Humans behave unpredictably … or do they? Motivation for action in fiction

To continue my discussion of story I was looking back at a book I really like called Story Engineering Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks where he talks about the role of back story. I have talked about this before, how and when to use it, but it doesn’t hurt to take a new angle,  to look at its function in the psychology of action. As the reason for doing.

Larry Brooks says, ‘The actions of your characters need to have psychological validity.’  This is an important point that I often discuss in my critique work. While humans often appear to do crazy random things, are they really?

So, for example, a guy walks into a McDonalds  orders a Big Mac, complains there’s no pickles, gets out a water pistol, shoots the vendor (see the water drip along her face and the customers run for cover) and then proceeds to remove all his clothes, dances naked and rushes out saying he is Dr  Zumba and needs his pickles … it sounds insane right? It might raise a laugh, it might be a moment happening in the real story which is about a girl’s first day at McDonalds, Lauren let’s say. But if you put it there, you need to ask yourself why? First of all does it move story, reveal something about character , in this case whose character? The protagonist who is serving her first customer at McDonalds or Dr Zumba himself?  Anyway who is Dr Zumba and what role does he play? Why is he there?

If this was a local news story you can bet that while to bystanders who will now laugh about it at dinner parties for years to come and may never know what made him do that, the proverbial News Hounds will seek the reason behind it and look for the back story that explains it. Right? In life we hear of and even see what appear to be random acts and might come to the conclusion, in isolation without context, that humans do random things, often without logic. But is that really true? Can all action be traced back to something?

When the story gets reported in the news it might be as a prank. What if you also know its Fresher’s Week at the local uni? What if it’s part of a dare? Or does Dr Zumba have real issues and this guy might actually, at some later point in time in the story, be a danger. Is he in fact a ticking clock … it was water pistol this time, but …  or are you thinking am I giving too much to this one incident? And you might indeed use random acts of apparent comedy in your own writing. But the difference between seeing something and never knowing why and using it as part of fiction writing, is everything is there for a reason. So this act, needs to have some value. It needs to say something.

Now if this act is simply to reveal something about Lauren, who is having a bad first day and this is all she needs; the job she took to get out of her bipolar mother’s way only to find Dr Zumba, who like her mother often comes off his meds is going to be a regular visitor he assumes more importance and now his back story is significant to Lauren’s journey. Or maybe it’s there to show her bad day and how she handles it well which bodes well for her career. Or maybe she wrote in her journal that morning that she thinks in life people are unpredictable and this serves to emphasise a point, a leitmotif that now runs and ties into the theme of the story. See how what we write has meaning, even if we don’t think it does!

What I’m saying is not only do things need to happen for a reason in what we write, but if the character is important to the story, if he is someone she knows, then at some point the reader needs to know why.  There needs to be as Larry Brooks put it, before I found the most random example to use (how does my mind work?) psychological validity to action.

Now in this case it might just be to show there are crazy people in the world, beware, or it might go deeper than that and explore gun culture and what this might lead to might have credence. Or imagine Dr Zumba is important to the story in which case his back story is also important.

Larry Brooks goes onto say, ‘At the very least there needs to be a visible connection to some behavioural explanation  with roots in the past.’

So now take your stories and look at the main actions and then the lesser actions of your characters. Do you know the motivators for that action? Is it credible? I ask this a lot when I critique. And when I ask it, it means I am not buying into it completely. The answer that the writer knows someone who has done that, and humans do odd things, is not enough for fiction unless the theme is people do unpredictable things… but in that case I might not have had to ask the question in the first place, right?

But how to handle this? Don’t give the reader full explanations for actions with blocks of back story. First make them ask the questions and speculate and then drip feed on a need to know basis. If you draw the character well enough, and we know enough about him, then even the apparently illogical actions, will seem logical. Get it? Is it too early on a Monday morning? Oh is that why I’m waffling? Don’t answer that!

So back story should be used to explain and rationalise actions, affectations of character and by doing so give credence to choices and behaviours. Right?

Now what I see, and looking at this practically, is how a great many writers give us far too much back story.

Devices for back story? Well there are a few, but again need to know and in little drips so back story seems almost invisible to the reader. Flashback is hated by some but I think if used well it can be a good way to reveal key aspects of back story so they feel like ‘the’ story. But you do need to make sure you’re not using huge blocks that lift the reader out of the story for too long, these take the form of a by the way before you see this, you need to know…  again make them work so well the reader sees what they need to see but all as part of story and not like an aside. So I do like flashbacks, but only if done well with good triggers in and out and not for too long. As Larry Brooks says, if the reason for the flashback is only to explain back story it might not be the best idea. If it moves plot, reveals  character (motivator for action) and/or builds into theme, then it will be stronger. Some novels use a lot more flashback but the way to do it is to weave it into the narrative so it never acts as a stop to the action itself but is integral to it. This is down to developing our skills in story telling.

 But how much back story do you need?

Larry Brooks calls this the ‘Iceberg Principle’.  He says you should aim to show about 10% of a main character’s backs story. He calls it a ‘glimpse leading to an ongoing text.’ Too much and you crash.

And I will end with another quote to bear in mind (he says a lot more than this so it is a book worth reading if you haven’t yet) ‘Show enough to allow the reader to glean and make assumptions about what remains behind the curtain of time, yet continues to influence the character’s world view, attitudes, decisions and actions.’

Hope this was helpful as we all begin another great week … and don’t forget closing date of Paws Competition is rapidly approaching!

And don't forget we want those stories by children for the Paws Competition ... LINK

And don’t forget we want those stories by children for the Paws Competition … LINK




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Filed under Back-story, being a successful writer, Characterisation, Critique, Editing, Exposition, Flashback, Learning to be a writer, Literary Fiction, Living the dream, Mainstream Fiction, Novel writing, Publishing, Reading

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