thinking what a long time ago that must’ve been — because of COURSE you know that no matter how long it’s been, you and I aren’t so much as one day older (or, heck, even one year older) than we were way back then. And I’m sticking TO that, by golly!

  16. Comment by Michael Mock
    February 20, 2014 1:59 pm

    I go back and forth. Sometimes, I have a character that I love and work to find a plot that will work for them. Sometimes I have a particular end-point, so the work of the story is all about setting up the characters and getting to that one shining moment. Or, sometimes, I have a particular image – a location, a setting, a society, a particularly bizarre approach to how magic might work – and the work is in finding the characters to explore it, and a plot that gives meaning and structure to their explorations.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 3:19 pm

      Michael, you deserve all kinds of credit for being flexible enough to start your story in so many different ways. Which explains why, as I recall, you aren’t the least bit intimidated by being told to start with plot OR character OR general idea of “something I’d be curious to try writing” — you’ve done them all, and done them well. 🙂

  17. Comment by Judy Migliori
    February 20, 2014 2:46 pm

    Hi Laurie, I am currently in your FF2 class. I’m too busy laying out the key external and internal scenes for our final homework to say much except to say – I want- I need – I have to take your next class – I am so loving what you have taught me.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 8:42 pm

      Judy, good for you on putting the current class homework first! That said, it’d be a kick to see you in next month’s class (you can register at Writer Univ dot com) because I think, out of all the ones I teach, it’s my favorite. Matter of fact, it’s the ONLY one I do every year like clockwork, and seeing people come away with brand new stories ready to write is always the biggest thrill. 🙂

  18. Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
    February 20, 2014 3:02 pm

    Diana, it sounds like you’re a natural for Plotting Via Motivation — building organically from an idea is one of the core homework assignments. You’ll get a kick out of seeing a whole ‘nother system for writing, and choosing where you want to use tools from the enneagrams class and where you want ’em from PVM. For that matter, heck, you can use ’em all together if you want!

  19. Comment by Angela Bissell
    February 20, 2014 5:48 pm

    Fabulous article, Laurie. I’m already registered for your PvM class and am so looking forward to it. Your Fatal Flaw workshops have been amazing and so valuable to me as a fledgling writer. Understanding a character’s personality type and how that feeds into their behaviours, reactions, and motivations is like having a Magic Key that opens up a whole new world of possibilities for plot and character development. It’s truly enlightening!

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 8:45 pm

      Angela, I’m always SO impressed by people who take a class more than once — that’s better dedication than I ever showed back in college, when I loved Shakespeare 101 but couldn’t justify doing it again (even with new plays) because after all, I’d DONE Shakespeare. So you’ll never have to kick yourself, because you’ll keep finding new ways of using the plotting-via-motivation process every time. Way to go!

  20. Comment by LBerry
    February 20, 2014 6:10 pm

    I love character development because smashing different personalities together inside a single body makes for fun interaction. I don’t always nail it though. Sometimes a character that I thought I knew really well does unexpected stuff and then acts like I’m the idiot for not knowing how they would respond under pressure. Plotting on the other hand, is hit or miss. I really have to think through the mechanics of moving people around the chessboard and then match all the emotional turmoil to the right actions.

    Of course that’s what makes it all so fun!

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 8:47 pm

      Leslie, good thought on how plotting is like moving the people around on a chessboard — you’re right, it’s a tough balance between making them do things and watching them do things, and that IS what makes this whole thing so fun. Your skill at plotting impresses me, and with the kind of external action you have going on, the internal motivation is like frosting on the cake…essential, but easy to view as a bonus!

      • Comment by LBerry
        February 21, 2014 1:19 am

        I should confess – I don’t know how to play chess. lol

  21. Comment by Alison Stone
    February 20, 2014 7:11 pm

    Definitely the plot. I have to go back in and revise to make sure the characters are well motivated and their actions make sense.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 8:49 pm

      Alison, I always envy people who can plot without yet knowing much about their characters — I finally realized that I was so bad at creating plots that my only hope was to find characters who’d fit whatever flimsy storyline I could dream up. So knowing you have that strength is a wonderful asset, especially because you ALSO know how to make the characters work for whatever plot they’re in. 🙂

  22. Comment by Heidi
    February 20, 2014 8:18 pm

    Well, I always THINK I have my characters solid then I start writing and the universe laughs her ass off.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 20, 2014 8:51 pm

      Heidi, you’ve got me laughing right along with the universe, there — talk about a vivid description! It’d be fun sometime to get a bunch of writers together and swap stories about uncooperative characters, same as you hear from moms about toddlers and waiters about customers and teenage girls about their Dream Men… We’ve all been through that; just THINK how much company there’d be.

