Writing Exercise: Flipped Motivation

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Every character needs a motivation. It is the goal for them to work toward throughout the book. Your plot is how they get to that goal, and what helps or hinders them (pro tip: if you want an interesting book to read, throw lots of obstacles at your character).

In this exercise, you are going to do two things:

  1. Read the prompt and generate an idea.
  2. Throw away the first two things you come up with and write the third thing.

The second part of this exercise is to help you think outside of the box. If you write the first thing that comes to your head, chances are you’ve seen it somewhere, read it, it’s a common idea, or someone else is likely to come up with that one too. So, to really get your creative juices flowing, throw the first two ideas that come to mind.

Note: The second part of the exercise I learned from a writing competition I entered in 2017, put on by Wonderbox Publishing. I loved the idea so much that I’ve used it as a rule of thumb ever since. You can check out the anthology that came of the writing competition here (UK) and here (US).

The Exercise

The barebones of this exercise is that I’m going to give you a motivation, and you’re going to develop a scenario around this motivation. Motivations, again, are the key to a whole character, to making the reader care about what’s going on in the story, and it’s what makes your character participate in the plot. Likewise, your plot interacts with your character’s motivation, or your plot can be entirely reliant on your character’s motivation.

That being said, on we go! This is your character motivation:

Keep a Child Safe

This portion of the exercise has three parts (in addition to trying to throw away your first two ideas). Be prepared. It’s helpful if for each portion of the exercise, you practice the third-option rule. It will help you in the long run.

Part 1: The Good

Come up with a scenario in which someone would want to keep a child safe. Portray this specifically in a good light, as it would naturally be—who doesn’t want to save babies from burning buildings? Or make sure they don’t get hit by a car?

Create a scenario where this is a good motivation.

Part 2: The Bad

Now, come up with a scenario in which someone would want to keep a child safe, but it’s seen in a negative light. This could be socially, situationally, or personally. Does this make the character a villain? A protagonist? Antagonist (note: villains and antagonists are not always the same)?

Create a scenario where there is a bad motivation.

Part 3: The Ugly

You now should have two scenarios portraying positive and negative scenarios in which someone has the motivation to save a child.

Your final step is to combine these two scenarios. Are they the same person with two different aspects of the same motivation? Are they two people with the same motivation who clash? Are they the protagonist and antagonist who want to save the same child?

Play with this idea, and don’t forget to toss your first two ideas and run with the third one.

Continuing the Exercise

There are plenty of motivations out there that you can choose from: Survival from _______, finding love, revenge, finding a killer, proving their worth, winning the race, etc. Explore past stories you’ve written and think about the motivations you’ve used. Look at shows, movies, and books you’ve read and loved and ask yourself what the motivation of the characters were in each of them.

Can you improve the story by implementing this exercise?

Or if you don’t want to rehash old plots, come up with new ones. Think about motivations and apply them to new characters, new situations, and find the good, the bad, and the ugly to each motivation. What other stories can you concoct?

What did you come up with during this exercise? What were your first two ideas for each step? Share below in the comments!

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