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Motivation - why it's essential to a compelling script

Robin Taylor

Writer and Script Reader

Character Motivation

Let’s talk about motivation. Not your personal motivation to write, which should obviously be fuelled by an undeniable need to entertain, enlighten and generally improve the world (or at least have a job where you don’t have to commute anymore). Rather we’re talking about character motivation. Just as you have a powerful desire to become the next Jed Mercurio, your characters need evident goals to propel the story of your script forwards.

It’s an old cliche to imagine a pretentious luvvie actor wailing, “What’s my motivation?!” But it’s actually a very pertinent question. Motivation is a vital element and a powerful tool in story telling, and your characters truly benefit from having clear, pressing goals and desires in order to give the plot purpose and momentum. Reading scripts for the BBC Writersroom, a common concern is that there is no real sense of purpose, that the story is ambling along rather than heading somewhere with determination. As a writer it can be tempting to think “I’ve got some characters, a location, and something resembling a story if you squint, let’s go!” But if none of your characters want and pursue anything you’ll end up with a lot of chatting and not much story.

Understanding the different forms of motivation and having them as a constant consideration while planning and implementing a script is a great way to make sure your story has a clear direction and point. In this article we’re going to break down types of motivation into the long term, the medium term, the immediate and the emotional, and how each of these help to focus and add detail to a script. So let’s get motivated to think about motivation!

The Quest (Bradley James as Arthur in the BBC's production of Merlin)

The Quest - Long Term Motives

One of the most common concepts you’ll hear around story structure is the idea of the quest. In its most traditional form it’s essentially the story of a hero who goes on a journey to rescue the fair princess (though we’re progressive here, so it could equally be a prince). It is a basic idea, but that’s what makes it so effective - a lead character has a clear objective and goes on an adventure to achieve it. It’s essentially the human condition, wanting or needing something and doing our best to overcome whatever obstacles stand in our way. Obviously stories can be more complex than this, but if you remember that the fundamental aspect of every tale is the pursuit of a goal, this will put you in good standing.

The quest is effectively your lead character’s long term motivation, their ultimate desire and the big significant goal that the script is heading towards. It is really useful to establish this intention as quickly as possible so the audience have a sense of focus, particularly in scripts which are thirty minutes or less as you have less time to tell a story. This requires exposition, which is often used as a dirty word, but is a necessary part of creating clarity about what’s occurring, and is only problematic if it is heavy-handed or unnatural. Saying that, if in the first scene our protagonist states “I need to win that dance competition!” you are establishing a clear motivation, and it is far better to do this then than have them eventually happen to end up at a dance contest while the audience has no idea if it matters or why it’s important. Ideally you can find subtle, natural but effective ways of setting up where the story is going.

We don't have a picture of Star Wars so here's one of Dawn French as Tobi Jug Kanobi instead

A precise aim can be great for a focussed, simple story, but you don’t need to spell out the exact outcome. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker wants to fight for the Rebels - he does not want to destroy the Death Star in the first quarter of the film because he doesn’t even know it exists. When the information of that threat emerges, stopping it does become the new goal, but it is part of the early established desire Luke has to be a hero. Setting up this kind of aim early on is a real help for giving your script a sense of purpose and destination, which is particularly useful if you are going to be judged by the first ten to twenty pages. This approach makes a reader or audience curious about what will happen in the story, rather than wondering what the story even is. It may be that your hero’s desire doesn’t emerge until a seismic event - they won’t want to stop the alien invasion until the aliens invade. But if that’s your story then you shouldn’t spend too much time before the aliens do invade, and your hero should really still want something beforehand, which the invasion massively disrupts. Otherwise you are spending vital time on a lead character with no drive or agency.

Aims and Evolutions

The interesting thing about long term motivations is that they don’t have to be fixed and unchangeable, what your character initially thinks they want can shift and evolve due to changes in events or their own attitudes. It is a classic idea that, in the pursuit of what they want, a character discovers what they actually need. Shrek is a good example of a shifting motivation. At first the eponymous ogre wants a quiet, solitary life in his swamp, so agrees to go on a quest to rescue Princess Fiona in the agreement he’ll be left alone, but in the process he falls in love and realises being alone isn’t what he wants after all. His new goal then becomes saving Fiona again so they can be together. However be aware that there’s a difference between evolving motivations and dropped ones. If the story leads your characters to change or reassess their needs, that’s fine. But if they simply forget or move away from their original aim without explanation that is really frustrating for your audience who will have become interested and invested in the original aim but receive no resolution. This is often the result of an unfocussed structure, where you throw in lots of ideas and strands and potentially pinball between them. Often, particularly when starting out, simple is better.