  23. Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
    February 20, 2014 9:56 pm

    Well, heck — normally I like to award the free-class prize on the same day as the blog, but with all the comments lingering in WordPress before arriving in clumps, I’m worried about missing somebody who posted after the last clump.

    So the announcement will be tomorrow instead!

    Laurie, with a big THANKS to everyone who’s posted so far because it’s such fun hanging out with a bunch of writers 🙂

  24. Comment by Stephanie Berget
    February 21, 2014 9:40 am

    Hi, Laurie. I’m much better at characterization. Often my characters pop fully formed into my head, but then I have to find a plausible plot for them to inhabit. I love d your PvM class and would love to take it again.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 21, 2014 3:45 pm

      Steph, you’ve gotta love fully formed characters who pop into your head — people who have a hard time finding characters to fit their plots would love to hop into a blender with you! Wouldn’t it be great if we could DO that, arrange a brain-swap for skills that we have in abundance and that somebody else would like more of, in exchange for theirs that we want? 🙂

  25. Comment by Carol Malone
    February 21, 2014 9:18 pm

    Next to goals for my characters, discovering their motivation also eludes me. Since I’m not one for knowing what motivates me, I’m not all that good at figuring out what motivates my characters to do what they do. I wish I could take you Motivation workshop, Laurie. But I’m already engaged and I’ve learned what happens to one when you over extend yourself. Maybe that’s what happens to my characters. They’ll make themselves sick if too much gets piled up on them. They all want something – the goal and they have some drive within that pushes them to follow their hearts. Right or wrong, achieve or not, our characters must exhibit the drive to grab their goals. Just figuring it out is my bugaboo. Thanks for the article. Great job.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 27, 2014 1:30 pm

      Carol, I’m so sorry I just NOW found your message — a little glitch in the delivery, but you shouldn’t have had to wait a week for a reply. Especially to such a great insight on whatever it is that’s driving ’em to achieve their goals. You’ve totally nailed the concept of motivation there, and you can always see how to apply it to your books later when you’re not so overwhelmed with other things!

  26. Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
    February 21, 2014 10:22 pm

    Whew, that’s gotta be everybody who’s gonna respond — and here’s a thanks to random-dot-org for pulling our third-to-last commenters, Alison Stone.

    Congratulations, Alison, and contact me at (all one word) Book Laurie at gmail com so we can set up your free class!

    • Comment by Alison Stone
      February 21, 2014 10:36 pm

      Well, hotdog!!! Lucky me! Thank you, Laurie. I will email you shortly. And thanks to Barb Han for sharing this blog post and for raving about your class. I can’t wait. I love learning.

  27. Comment by Patricia Bergquist
    February 22, 2014 8:00 am

    Usually I see a scenario in my head. A doer with a sequence of events that I see happening. As the doer goes through the actions of the plot, I begin to ask-why is he or she doing this? Then, when I start to get a feel for the doer, the doer is given a name. Once I get to know the character better, I am able to refine the plot to fit within their character frame.

    • Comment by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
      February 27, 2014 1:27 pm

      Patricia, I did a double-take on reading your last sentence about refining the plot “to fit within their character name” — that was the first time I’d ever heard of fitting a plot to a charcter name! Then, duh, I realized that was a total mis-read on my part; character FRAME makes a whole lot more sense. But it’s still kind of intriguing thinking what might happen if their name created the plot….

  28. Comment by Carol Malone
    May 18, 2014 11:02 pm

    Hi Laurie,
    Motivation is still my biggest character-building problem. I can think of their goals but why they want what they want is tough for me. I’m not a goal driven person, so understanding what pushing people forward is like pulling teeth. I keep hearing, “that’s not feasible,” or “nobody would believe that motivation,” and on and on. There is definitely a trick to building motivation into our characters. I can wait until you teach your motivation workshop again. I’m all in.

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