Monday Advice from Editors and Agents: Motivate Your Characters’ Decisions

Today’s (one day late) advice comes from agent Peter Knapp of New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. Peter will be part of the faculty at the Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Novel Workshop and Retreat, September 23-25, 2016 in Santa Cruz, CA. (Note: there will be workshops for teen writers there, too, as well as a cool bunch of teens who critique adult writers’ manuscripts!)

Knapp’s comment:

“Another common problem is not getting enough of a character’s motive on the page—actions without motive will read flat or forced. As you go through your manuscript, mark each instance where your character makes a decision. Then really question whether that choice is properly motivated and true to the character.” –Peter Knapp

Decision-making in the Scene-and-Sequel Pattern

In his enduring craft manual, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain developed a little pattern he called Scene and Sequel. (BTW, if you haven’t got this book in your personal library, you owe it to yourself to check it out. He has so many little tricks and explanations it’s really a terrific help, especially for new writers.)

The easiest way to explain this pattern is

Scene = goal + action = concentration on external story

Sequel = reaction + decision = concentration on internal story

There are actually a few more parts to the full pattern. They play out like this:


  1. Goal—what the character wants. Must be clearly definable
  2. Conflict—series of obstacles that keep the character from the goal
  3. Disaster—makes the character fail to get the goal


  1. Reaction—emotional follow through of the disaster.
  2. Dilemma—a situation with no good options
  3. Decision—character makes a choice (which sets up the new goal).

The way it’s laid out above, it’s clear that goals lead. Conflict is only conflict in relation to a goal. Disasters are only as big as the goals. And decisions are vitally important because they put new goals in play.

All Decisions Must be Motivated

Knapp’s advice is all about ensuring your characters make fully-motivated decisions.

Example: Emily overhears a man talking on his cell about hiring a hitman to kill someone. Emily knows she should call the police but she doesn’t want to get involved. On the other hand, if she does nothing, someone innocent might die. Emily debates these two options internally and finally decides to go to the grocery store and buy a birthday cake for her cousin.

What? You’ve given Emily a clear motivation to call the police (someone innocent might get killed). Yes, we also know Emily doesn’t want to get involved. But we don’t know why she doesn’t want to get involved. When she makes her decision to walk away, it’s unbelievable because we have no idea of her motivation. If you’d laid a foundation early in the story, we could sympathize with her dilemma and understand her decision. Perhaps she’s in Witness Protection and is afraid every day of her life of being exposed. Perhaps she cried wolf to the police once before and it was all a misunderstanding–but her accusation damaged someone’s career. Now she’s believably motivated to walk away. Her decision is true to her character.

A Million Little Choices

The problem is that the Scene and Sequel pattern is repeated dozens of times in a story. Every single obstacle, every single conflict changes a character’s immediate goal and requires a new decision. The overall story goal may be to save the Kingdom, but there are all those pesky little goals along the way–like finding the missing Sword of Invincibility, fighting off the ugly Wonkings, and crossing the Mire of Doom. To ramp up the tension in your story, you need not only increasingly harsh obstacles but also bad alternatives (desperate rock-and-hard-place solution choices) that require hard choices. Decisions, decisions. Motivated decisions.

My Process

As I’m writing and come to a point where my character needs to choose a particular path, I consider two things:

  • What alternative path can I realistically provide so that the choice is difficult?
  • Have I put enough clues/threads/foreshadowings in the story so far that the reader will understand the agony of the decision and know why it was inevitable.

I use Scrivener (a made-for-authors piece of software that will save your life!). If I realize I need to better motivate my character, I figure out what needs to be added and put a note in the sidebar Project Notes. When I do my next full edit, those notes will guide me chapter by chapter.

How do you make certain your character’s decisions are well motivated?

Query Workshop in Houston

On April 19, 2015, I will be presenting a workshop for the Houston Bay Area chapter of Romance Writers of America. “The Short of It – Synopsis, High Concept, Query, Blurb” will be hosted at the Kirkmont MUD Building, 10102 Blackhawk Road, Houston, TX 77089. The meeting begins at 7:30 PM, with social time starting at 7:15 PM. Visitors are welcome, so stop on by! Check out the HBA RWA website for details.

Donna Maloy is a published author of fiction and plays for adults, teens, tweens and young adults. Her first book for middle grade, CELIA AND THE WOLF won the Lyra Award for best juvenile fiction in 2014. She has been teaching writing at the college and community level for more than ten years.


About Donna Maloy, Author

Captivating romantic suspense. History, mystery, and sometimes... a little touch of fantasy.
This entry was posted in Avoiding coincidence, Backstory, Backstory, Character-driven action, Character-driven action, Characters, Conflict, Contrived Plots, Craft of Writing, Editing, Foreshadowing, Mistakes and Consequences, Motivation, Pacific Coast Writers, Plotting, Resolutions, Revising, Stakes, Story Elements, Teaching Writing, Teen Authors, Teen writers, Teen writers, Workshops, Writers Conference, Writing, Young adults and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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