You may notice that a lot of these examples relate to films, as they are often straight-forward, self-contained stories. That doesn’t mean the same principles can’t be applied to shorter form scripts though. Indeed, think of an episode description in TV or radio listings, they will often include the words “Jenny wants…” “Jenny needs…” “Jenny tries to…” (Please tune in to my new series “Oh, Jenny!” airing November 2038) Within each episode there should be a desire driving the story and that these differentiate the episodes from one another. If the description for every episode says “Jenny spends some time chatting with her friends” that’s not the most compelling plot that’s going to make sure everyone immediately sets up a series link. These episode descriptions are also known as log lines, and you can read an article here about how to best compose these. Essentially a good log line should sum up the quest of your lead character. If you struggle to summarise this then it may be an indicator that your central motivations are not strong enough.

Destinations on the Journey - Medium Term Motives

Medium term motivations are useful to think of as a way of dividing the plot’s progression into acts or episodes. These are like the different legs of the journey towards the end point. Obstacles emerge which must be overcome in order to progress. In the simple heroic quest framework it’s like defeating an enemy, obtaining a key to a locked door, and so on. These kind of incidents provide meat to the story and prevent it from being too thin. They are particularly useful in a long series structure. You might believe that episodes are simply part of a long running story, but this runs the risk of making things uneventful.

Keep in mind that each episode should feel like a story that contributes to the piece as a whole - there may be a long term goal for the series, then each episode needs to offer medium term goals, and this same framework should be replicated within the episode itself. This is particularly important when writing sample scripts. A satisfying piece is one which not only sets up a concept and its potential, but also allows your characters to have clear goals and go on a journey to pursue it. It is less promising if you are just establishing your characters and situation and suggesting something interesting should happen in the next episode. Consider Killing Eve, where the long term story is the pursuit of a deadly assassin. In each episode distinct incidents occur, contributing to the core storyline while developing the characters, but making it possible to distinguish between individual episodes and the self-contained stories they tell. 

If you do not have medium term goals and events within an episode then the script can feel like a long dull slog, even if it is heading towards a big conclusion. Saying that, it is important to be cautious about having too many medium term goals if it gets to the point where it feels like you are simply padding out the story. (Although a lot of 28 episode per season American shows may disagree with that). Equally if these sub-stories veer too far from the core plot they can come across as distractions. Detours can be valid, particularly if they allow for more character development, but not if they feel like an abandonment of the central story strand. As usual it’s a matter of having a well thought through structure which ensures all of your sections slot nicely together to ensure the whole construction is streamlined and stable.

Here and Now - Short Term Motives

Short term or immediate motivations allow you to think much more in the moment rather than the grand scheme. What is happening right now, and what is required? These are the micro level needs which make up the individual scenes and moments of the story. In the medium term your hero needs to get to the lair of the dragon, in the immediate he needs a horse to get there, which requires going to the stable master who expects payment, so the hero must find a way to arrange this deal despite having no money. This boils down to the fundamental idea that every scene should have a purpose in moving the story forwards. These short term considerations are most relevant to that opening idea of a luvvie actor asking what their motivation is. Essentially they are asking what is my character doing in this scene? Why are they having this conversation? What are they hoping to achieve? If a moment is unjustified and the actor playing a character can’t understand what they are meant to be doing or why, then what chance does the audience have?

One really useful thing to consider is that in a production the script supervisor will write an episode breakdown, including a brief description of what happens in each scene. With that in mind, look at every scene in your script and think how it would be described. If what you describe is uneventful or has nothing to do with the central stories already in motion, then what the heck is it doing there? This is a great way of identifying and cutting superfluous moments from your script to make sure you only have scenes which matter and contribute to the piece as a whole. This is even better if you plan ahead and storyline your plot before you begin writing, as you can evaluate what the purpose of each scene is and what your characters want going into it.

All the Feels - Emotional motivation

Ah, emotional motivation, now we get to the really juicy bit. Up until now we’ve mainly looked at what your characters want. Emotional motivations deal with why it is they want those things. Your hero could just rescue their imperilled gender-neutral member of the aristocracy with no particular reason, and that can be functional but not necessarily fulfilling. But if the audience are given the opportunity to explore why the hero decides to do this, that is far more engaging. Is it simply for love, or for glory? Was the hero’s town destroyed by that nasty dragon, and now they want vengeance? Or did their cowardly father run away from fighting the beast and now the hero yearns to restore the family’s honour? Delving into your character’s psychological desires not only gives them depth but also justifies their behaviour, so they are not simply doing things for the sake of the story, increasing the feeling of realistic, three dimensional characters. These motivations can also explain the character’s attitudes. If someone wishes to be a hero then they will potentially approach everything with noble and virtuous intentions. A character who wants to achieve their goals by any means necessary will be inclined towards a more ruthless path. (And it can then be very interesting when events challenge these moral attitudes.)

