Yesterday I was eavesdropping on a writing workshop for children held at my bookstore. It was an excellent event: the kids had a great time and the teacher, who is a children's book author, really engaged them. But she said something that kind of startled me. "Your character has to want something," she told them. "They have to want something really badly, and it has to be something that's really hard to get. That's the engine of your story."
This startled me because it was a piece of advice I hadn't heard until about 2004, after I'd been writing pretty seriously for almost 20 years, and a few years after I published my novel. No one said this to me in elementary school, or in high school, or in college or graduate school. I didn't hear it until I was in a writing group with friends who wrote romance and young adult fiction. My friends described a method of figuring out a goal and motivation for each character and then making sure they conflict with each other. My friends actually made charts. It seemed like a very efficient way of putting a plot together, so I tried it, but had trouble making it work. My mind is almost freakishly disorganized for tasks like this and I just couldn't find a way to fill in the chart so it made sense.
This is not to say I hadn't heard about the concepts of motivation and conflict before. It's just that usually the terms came up when discussing what might have gone wrong with a story -- not enough conflict, wonky motivation. I had never sat down to write a story with these things in mind. I never thought of them as the engine of the story. Characters tend to want things, and problems tend to arise, and these situations usually came out of the elements of the story I was focusing on -- some feeling, some place, something.
When you examine most recent novels or screenplays, you can't help but notice that there's a very strong goal-motivation-conflict structure. I watched UP with my kids recently (in 3D!) and every single character, even the giant, voiceless bird, had a very clear goal and motivation that conflicted with the other characters' goals and motivations in really obvious ways. It was actually kind of irritating, because the conflicts just deteriorated into logistics by the climax (one too many people dangling over precipices for me). The movie seemed enslaved by its structure.
My suspicion is that this way of structuring a story came from screenwriting, where there just isn't enough space to fool around and slowly figure out what you're trying to say. And then it worked its way into genre and literary fiction (though if I had it my way, there'd be no such distinction). And I don't think it's a bad thing, entirely. But I do think it can be limiting. Not every story is about someone desiring something they can't have. Sometimes what motivates a character is hidden from the writer, or from the character, or just isn't part of the story at all.
But I do wonder if my writing life would be different now -- if I'd be a little more focused -- if I had heard in third grade, "Your character must want something." What did they tell us in those days? I think it was something along the lines of, "What if?" Like what if you woke up, and you were a dog? What if you were a princess, trapped in a lonely castle? What if you were an orphan cowboy? Though we did precious little creative writing at all in elementary school -- I'm pretty convinced the 1970s were the nadir of language arts instruction, and the reason why my generation hardly reads at all.
And in college? In the late 80's we were all about Carver. Ha ha! A little Goal-Motivation-Conflict would have headed off a zillion self-indulgent ruminations on cigarettes and vignettes about people washing the dishes.
Anyway, I don't really know what people are talking about in writing classes these days, so maybe I've got it all wrong. But my sense is that young writers these days are much more focused and goal-oriented, and their stories are too. And perhaps the aimless, instinctive writing we did in the Carver era was kind of a mis-step, and turned off a lot of readers. At the same time, I would hate to think that kids are growing up thinking that a character in hot pursuit of a goal is the only kind of story.