Character Motivation > Story Devices

“I’m doing alright. Not great obviously… very few people do great after a serial killer murders their wife… but I do feel like it’s a little easier.”

The above line of dialogue is written in a conversational, almost natural, way. It communicates both emotion and information, and it is completely void of grammatical error... And yet, there is something deeply wrong with it.

Let’s say, in the above scene that our main character is having a conversation with his brother, who has just asked him how he’s holding up. All of this comes across quite well in the sentence, but the problem comes when we begin to think about how someone might actually feel in this situation.

If your wife had just been murdered, would you want to talk about it? Probably not. So why, if your brother is well aware that your wife has been murdered, would you go out of your way to talk about it? The answer is, because you want to fill your reader in on what happened. This is an extremely serious problem. By allowing this to be an adequate reason for this line of dialogue, you have completely ignored your character’s motivation in favor of a story device. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the worst sins of writing.

The integrity of your characters - whether you’re writing comedy or drama - must be inviolable. If you push your characters needs aside, you are denying them of their humanity, and if you do that, they are no longer real. You’ve killed them.

When I say this, inevitably, I’ll get writers telling me that plot devices are necessary, and that their readers will be able to look past these issues because, even the most picky reader must understand that the story must progress… I’m not going to sugarcoat it: I completely disagree. This kind of delusional thinking is what lazy writers use to justify inadequacy. They don’t want to spend the time working with the characters that they created, so they bypass their wants and needs to make it easier to move their book toward its conclusion. If you cannot get information across without compromising the integrity of your character, then figure out a way to work without your reader knowing it. More often than not, a few chapters later, you’ll find a way to flawlessly make known what you need - and even if you don’t, sometimes leaving things out can give your work a touch of realism that is lacking in the works of most of your peers.

If it helps, think of it like a rhyming poem. Putting your words in rhyming form might seem like another constraint on your writing, but it often results in beautiful ideas that you might not have thought of if you had employed a different modus operandi. Always stay true to the way your character would act and feel in the situations they are in, and don't ever use devices when they interfere with their motivations.


Writing Prompt

Write a screenplay scene between two characters. One character has just suffered an extremely traumatic event; the other one is trying to console him/her. The details and the conclusion is up to you. Send it in for in-depth character analysis.