As ever it is a important to consider how you deliver this kind of information. If your lead character gives a lengthy speech about how their mother never loved them and that’s why they need to bring down this terrorist cell, not only is that dubious motivation, it is quintessential telling rather than showing, which is dissatisfying for an audience. You can hint at these kind of issues, perhaps the character is uncomfortable talking about their family, has difficulty being affectionate or emotionally open, and you can even show their troubled interactions with their mother. The audience can then take the initiative to join up the dots and understand their behaviour. Equally, be wary of being so subtle that important aspects of your character are difficult to pick up on. Think of your audience as someone putting together a jigsaw puzzle: They don’t want it to be so simplistic that they don’t have to do any work to figure out the bigger picture, nor do they want it so complicated and obscure that they cannot comprehend what they are supposed to be seeing.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad ©2018 Sony Pictures Television Inc. All rights reserved.

Emotional motivation is also significant though because it can have multiple layers and added complexity. With practical motivations, having too many desires is likely to make the story muddled. Additional emotional aspects though can really help to solidify your character and give them more depth. Walter White in Breaking Bad is an amazing example of a character with a lot of complex but believable emotional motivations. (Spoilers if you haven’t seen it yet!) This is particularly vital considering the extreme journey he takes of becoming a drug dealer. His primary practical goal is to earn money to provide for his family as he is dying of cancer. This is also emotional, not only in his love for his family, but also his impending mortality and desire for a legacy. We see that he is very intelligent, but this is under-appreciated in his job as a teacher, he earns so little he takes humiliating part time work at a carwash, and he was previously shafted by a business partner who made loads of money without him. This creates a desire to prove himself and obtain money, power and respect. All of these details give the audience a real sense of why he is taking the route that he is, and his ruthless approach, so we never question why he doesn’t choose a different, safer path. This is what makes a character satisfying and compelling, not just what they are doing but why they are doing it.

Mmmmm, Motivations

While we’ve mainly focussed on the idea of the lead character’s goals, the reality is every character who appears should have a motivation. Having different character’s desires competing allows for conflict as they potentially oppose one another, or offer varied perspectives and solutions to difficulties, stemming from an alternative world view. If all of your characters want the exact same things in the exact same ways then that simply isn’t very interesting. Even if you have a group with a shared mission it is the different ways they wish to achieve their goal which gives them personality and makes for more story. And of course any villain or antagonist earns their pivotal status on the basis of their desire, whether that be something completely opposed to your protagonist or competing for the same thing but with a very different emotional attitude towards how to get it.

The Royle Family

Now you may have read all of this article and thought, “This is all well and good for some plot-filled blockbuster, but I want to write a slow-paced character piece, this isn’t relevant to me.” Well let’s think about The Royle Family, a show very much recognised for not being action-packed, and in particular focussing on grumpy patriarch, Jim Royle. His short term motivation is that he basically wants to watch TV in peace. His long term goal is for his kids to stop relying on their mother and taking advantage. His emotional motivation is that he wants his children to be independent and successful, because he is their father and he loves them. He just doesn’t know how to express it well due to his upbringing as a traditional, unemotional male, a position he seems keen to maintain. All of these motivations explain his attitudes and responses, but also allow for those interesting and moving moments when his emotional attachment to his children is shown, such as when he comforts Denise as she goes into labour. All of the characters have similar wants and emotional needs. They may be subtle, but they are there, and they are what makes the ‘uneventful’ story so engaging. It is not just people talking, but individual characters with wants, within a family functioning as a unit.

It is possible to put together a script without clear and compelling motivations, but it is unlikely this will be a high level piece of work. If you can find ways to create and present interesting goals and desires it will demonstrate strength and understanding of your characters and story telling, which will hopefully excite people reading your scripts. Thinking about your characters' journeys towards the things they want will allow you to imagine the map that will guide their story, in terms of plotting and structure, with a desired destination and twists and turns along the route. If you begin to think in these terms and develop your instincts for a strong sense of motivation, then this will really help you with strengthening your writing and giving your scripts promising foundations which will encourage people reading them. And hopefully that is some good motivation for you!

And if you need extra motivation, and are reading this before January 2019, the window for submissions to the BBC Writersroom Drama Script Room opens on December 10th and closes on January 7th. That gives you some time to create a new script or look back on an existing one and examine how strong your character motives may be. So give it a shot - it could be the start of something big!

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