Plot Motivators

By Joe Moore

For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.

The next step is to develop characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain the story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.

So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on. Here is a list of what I consider the most common plot motivators.

Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.

Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK.

The Quest: LORD OF THE RINGS is a great example as is JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.

Catastrophe: A series of events that proves disastrous like in THE TOWERING INFERNO.

Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember CAMELOT?

Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivators in any story.

Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think ALIEN.

The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including THE FUGITIVE.

Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.

Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.

Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.

Betrayal: BASIC INSTINCT. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?

There are many other sub-motivators that are strong enough to drive a scene or section or secondary character of a book, but I don’t consider them global motivators. Examples include fear, pleasure, knowledge, lust, sacrifice, thrills, and others.

You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward.

What plot motivators are you using in your WIP or latest novel? Did I miss any?

20 thoughts on “Plot Motivators

  1. Family – Boy sets out to rescue step sister he doesn’t actually like very much, because she’s family.
    But in a broad sense, it’s almost always life or death, isn’t it? If not actual physical death, death of honor, professional death, death of sense of self. Whatever the stakes are, you as a writer have to ratchet them up until they can be seen as life or death. Or, when I used to direct amateur theater, I always told my casts, “Think of every role in every play as a love story. Find what your character wants, and play it with the intensity of a love story.”

  2. Excellent additional motivator, John. And you’re correct, the best stories are those that deal with humans interacting, love & hate, life & death.

  3. Would Justice or Reckoning belong in this list, Joe? I’m thinking of any story that has a law enforcer as a main character. It might simply be the initial motivation (such as being assigned to a case), but I assume the stakes become higher as he seeks to prevent something even more horrible from happening.

    • Good add, Kathryn. I would tend to agree that justice would be an initial or sub-motivator to something bigger like Revenge. Think DEATH WISH or THE BRAVE ONE. But they do overlap.

  4. Great list Joe – I sometimes focus on character motivation and ignore the broader picture for the overall plot. This is a good reminder to get that clear too!

  5. My paranormal romances are quest stories like Lord of the Rings. Instead of a ring, Lord Magnor in Warrior Lord must find the sacred Book of Odin. It contains news of a weapon that can defeat his enemy. In my mysteries, the quest for justice is a driving factor.

  6. I just want the TKZ authors to know that when I am published, you *will* be in my thanks.

    Like Sherri, the blog makes me think and keeps me grounded.

  7. These are all good. The motivation I work with was inspired by the old timer Ross Macdonald: the past bleeding into the present. Unfinished business (and people) haunting and ultimately threatening my protagonist.

  8. A Marine stationed in Afghanistan is notified by a Naval chaplain that her godson is missing at home. There is suspicion that he has been snatched by a local monster. Most people scoff at the local legend. But the Marine has seen it and knows it’s read.

    When the Marine arrives home to help find the child, she is confronedt by the fact that her once-small hometown has grown up. A serial killer has been on the loose for many months. Is it possible that the child has been a victim of the killer?

    The motivation is to find the child. The Marine must find out whether the child has been kidnapped or murdered. Brrrr.

  9. I’d say my motivation in my WIP is “catastrophe,” as in “preventing a…” In the sequel to “The White Vixen,” US special operator Jo Ann Geary goes behind the Iron Curtain in 1987 Hungary to prevent the assassination of Mikhail Gorbachev.

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