Saturday, 5 March 2011

A Flash of Success, and Motivation: The Missing Ingredient

Yesterday, after a week of loitering nervously around the Brighton C.o.W. website, I discovered that my story, The Deconstructed Woman, was one of the winning entries of their Winter 2010 Flash Fiction Competition. I'm very pleased about this - mainly because it's so short (a word count limit in this case of 250), which is something I'm concentrating on at the moment, and because they had "a great many entries", so I must have got something right for my story to stand out.

I don't know if they plan to publish the stories on the website - if not, I'll probably put it on here. What might be interesting is to post the first draft as well, which I workshopped over at Chapter 79. What's great about online peer-review sites is that they're a great way to gauge reaction to your work (plus, I strongly believe that you learn just as much critiquing somebody else's work as you do from getting your own stuff reviewed). The first draft of The Deconstructed Woman, which at that point was entitled somewhat inelegantly as The Unreconstructed Woman, was generally well-received. People liked the concept, and they thought the style worked. Two or three readers commented they thought it lacked something, which confirmed my own concerns that the piece wasn't complete.

After about a week, I came back to it with a more detached view. Most writers will agree it's almost impossible to do this when you've just finished a piece. If you're anything like me, from the instant you hit that last full stop, you're convinced it's the finest writing the world has ever seen. Until you re-read it, that is, and cringe at the discovery that you've written such dismal and appalling guff. The process of re-writing is trying to reconcile these opposing viewpoints, and one of the most important skills is to dismantle the story and look at it in terms of its component parts.

I looked at what was there: a plot, a protagonist, an antagonist, a turning point, a satisfying conclusion. Yep, all those were present and correct. Then it hit me - the central character wasn't sufficiently motivated for her actions to make sense. This is something of a schoolboy error, and I think I'd let myself get carried away with some of the other story elements to notice at first. Essentially, mine was one of those novice-writer mistakes where a character suddenly gets fed up with the way their life is going and makes a drastic change. In real life, people sometimes do just reach breaking point and 'snap', but in fiction you're probably best off having a trigger event - no matter how small - a straw, if you like, to break that camel's back. Particularly in flash fiction, where you don't have the luxury of showing the stresses/demands/problems piling up for your hapless character.

So I went back to my story and thought, Why would this character react so strongly to her circumstances, when the day before she was prepared to put up with them? What might have changed? What, in this case, had she discovered about her marriage, about the things her husband expected of her?

Once I'd started thinking along those lines, I knew exactly what the story needed. My character's motivation slotted neatly into the story - and, almost as a side-effect, so did that of her husband, the villain of the piece. In fact, her motivation relied on his - her reaction to what he was trying to do made her actions understandable and appropriate. After I'd re-jigged the story (that 250 word limit called for some judicious word-pruning), it immediately seemed fully complete, the internal logic worked, it made sense. And, it seems, the judges agreed.

So, character motivation - ignore it at your peril!


Nik Perring said...


Dan Purdue said...

That was quick, Nik! Thank you very much.